“Would you like to buy some cigars?” the bartender asks as I lit up a hand-rolled one from Viñales
There are no drugs in Cuba, our host explains to a backpacker who has smuggled in a gram of MDMA in his sock. He even demonstrates the action of putting handcuffs on to make his point. The Cuban government claims it has won the war on drugs and locks anyone up who may be buying, touting or using.
That doesn’t stop the lads on the street and barmen from trying to make a bit of extra cash; they just sell cigars instead.
I’m looking to pick up on Empedrado, a long street that runs through Havana towards the Canal de Entrada. And I had been planning on doing it legally from one of the many shops. Cuba is a country that heavily restricts the internet, so a quick google isn’t going to cut it when finding one though.
Instead, I have to ask around and I get a hit on my first attempt. I’m pointed toward a kid in an orange t-shirt holding up the wall of a street corner.
“Cigarro?” I ask. He gives one of his cohort a fistbump and tells me to follow him. So I do.
180 kilometres and an hour-long horse ride down the road, in the countryside surrounding the sleepy village of Viñales, I’m handed a cigar. It has been freshly rolled, although thankfully not on the ample thigh of a virgin.
Viñales Valley is known as the garden of Cuba. It was Fidel Castro’s favourite part of the country and is a UNESCO world heritage site. This is because of the amazing limestone karst domes, which are surrounded by towering mountains, and for the traditional farming that takes place.
The area was most certainly not awarded UNESCO status because of Leovigildo González Morillo’s neo-Paleolithic Mural de la Prehistoria.
My guide sparks his Zippo in the dark and I puff away until my fresh cigar is lit. Then he launches into an explanation of the thatched-roofed hut that we’re standing in. We’re surrounded by the brown hanging leaves of the tobacco plant. This is where it is dried, aged and fermented.
Just outside the door lies the farm. It is perhaps an acre in size, and is privately owned. The plants are larger than I expected; just under waist height and with huge, wide leaves. A crop-spraying labourer walks through the field with a tank on his back. Horses are tied under the shade of the trees. They are annoyed by a dog running wild around the hut. There is little other life to be seen.
Back inside, my guide sits at a table in the centre of the room. He is quickly wrapping the aged leaves around one hand and stripping out the stem with the other. This, he says, strips 90 percent of the nicotine from the leaf, just like the Cuban government strips 90 percent of the farm’s money in taxes.
Then he lays them out, and gathers them into a rough cigar shape. He folds them carefully over each other, creating loose cylinders so that air can be drawn through, and sets them onto another leaf – the wrapper.
Using the heel of his hand he begins to roll in short, sharp motions. Anytime he’s not happy, he gently pulls the wrapper back and starts again.
The final leaf lies on the table, and the cigar is finished with even more care. Each end is gently twisted and the rags snipped off with a pair of scissors.
In a matter of minutes, my guide has rolled me a cigar by hand. It bends as I test the feel. Now I must age it myself, and then smoke it. I place it carefully into a jiffy bag, and lay it into the top of my rucksack.
A few days later, I am following Jack the Lad through the streets of Havana towards the docks. As we reach the canal, he takes a quick left and pulls me into an art shop.
It is full of the garish paintings that are so common here: a bright yellow Corvette races past colonial Portuguese buildings, multi-coloured people dance the rhumba, a woman in pink with a bouquet of flowers on her head smokes a massive cigar.
It turns out the boy is a runner and not the dealer; his job is to find the customers. He has a quick word with the owner of the shop, and darts out while she shouts up the stairs. An old man in an open blue shirt slowly follows the voice.
He leads me up three flights of crumbling steps to his tiny flat and into a bedroom, where he pulls back the sheets. Underneath are cases and cases of cigars. Either he works in one of the factories himself, or he knows the people who do.
I can choose from Cohibas, Montecristos, Bolivars and Romeo Y Julietas, in whichever size I want and whatever size of case I fancy. If I wanted to walk out with 500 cigars, I probably could, but I would surely be stopped at the border. I take 12 Cohiba Gigantes. The dealer pulls out a set of stickers, peels one off, and sticks it over the corner of the case.
“You have paid your taxes,” he tells me.
And with that I hand over my cash and leave. I walk through streets alive with people and music to find myself a daiquiri. It is my last day in Cuba, and I am going to smoke my hand-rolled cigar from Viñales while I drink and think about ordering a taxi to the airport.
The barman, seeing me light up, comes over and asks: “Would you like to buy some cigars?”