Touring the tobacco fields of Vuelta Abajo Cuban tourism’s best offer
Text & Photos: Roberto F. Campos
As the 16th Habanos Festival draws near, a trip to the tobacco-growing region of the western Cuban province of Pinar del Río is a must: these fields are a very special attraction, and not just for cigar lovers, but also for any traveler who is interested in this country’s history and culture. And every year, participants in the Habanos Festival— some 1,000 people from 80 countries—tour these tobacco fields and chat with growers. This year, the festival is dedicated to the Cuban cigar brands Hoyo de Monterrey, Partagás, Montecristo and Trinidad.
An important journey
One of the legends of these lands is José Gener of Spain, a founder of Cuba’s habanos, and at different times of the year, visitors can learn about his life and work while touring his former tobacco farm in Hoyo de Monterrey. Tour groups are welcomed at the Hotel Pinar del Río, where they can savor a good hand-rolled cigar or two, accompanied by a cocktail made with Guayabita del Pinar, a rum unique to this region.
Shortly after that, the tour continues to Gener’s former farm, birthplace of the Hoyo de Monterrey cigar brand in 1860. The farm passed through several hands and is now owned by a family that is giving a new boost to tobacco growing.
The tobacco-growing region of western Cuba is known as Vuelta Abajo, and its climate and particular soil conditions have made it famous worldwide. The tobacco plants used for the wrapper and filler components of a cigar are all over. These leaves must be picked within a month in a harvest process that is very interesting to observe. As Cuba’s tobacco growers explain, 80 percent of the
land in Pinar del Rio is in the hands of small farmers who are members of cooperatives: the Credit and Service Cooperatives (CCS) and Agricultural Production Cooperatives (CPA). A CCS is a group of farmers who apply together for bank loans from the State, using their land as collateral; a CPA brings together farmers who share their land and other resources, such as tractors, equipment, and supplies. And there is also the UBPC, or Basic Unit of Cooperative Production, in which farmers hold and work state land with usufruct rights.
All over the island, Cuban agriculture benefits from the traditions passed down through generations of farm families, who know best how to make the most of their crops. One example of that is the tobacco plantation of the late Alejandro Robaina, in Cuchillas de Barbacoa. One of Cuba’s habano brands is named after this prestigious grower, whose lands are now cultivated by his grandson, Hirochi. After visiting the fields, tour participants can visit an escogida, where leaves are selected; a despalillo workshop, where tobacco is removed of its stems; and an experimental center, all in the town of San Juan y Martínez, close to the city of Pinar del Río, capital of the province of the same name.
The experimental center is the second of its type in Cuba. It was founded in 1937, and at this time, its experts are working on producing new, more resistant types of tobacco. In 1940, its workers created the Corojo and Criollo varieties, which were grown until 1980. Black, Burley, and Virginia tobacco are also the focus of research as well. Here, growers refer to their land in terms of caballerías, an ancient unit of measurement (one caballería is equivalent to 13,420 hectares). Around 2,400 caballerías in this province are planted with tobacco, cultivated by some 22,000 producers in total throughout the year, from planting to harvest. Tobacco plantations are located mostly in the areas of San Juan y Martínez, San Luís, Pinar del Río and Consolación del Sur. For example, in San Juan y Martínez, a little over 300 caballerías is grown, while in Consolación del Sur, that number is 420; in San Luís, 243; and in Pinar del Río, 260.
Nationwide, about 60,000 people are employed in tobacco farming and industry during most of the year, and during “peak” seasons, when more hands are needed, that number can grow to 150,000, many of whom are volunteers. Along with Vuelta Abajo in the west, other principal tobacco- growing areas in Cuba are Partido (Habana) and Vuelta Arriba (central Cuba, which includes Remedios, Cienfuegos, Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara).
Tobacco is grown all over Cuba, but it is in Pinar del Río where 80 percent of wrapper leaves are grown. And cigarmakers work in some 50 factories throughout the nation, although the leading ones are located in Havana.