By Guest Lecturer Sandy Cares

The scenery shifts from the sun-faded dwellings of suburban Havana to horse-drawn carts clattering along the winding road. Sightings of royal palms, Cuba’s national tree, increase with every passing mile as they soar skyward in regal splendor against the iconic backdrop of distant misty mountains. Henna-red iron-rich soil defiantly contrasts abundant bright green tobacco leaves. We are arriving in Viñales Valley, one of Cuba’s prized UNESCO World Heritage sites and a mecca for cultivating tobacco.

The beautiful Viñales Valley in Cuba’s westernmost province, Pinar del Rio Province, makes for the perfect respite from the hustle of Havana. Here the climate and soil conditions are ideal for tobacco growing. As we learned on our Viñales Valley excursion, the indigenous Amerindians throughout New World were well acquainted with this indigenous plant, its cultivation and the pleasures derived from its use. They were heavy smokers and didn’t take long to hook Spaniards on smoking.

As our guide explained, once tobacco leaves reach the right size for picking, they are sewn or tied in pairs and are placed over rods set up on poles for air-drying in the fields. Later they will be moved into the drying barns for a lengthy process of heat curing.

The thatch drying barns, built in the centuries-old tradition of indigenous houses, or bohios, simultaneously ventilate the tobacco leaves and protect them from sun and rain. Thousands of withering tobacco leaves suspend lazily from the rafters as they permeate the air with their potpourri. The proprietor’s son selected a few choice leaves to demonstrate his cigar-rolling prowess before passing around the finished product for a closer look.

In the Havana cigar factories, “torcadores,” or “twisters,” train for decades to meet the strict state-regulated standards that qualify their handiwork to bear the bands of the famous Cuban brands like Cohiba, Romeo Y Julieta and Montecristo. The torcadores are highly esteemed in Cuban society for enduring an apprenticeship that rivals the rigors and longevity of a university career.

Our hosts use lunchtime as the opportunity to prove that Cubans are the world’s most hospitable people. Ceramic platters and china plates groan under piles of fresh-caught tuna, chicken and pork with all the trimmings. The sumptuous meal, savored family-style on long tables affording us a million-dollar vista of Viñales, is capped off with abuela’s own sweet flan made just that morning.

Afterwards, we had the chance to explore a mogote cave. Mogotes are curiously rounded hills that puff up from the valley floor like muffins. Our local guide explains that these fixtures of the Cuban landscape can reach heights beyond 1,000 feet. Conventional wisdom is that they rose with the island from the seabed about 300 million years ago, before the splitting of the supercontinent that ultimately formed the jigsaw puzzle of the Caribbean. Inside, mogotes are honeycombed by lattice works of caverns, some dissected by rivers as in the case of Indian Cave, which we explored next.

At Indian Cave, we descended dozens of steps chiseled from the limestone, arriving at an mysterious river where a gondola ferried us along the still and dark waters of this haunting subterranean Styx. A shock of daylight appeared on the other side, we were greeted by the comically myopic stare of Señor Tomás, the charismatic water buffalo. Señor Tomas allows guests to alight on his amply saddled backside for a brief but unforgettable ride at the end of a memorable day in Viñales Valley.

I’m looking forward to sailing back to Cuba again this spring and fall on Sirena – I hope to see you there!

May 4, 2018 | Timeless Cuba | 7 Days
May 11, 2018 | Cultural Awakening | 9 Days
May 20, 2018 | Postcards From Cuba | 8 Days
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September 24, 2018 | Cuban Charisma | 9 Days
October 3, 2018 | Timeless Cuba | 7 Days

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