First of all let me start by saying, that I am in no way a cigar aficionado of any sort. I’m just a guy who enjoys a cigar. I am however, very interested in culture and people and it was this, more than the Habanos Festival that attracted me to Cuba. Fortunately I was able to experience some of both at the same time.
Although I didn’t attend any of the official Festival functions, the first four days of my trip was a whirlwind of places to be and people to meet.
I was privileged to be invited to a few private parties, chiefly those of JJ Fox, where I met some old friends and made a lot of new ones and was treated like Royalty by Rob and Stuart Fox along with their wonderful staff. The evening at the beautiful rooftop Paladar, La Guarida, being the standout for many reasons. Not least for the presentation of a stunning Humidor made to David McGrane on his retirement.
The wonderful cigars, drinks, food and the great mix of guests made for an unforgettable night. One which ended in us thumbing a lift home for a very reasonable price at 1.30am from a passing Russian vintage car in a very run down back street near the Malecon. Something I would never consider doing at home but which is part and parcel of everyday life in Havana.
The glitz and the glamour of private parties and informal get togethers at privately rented Casas in the first few days, were fantastic experiences and as much as I really enjoyed them one of my favourite times was when we dropped by El Aljibe for the Humidores Habanos staff dinner by the Portmann family. This was to be the first of many meetings with what I call “real” Cubans and you would be hard pressed to meet a happier bunch of guys and although my Spanish is very limited, they made me feel very welcome and part of the group and I really enjoyed my time with them.
Fortunately this was not to be my last experience with this group, as I was to be given a tour of the humidor factory later in the week. The fact that the guys remembered me and gave me a great welcome on my arrival, was almost as impressive as the works of art they produce in what I can only describe as challenging conditions with limited tools.
If you have ever seen any of their work you will no doubt be rightly impressed by the beauty and craftsmanship, you can’t however, comprehend the artistry and dedication that goes in to making these stunning humidors until you have seen it close up. This was one of the highlights of the trip.
Fortunately the pace calmed down somewhat over the coming days, with the frenzy of the Festival over, there was more time to relax and take in my surroundings.
We were lodging in a beautiful Casa Particular in Miramar, a more upmarket part of the city and less than 5 mins walk from a fantastic Paladar called Espacios. We spent many a great evening and night there, trying different dishes, enjoying the atmosphere and relaxing with a beer and fine cigar or two, which inevitably lead to a late night on the terrace back at our Casa, with a last cigar of the day and a rum or two or three, which kept the conversation going until the small hours !!
As I alluded to earlier, when I go to a new country I like to try to experience it as opposed to staying in a fancy hotel, eating Macdonald’s and drinking my usual beer.
Well this time I got far more than I dared hope for.
Not only did we spend a couple of days wandering the back streets of Old Havana, where we were surrounded by some of the most beautiful architecture you will find anywhere, unfortunately situated next to derelict buildings that bear more than a passing resemblance to a war zone, I was honoured to be invited into the homes of two Cuban families and treated to some of the best food and hospitality I’ve experienced anywhere. The Cubans I met are among the most humble and open hearted people I know.
These people who work tirelessly, in sometimes shocking conditions for what we would term a pittance, took me into their homes, shared their food, which they probably had to use their ration cards for, were worried I wouldn’t like it, it was chicken, rice and beans with salad and it was the best chicken, rice and beans with salad I’ve ever had, yet they were worried I wouldn’t like it !! This was one of the most humbling experiences of my life and just one instance of the wonderful hospitality I was to receive throughout my stay in Cuba.
With a few days of my trip left we spent half a day at a tobacco farm in Pinar Del Rio, the home of Hector Luis Prieto, where I was treated to a tour of the farm, a wonderful lunch and a couple of hours in the company of the man himself. I can’t tell you what an experience that was, drinking some excellent rum, smoking some of the best cigars I’ve had, rolled right there by Alejandro with tobacco grown in the fields surrounding us. Just incredible !
All I can say is there is something magic about that place and I will definitely be going back, not only for the cigars, which were outstanding examples of single Vega cigars but for the almost Zen like tranquillity that is to be experienced there. Sitting in the open air lounge overlooking the little stream out onto the tobacco fields surrounded by local wildlife, was, for me, the cherry on top of my Cuban cake.
Cuba is a beautiful country of massive contradictions, with huge problems that aren’t going away overnight, but in a strange way I believe this is what makes its people special. To have almost nothing but be willing to give what you do have to a complete stranger takes a special kind of person and Cuba has more than it’s fair share of them.
There were so many other great experiences and wonderful people I met during my short time in Cuba, it would take me a month to relate them.
Suffice to say I will be back and it will be soon.