In a large hut made of dried palm leaves, a man offers us a Mojito. He’s a tobacco farmer, and we’ve just arrived at our first destination on the Valle de Vinales tour in Cuba. Not yet weary from the horse-back riding, but already perspiring from the relentless Cuban heat, we gladly accept. We’re about to learn how Cuban cigars are made.
In the hut in we’re surrounded by the makings of great Cuban cigars – dried leaves hang from the rafters, filling the air with a musty tang. Outside the tobacco stalks glow so intensely green in the morning sun it almost hurts to look at. We’re each offered a complimentary cigar and it tastes sweet like honey.
The tobacco farmer divides the tobacco plant with his hands, and we watch as we absorb the information. We imagine ourselves in the fields, raising the plants from seeds, picking apart the plant for manufacturing, the long months of waiting while the rafters and shelves hang heavy with tobacco leaves as they dry out, curing them with sugar, rum, and honey, cutting the leaves into sptrips, and finally – the encore – the rolling and drying of each completed cigar.
I’ll admit, I had no idea that cigars were made up completely of tobacco leaves. My impression was that the tobacco was minced and wrapped in paper, just like a cigarette. The truth is that cigars – good cigars – are simply strips of dried, cured tobacco leaves, wrapped in one big, de-veined tobacco leaf.
This is important to know if you do plan on going to Cuba. Though many things in Cuba are cheap, cigars are not. The cheapest ones we found in the tobacco factory in Havana went for about $6 a cigar. On the streets, you’ll find vendors hocking cigars for about $1 or $2. These are cigar knock-offs, so to speak. You can tell the difference by rolling or tapping the cigar. If the tobacco contents spill out, it’s not a good cigar.
However, the best ones are the ones we bought on the tobacco farm in Valle de Vinales. Made with honey, rum, and sugar, with no pesticides or added chemicals, they tasted like dessert – especially with an ice cold mojito. And they were the cheapest for the quality – $40 for 12 cigars.
The good news is, contrary to popular belief, you actually can bring in Cuban cigars to the United States. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, you can bring up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars back to the States. However, this was not something we tested since an accidental “no” came out of my mouth when the U.S. customs agent asked if I was carrying any tobacco or alcoholic products with me – leaving me bewildered and him none the wiser. Oops!
Anyways, if you do want to go to Cuba and bring back some cigars, you don’t have to hide it – whether intentionally or not. Make sure you stick to the $100 rule, because if you don’t the fines are pretty hefty.