Friday, January 8, 2016
This morning Arnie and I went our separate ways: he to do a horseback trip through the Viñales valley, and me to join a walking tour of a few farms in the same area. We compared notes after we met up again and discovered that we’d both watched the owners of different tobacco farms make cigars by hand. We’d learned about the different leaves that go into the creation of the perfect cigar, and been told that the finer the cigar, the lower the level of nicotine. We’d been advised that inhaling is not a recommended part of the cigar-smoking experience anyway. After the demonstration, each member of both groups was given a Cuban cigar to smoke. Arnie smoked all of his. I just took one puff.
Rain had pounded down all night and into the day, to the point where when a few members of our group stepped out into a Viñales street after breakfast, they found water going over the tops of their trekking boots. Their feet were wet all morning. I didn’t get wet feet until I started walking around the countryside, but when I did it was not only wet but red. I assume a high iron content in the soil, but I forgot to ask about that.
Our guide did tell us that the soil here is very good for tobacco growing and that they use no pesticides or fertilizers. The farm workers plant all the seeds, pick all the leaves, and harvest the leaves by hand. It takes three to four months to grow a tobacco crop and the farmers in this area sell 90% of their crops to the government and turn the rest into cigars with their own brands. (Our host said his were called “Geraldo’s cigars” but I think that was a joke.)
Three kinds of leaves go into the creation of a good cigar: filler leaves, sealer leaves and wrapper leaves. If you have a good, genuine Cuban cigar the ash will not fall off the end of it when you are smoking it. If ash forms, it is likely that the manufacturer has used banana leaves as filler.
The inside leaves that are high in nicotine content are fed to animals. The better leaves are soaked in honey, guava and rum, and then put into home-fashioned humidors (made of plastic wrap) to cure for a year or two. The result is a cigar that tastes wonderful and has very little nicotine. (Geraldo pointed to his 70-year-old mother who was smoking a very large Cuban cigar as evidence that cigar smoking will not harm your health. [See slide show album below for photo of her.] I was not impressed, as 70 seems very young to me. Show me your 100-year-old mother. Then I will pay attention.) Geraldo hand wraps approximately 100 cigars a day.
In addition to tobacco crops and drying barns, we saw fields and groves of mango, bananas, coffee beans (arabica), black beans, calabash (from which maracas are made), taro and cassava. I have discovered here in Cuba that I love taro, which is the basis for arrowroot and according the locals cures almost everything. (And anything it doesn’t cure is cured by the root of the royal palm so it is all covered here. Although there is also excellent health care in Cuba if anything else is required.)
Some people believe that a God lives inside the royal palm and they will try to get close to one if there is a hurricane or other natural disaster in order to avoid danger. During two hurricanes that hit this area, royal palms were the only things left standing, so it is hard to question this theory.
While we were out on our field trip, we also saw a Cuban rat (a pet of the owner), chickens, pigs (including some very cute piglets) a lot of dogs, horses, burros, and oxen. We also saw some men cock-fighting, which was horrible.
Before heading back to Viñales to meet the group for lunch, we were offered most delicious piña coladas. They were 3 CUCs each, but contained no rum. We all bought one. Then the host came and put down a rum bottle and invited us to add as much as we wanted to our drinks. Rum free. Drinks 3 CUCs.
Back in Viñales, Arnie rejoined us. Most of our group had stepped in deep puddles that had splashed mud to our knees, but Arnie was splattered in red mud from head to toe, and his hands were stained with achiote, a plant that is used to make cosmetics. He declared his horseback excursion to have been a huge success.
We had lunch at a restaurant near the entrance to the Cuevo del Indio (Cave of the Indian) outside of Viñales, which we planned to tour after lunch. However, by the time our (very, very slow) service at the restaurant had finished and we had eaten and paid for our meals, the lineups for the caves were 1.5 to 2 hours long. We decided to postpone our cave tour to the morning, and go back to Viñales for a quiet evening.
The first item on the agenda when we got back to our casa particulare was to eliminate the red mud from our clothes and our bodies. We discussed the possibility of paying our hosts to do a laundry for us. They were willing, but they didn’t have a clothes dryer, so it would not have been possible to get our clothes dried before we left the following day. So we packed our dirty clothes into plastic bags to take home with us. (I ultimately left my running shoes in Cuba: I loved them, but there was no way they could ever have been cleaned. They had seen better days anyway, so it was a good excuse to replace them.)
We took dozens and dozens of photos on our Viñales excursions. I’ve jammed as many of them as I can into the post itself. Here are some of the others: