High peaks, deep caverns, and verdant forests. Valle de Viñales was said to be Fidel Castro’s favorite place in all of Cuba – and, as anyone who has been there will tell you, it’s not difficult to see why.
CUBA is unquestionably a place with a number of different landscapes. From downtrodden concrete alleyways to picture-perfect, white, sandy beaches – with breathtaking scenes of natural beauty in between. One of the island’s hidden treasures is Valle de Viñales.
Located in the western part of Cuba, it has been on UNESCO’s World Heritage list since 1999. Valle de Viñales is defined by its distinct contrasts, in both its topography and its personality. The valley was once completely covered with limestone, but as this eroded over the passage of time, this created steep-edged mountains with rounded summits. The earth here is rich in minerals, which makes it an exceptional site for growing tobacco.
The mountains in Valle de Viñales are pockmarked with caves, where curious tourists often go exploring. The cliff faces of the mountains are also a magnet for climbers, while the rich uiversity of the flora and fauna in the valley draws researchers and hobbyists alike.
One of the most popular tourist destinations in Valle de Viñales is ”Mural de la Prehistoria”. A huge mountainside that was painted on the orders of Fidel Castro after a visit to the valley in 1961. Unlike many other communist leaders, Fidel Castro saw no particular fulfilment in seeing his own image reproduced – instead, he wanted to create a fantastic and imaginative artwork in bright, vivid colors. It was no sooner said than done, the wall quickly featuring a red-blue-green mishmash of snails, dinosaurs and stone-age people – a tableau that remains to this day.
A visit to Mural de la Prehistoria may not be the most profound artistic experience of your life – but the overall impact of Valle de Viñales has good chances of being remembered as one of your best encounters with nature.
LIFE FROM A LEAF
Many consider Cuban tobacco to be the best in the world.The fertile soil, the sunshine, and the high humidity mean that the tobacco plants thrive especially well there. not only that, but Cuba guards the secrets of genuine expertise in cigar making.
CIGAR SMOKING is no new invention. As far back as 1492, two of Christopher Columbus’ crewmen, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, scented an unusual aroma from the dry leaves smoked by the locals on the island of Hispaniola.
Columbus and his men later landed in Cuba, where they once again came across tobacco, this time in the form of a primitive cigar, a handful of twisted, dried tobacco leaves rolled in other leaves such as palm and broadleaf plantain. The word comes from the Mayan civilization’s ”sicar,” meaning ”to smoke rolled tobacco leaves.”
Today cigars are a luxury item, with just as many different classifications and designations as there are weight classes in boxing (at a minimum). Cigar aficionados are familiar with Robusto, Panatela, Corona Grande, Churchill, Presidente and a dozen other sobriquets. Everything depends on the cigar’s size and appearance.
A genuine quality cigar is hand-rolled and is made exclusively using whole tobacco leaves, known as long filler. The cigar has three main elements to its construction, the wrapper, binder, and filler. The wrapper is the outermost layer, and the filler is the innermost. The wrapper leaves used in high quality cigars are subject to stringent requirements. They should ideally be thin and completely free of holes.
Cuban cigars are rated by experts as the peak of cigar excellence. One of the most celebrated cigar brands is Cohiba, as this was the favorite of both Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Even though Che Guevara also smoked a pipe. When in the jungle he preferred a pipe, as the glowing embers were not as easily spotted. But when he smoked a cigar, it was a Cohiba.
Cigar manufacturing is a true craft which cannot be learned overnight. The best leaves are carefully selected and reserved for the premium cigars. Cigar rollers are known as torcedores, and the more skilled you are as a torcedor, the more exclusive the cigars you can roll. The master torcedores do the most difficult part of the work with the wrapping, which must be perfectly cut and wrapped round the cigar. If kept in the right conditions, the cigars will last years. The best Cuban cigars only improve with age, just like wines, as long as they are stored with the right level of care. The ideal way to store cigars is in a humidor, which maintains a temperature of 21°C and humidity of 70%.
Cigars can mature there for decades. A cigar that has dried out can be rehydrated, but if the original oil has evaporated from the leaves, a large part of the flavor goes with it. The thicker the cigar, the richer the flavor. Enthusiasts light their cigars with a piece of cedar, because a gas lighter can compromise the flavor.
In February each year, Havana plays host to a five-day cigar festival, the Habano Cuban Cigar Festival. The festival features cigar testing, visits to cigar factories and tobacco plantations, cigar making demonstrations by torcedores and much more. There is even a competition for cigar sommeliers.
When President Kennedy imposed the USA’s trade embargo on Cuba in 1962, before signing the order he made sure to stockpile enough boxes of Cohibas to last the rest of his presidency – a whole 1,200 cigars. Once these were safely in place, he signed the executive order that prohibited the import of cigars from Cuba, and even prevented American citizens from legally buying Cuban cigars wherever in the world they may be. This law is now gone, and Americans can smoke real Habanos legally.