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For many, Cuba’s westernmost province is the most beautiful in the country. Its charms and scenery –the dream landscape for the most experienced ecotourists- include a genuine gem of world nature, the Viñales Valley, declared World Cultural Landscape by UNESCO, while the fertile lands of San Juan y Martinez and its surroundings boast the globe’s finest black tobacco leaves, the ones that are used for making habanos.
“I’m a hick and a tobacco grower, and I live well in the countryside because it’s Eden, more beautiful than the whole world.” These lyrics are sung –in a very personal version- by a peasant from Las Maravillas. The song, from the well-known montuno son written by Guillermo Portabales, is belted out by the planter on his way to his small roadside plantation near San Juan y Martinez, where we have stopped to take a few shots of this picture-perfect location.
“I’m happy because we’re harvesting now and the plantation has been doing so well.” Before our eyes, thousands, maybe millions of dark-green tobacco leaves, spread like a sea… Several planters come up to say hello. Their hands are stained with the black resin the leaves ooze out when they are plucked, making their fingers sticky. The only tool they use is a small jackknife and some vegetable-fiber creels to take the leaves from the field to the weaving.
The whole operation stretches for some 90 days, from the replanting of the buds brought from the seedbeds all the way to the end of the harvest. The chief planter can be a man or a woman because the femmes have put on quite a show in the field in recent times, and with flying colors.
Beautiful palm trees stand out in the distance; a landscape of rugged croplands where the rednecks work in all directions, far into the horizon. Small thatch-roofed houses known as bohios in Cuba contrast with the curing barns, huge storehouses where the long road of the tobacco leaves begin after the cutting, ending with their packing and dispatch to the cigar rollers who eventually make the habanos.
We drive between San Luis and San Juan y Martinez, the geographical names that identify the Pinar del Rio area of Vuelta Abajo, the location the lovers of the world’s finest premium cigars owe the existence of these magnificent products to.
The most captivating thing of all is the ancestral and remote character of the scenery that, probably unknowingly in all its scope, have helped put this place on the world map. It’s a specific natural space where the cradle of the most emblematic and coveted cigar brands has been located for centuries.
Therefore, this is the best point to start out an imaginary grand tour around the fascinating realm of the habano; make no mistakes about it. History has it that it was in the early 17th century when tobacco showed up around here as a product, in the proximity of the Bayate, San Cristobal, Los Palacios, Rio Hondo, Guama, San Juan and Cuyaguateje rivers, as well as in the fertile mountain valleys of the Guaniguanico Range, Guane and the San Felipe Keys, currently the Viñales Valley.
The leaf used to grow plentifully and sound there, like nowhere else on the island, favored by a prodigious nature that gives it top-notch taste and aroma. This made Pinar del Rio stand out since the 18th century as Cuba’s most privileged spot for this product and the culture around it and the lifestyle that came afterwards, traditions that seem to have remained to date.
En route to the habano cradle
A good road hooks up Havana with the Pinar del Rio name-like capital, Cuba’s westernmost territory.
Though it’s a two-hour drive, the ride is a perfect appetizer for anyone who’s attracted to landscapes and nature, especially some 20 miles before entering the tobacco plantations of San Luis and San Juan y Martinez.
These are humble towns with a colonial atmosphere, a main square hedged by the church, a few stores, the basic services and not a single opulent building in the vicinity. Down there people live their own lives, yet they are very nice and hospitable with all visitors.
Everything in the surroundings –in the field- boasts this trademarked humbleness, with people keeping their minds off the urgencies and worries of today’s modern world. These are kindhearted hicks who cling to traditions, to the things that keep their love for the land going, things that give them this feeling and willingness to get the most of what the tobacco plantations have to offer.
They have remained there for centuries, through many generations, living a kind of happiness so hard to come by anywhere else. It’s like a breed of ancient knights wearing fiber hats, machetes strung to their waists, riding on their indispensable horses, steering their oxen, raising hens in the backyards, with their wives and offspring loving them so much for being such special human beings.
A beautiful valley on the right side of the road, always carpeted with thousands of tobacco plants from December to February, harbor the curing barns with their zinc roofs and lime-painted wooden walls. It’s the famous Hoyo de Monterrey and is right at the entrance of San Juan y Martinez.
A bunch of men and women swim in this ocean of leaves and it’s so hard to believe that this vast tobacco plantation is being taken care of by so few hands. Cars with tourists stop and take pictures, their first souvenirs of this magical and wonderful world known as the cradle of the habano.