In the Heart of Cuba’s Tobacco Country, Farmers Roll Culture Into Every Cigar

Cuban cigars are legendary for a reason. Some credit the island nation’s sunny, humid climate—ideal conditions for growing tobacco. Others point to the ruddy, nitrate-rich soil, the lifeblood for those large leaves with a distinctive flavor. You can’t argue the role Mother Nature plays in creating an outstanding crop. But the most important ingredient rolled into the fabled cigars is Cuban culture itself. You see, for Cubans, cigar-making isn’t just about creating a commodity—it’s a way of life.

A Cuban tobacco farmer/Luca Locatelli

Time Stands Still in Valle de Viñales

See for yourself by heading to Valle de Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on Cuba’s western edge, where alluring limestone hills, known as mogotes, define the lush green landscape. It is in this valley and throughout Pinar del Río province where you’ll find some of Cuba’s most famous tobacco farms, like Alejandro Robaina Tobacco Plantation, Hector Luis Prieto Tobacco Plantation and Finca Raúl Reyes—all eager to share their unique heritage with curious visitors.

Pinar del Río – Cuban tobacco country/Luca Locatelli

Save for a retired vintage Cadillac or Chevrolet adding a splash of fading pastel to nearly every property, little has changed on these farms since Columbus landed in the New World 500 years ago and introduced cigars to Europe. The farmers still live in rustic wooden shacks without electricity and entertain their families with the sweet strumming of the guitar. They rely on horses to travel around their land and beyond.

Tobacco farming is a year-round endeavor. No matter what month you visit Valle de Viñales, you’re bound to experience a fascinating part of this agricultural legacy. Delicate tobacco plants do best with a gentle touch, and as such, farmers shun diesel-powered equipment and use only their hands and oxen-drawn plows to nurture the farm. Starting in mid-September, farmers transplant tobacco seedlings into fields, where they’ll typically sprout 16 to 18 broad leaves over the next three months. Field workers, starting from the bottom and working to the top, then harvest them using sharp and nimble knives to carefully cut the plant.

Tobacco Fields of Cuba
Rural Cuba/Luca Locatelli

The Art of Cuban Cigar-Making

Enter the secaderos, or A-frame houses with palm-thatched roofs where tobacco leaves dry. Workers drape each leaf like a party streamer on a series of horizontal wooden bars that criss-cross the house up to the roof, where they’ll dry for up to 50 days. Workers control humidity by opening and closing the doors to the building to ensure a proper cure. They also pluck insects off by hand, as pesticides are prohibited.

Inside the home of Cuban tobacco farmers/Luca Locatelli

Each farm also sprays the tobacco leaves with their own unique brew of natural ingredients like guava, cinnamon, honey, pineapple and rum, throughout the fermentation process. This heady mix is what gives Cuban cigars their classic flavors and aromas.

This method may be slow and old-fashioned, but its value has only become more evident in the 21st century. Cuban cigar-makers tried to boost production by modernizing their farming techniques and hastening the aging process in the mid-1990s. The rating of Cuban cigars took a nosedive during this time, as smokers lamented their harsh flavor and low quality. Farmers switched back to the traditional method in the mid-2000s, and soon reclaimed their reputation as the producers of the best cigars in the world. It’s clear that tradition trumps technology when it comes to Cuban cigars.

A Cuban farmer plays guitar/Luca Locatelli

Observing the Torcedor at Work

No tour of a tobacco farm in Viñales would be complete without a cigar rolling demonstration. This is a tradition that’s passed down through generations with each torcedor (master cigar roller) practicing the same rolling method and accompanying rituals and songs as those who came before. Torcedores make the process look easy, but make no mistake: It takes them years to master the art of rolling the perfect Cuban cigar.With the precision of an origami master, he carefully strips the center vein from a few tissuey tobacco leaves and flattens them to form a binder. He then tears bits of different types of filler leaves to create the perfect bouquet and places the bunch into the binder. A skilled torcedor uses only his experience to gauge the right assortment and weight.

Watch carefully—within just a few moments, he kneads the leaves, pushing and pulling them until it forms an actual cigar. Finally, he seals it with a swipe of diluted honey dripping from the tip of his calloused finger. After trimming and smoothing the rough end with a rounded knife—the only instrument in the torcedor’s toolkit—the sombrero-clad roller will dip the end in pure honey. And it’s just the way iconic revolutionary Che Guevara liked his cigars.

Local farmers sample the produce/Luca Locatelli

Visitors might then get an offer to try a cigar for themselves. Farmers are generous with the samples and for good reason— Cuban law mandates that farmers sell 90 percent of their output to the government at rock bottom prices. Farmers retain only the remaining 10 percent to eke out a profit from visiting tourists. They’ll happily offer you a pack in a natural humidor (a dried banana leaf, that is). The prices are a bargain compared to what you’ll pay at shops in Havana.

There’s a story rolled into each Cuban cigar—one that a label or box can’t adequately convey. Instead, hear it firsthand from the passionate tobacco farmers who still carry on this time-honored tradition today.

Rural Cuba/Luca Locatelli