We took a day trip from Havana to Viñales to visit its UNESCO world heritage valley. The Viñales valley is encircled by mountains and its landscape is interspersed with dramatic rocky outcrops. Traditional techniques are still in use for agricultural production, particularly of tobacco.
It was a 2-hour ride in a creaking vintage VW car. The fact that it still run this fast while every part could be falling apart the next moment, still amazed us.
The first impression was quite different from expected. Not your fancy countryside, it is a highly underdeveloped area with bare ground, overflowed dust, and burning sunlight. We so regretted that we did not wear long-sleeves or hats. We could have died there if Yaniel, our local guide, did not kindly get us a bottle of water. (rookie tourists!) The sun was so vicious that it felt detrimental to any living animals. (look at the skinny cow!)
The land was blessed by the fertile rust-red soil and humid weather that are ideal for tobacco, crowning Cuba the largest tobacco producer. The endless chartreuse green expanses of tobacco plantations were very peaceful to look at.
We visited a local tobacco farm and its owner Mario treated us warmly with fresh fruits and homemade cigar.
Mario, one of the thousands of tobacco farmers in Viñales, works hard yet lives a poor life. Farmers are regulated to sell 90% of their tobacco leaves to Cuban government and are only paid with 0.1% of the cigar revenue. People live there for their whole life and pass the plantation to their sons. The poverty cycle seems sadly a doom.
Mario hand-rolled a cigar for us. We are non-smokers and it was our first time sipping a cigar, so we couldn’t really tell good or bad. (Based on Yaniel, the quality was quite good, as S.J. got a 2cm ash hanging at the end of a cigar roll. The longer, the better.) Note that farmers got to keep 10% of their harvest and to make cigar for their own consumption. They sold cigars to tourists to make some extra (and fair) money at much lower prices than government did.
We then visited a cigar factory, where the tobacco leaves were proceeded and rolled into pipes. Women usually work here while the male labor goes to the plantations. The working space was usually dark and hot. The workers separate the leaves into piles based on size and quality, yet usually make only 2 USD per day.
We had lunch at a local organic restaurant. The food was fresh and better than what we had in Havana, although still lack of taste. But the appetizer smoothie made our day. It was a mix of milk, honey, lemon grass, cinnamon, etc. and tasted heaven-like.
Our final stop was a mountain top with an overview of the Viñales valley. It was natural and original indeed, but we had a mixed feeling for this place due to people’s unfair life here. By the time we got on the return taxi, our shoes were all dusted, in and out. So the last and most important advice is, don’t wear anything fancy there.