Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Our visit to Cuba > Part 1

At the end of August and start of September, Whisky For Everyone went in to a three week hibernation.  This was our longest period of non-blogging since we began nearly three and a half years ago.  The reason was simple - we went on holiday!  Here, we have decided to share a few observations, experiences and photos from our time away.

We had decided to go to Cuba - a country portrayed as being in a 1960s time-warp and living the socialist ideal where everyone is equal.  Part of our fascination was to see this country before Fidel Castro dies.  It is believed that once he goes, then Cuba may change for ever.  So is it all cigars, mojitos and classic American cars as the holiday brochures and guide books would lead you to believe?  We were about to find out ...
A taxi in Havana
After our nine hour flight from London, we arrived in Havana - the largest city in the Caribbean.  It's hot.  Not English Summer hot (15°C when we left!) but a balmy 35°C with 85% humidity.  We are to stay in the iconic Hotel Nacional, which was once frequented by Winston Churchill and Ernest Hemingway.  This immense building has just celebrated its 80th anniversary and sits overlooking the famous eight mile long Malecón and the sea.  The place looks impressive but has a distinct air of faded grandeur about it.

You do not have to spend long in Havana before you meet some of the 'friendly locals' that the guide books tell you about.  This 'friendliness' manifests itself in the form of numerous ways to part you with your capitalist cash!  We lost count of how many times we were asked if we wanted a taxi or a guided tour of the city on a rickshaw-bike thing or to buy cigars?  This turned out to be true for virtually the entire trip, not just Havana.  Everyone seems to own a taxi, bike or know someone who works in a cigar factory!

The Partagas cigar factory
Cuba is famous for its cigars and tobacco growing, so despite not being cigar aficionados or big smokers we decided to visit a cigar making factory while in Havana.  Having said that, we have enjoyed the occasional cigar with a good dram of whisky!  The factory in question was Partagas, which is housed in a gorgeous Spanish colonial building in the heart of the city.  Here we had a guided tour which showed us the production process and the chance to see the torcedores, the highly skilled craftsmen and women who hand roll the cigars, at work (torcedoras for the ladies!). It was as hot as hell in there and fascinating to see.  For further information on cigar production - check out our post on Cigars & Whisky.

After a few days exploring Havana, we moved to the small farming town of Viñales in the western Pinar del Rio province.  This is where some of the best tobacco in the world is grown.  To get there, we boarded a surprisingly modern bus (by far the most modern vehicle we had seen to date) and traveled along the national AutoPista - the worst, most brain-jangling major highway in the world.  It's a shocker.  It's a road so bad that Cubans don't actually use it.  All we saw were tourist buses, tourist hire cars and the occasional horse.  The road was built in the 1980s with Soviet cash (which then ran out, so it remains half completed!) and clearly hasn't been maintained since then.

Valle de Viñales
The pace in Viñales was very different to Havana.  The surrounding landscape and valley - the Valle de Viñales - is gorgeous and is dominated by the majestic and distinctively shaped mountains, called mogotes.  Locals grow a multitude of crops in the fertile valley soil, including tobacco, pineapples, rice and sweetcorn. One day, we went on horse riding trek into the valley.  This was the only form of transport that can get deep into the valley and the scenery was stunning and tranquil.  The highlight was visiting a tobacco warehouse where they receive leaves from the farmers, sort them and ferment them for up to four years, before sending them to factories such as the Partagas one in Havana.

Click the video clip below to see some of the sights and sounds of this warehouse. Later, we had a meeting with a tobacco farmer and smoked a cigar with him, which he hand rolled for us using leaves from his plantation.  Sadly we couldn't see any plants, as we were between growing seasons.

Our journey around Cuba will continue in Part 2 shortly.

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