A small white dog dappled with large black-and-brown spots leads the way. A few steps behind the spunky pup, a man wearing khaki pants and a long-sleeved shirt of the same color—both too large for his small frame—strides confidently toward us. The giant straw hat perched gently on his head can’t hide his intense almond-shaped brown eyes or his weathered skin. He shakes my hand and then my partner Nick’s hand and guides us into a dark straw house where we are suddenly enveloped and overwhelmed by the smell of tobacco. My eyes adjust and I see strands of this wrinkled plant drying in every spare space of the thatched shack.
This is the last stop on our guided hike through Viñales National Park, an extraordinary nature reserve in western Cuba teeming with rich plant and birdlife where people live in harmony with the landscape. Along the way, we’ve been rewarded with glimpses of fast-moving, colorful hummingbirds and exquisite views of mountains in the distance—jungle-covered cliffs and limestone monoliths (mogotes) rising steeply from the broad valleys where Cuban farmers grow tobacco, fruits and vegetables in the rust-colored soil.
Leonardo, known as El Frances (“The French”), explains that he has been growing tobacco for decades here in Valle de Viñales, whose fertile, red fields produce some of the world’s best tobacco. His life is simple, but not easy. He works hard cultivating the fields with an ox-drawn plow, but he emits an obvious peace with each word he speaks. Rapt, we listen as he describes (with a lit cigar in his mouth, of course) the time intensive process required to turn tiny tobacco seeds into the cigars for which Cuba is so well known.
El Frances picks the tobacco leaves (which are pesticide and herbicide free) by hand, then hangs them in this thatched shack, where they dry for a year before he can begin rolling them into cigars. As he talks, his hands move smoothly over the leaves in front of him and before we know it, he’s rolled a perfect, delicious smelling specimen, sealed in place with local honey. He dips the end in honey for an added touch and mentions that, depending on the time of day, anything from coffee to honey to rum will work for a bit of extra flavor.
He hands the cigar to Nick, places his straw hat on Nick’s head, and lights the new cigar with an air of ceremony. Nick takes a puff and admits that it’s the best cigar he’s ever smoked, which is saying something, since he has some experience.
I, on the other hand, have never really smoked a cigar, but El Frances insists that I try it. Afraid to inhale and end up in a coughing fit, I puff a bit too sharply and quickly and don’t really get the full experience. El Frances coaches me through it, demonstrating with a smooth, measured inhale as he says out of the corner of his mouth, “Suave. Despacio. Suave” (Smooth. Slowly. Smooth).
I mimic him and, though I’m not typically one for smoking, this tasty blend of leaves lovingly crafted into a cigar by this kind farmer delights every sense. I hand it back to Nick and watch him enjoy every puff of this deeply embedded symbol of Cuban culture as we chat with El Frances about the weather, the soil, the forecast for the tobacco crop this year, his dog, what it’s like living out here in Valle de Viñales, where we live in Colorado, and what we think of our Cuba tour so far.
El Frances is glad to hear we love it here it Cuba, and he’s proud that we are enamored with the Cuban people, the natural bounty, the food, and now—most importantly—him and his delicious Cuban tobacco.
This post was written by Chris Kassar, an avid adventurer and a freelance travel writer for Natural Habitat Adventures. All photos are © Chris Kassar.