There is way too much debate over whether or not Cuban cigars are the best cigars on the global market. This essay will not be attempting to sway you one way or another. There is more bullshit in the cigar industry than in almost any other industry. Can anyone really argue that this $6 cigar they paid $80 for is better than that $30 cigar you paid $6 for? In the end if you are bragging about what you smoke you are missing the point of this art form. You must make up your mind based on the value you believe you are getting and not on the status you think you are buying.
Preparing For the Trip
When a US citizen decides they want to travel to Cuba there are two ways to go about it.
You can apply for a Travel Visa with the department of Treasury ($80) and head there as a tourist. The Visa is two copies of the same form split down the middle with a fine perforation. Fill out both sides. The center of the document will be stamped upon entry and the whole thing will be taken upon exit by a Cuban official as part of the exiting process.
The other option is to travel under one of the following 12 exemptions:
- Family visits
- Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations
- Journalistic activity
- Professional research and professional meetings
- Educational activities (easiest one if Cigars are your thing)
- Religious activities
- Public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
- Support for the Cuban people
- Humanitarian projects
- Activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
- Exportation, importation, or transmission of information or informational materials
- Certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.
According to the website Travel.State.Gov, US Credit and Debit cards do not work on the island so you need to bring enough cash to cover your stay. The Cuban government requires that travelers declare if they are bringing more than $5,000 USD into the country. It’s important to note that they charge a 20% fee for exchanging USD to CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos). Most places except USD and are happy to assess the 20% on the spot. The export of CUC is forbidden regardless of the amount. Bringing lots of small bills will make your life easier when it comes to being able to make your own change as well as tipping.
There are lots of options for traveling and staying in Cuba from Air BnB to Large expensive hotels. I highly recommend hooking up with a tour group that gives you one price that you pay upfront for housing, transport, cigars daily, factory and field tours. Many all-inclusive packages will also take care of some or all of your meals. Our group took care of breakfast for us and we were on our own for the other meals. Eating out is cheap enough especially given the very high quality of the food available.
Pre-Trip Check List
At least one person in your party should check a bag so you can bring ALL of the supplies needed for this trip without risking them being taken from you on your way in or out.
- Up to date passport (must not expire before or during your trip)
- Travel Visa
- Vertigo Cyclone or Cyclone 2 Lighter filled and in your checked luggage with your shaving supplies. There is no way to fill your lighter so forego toasting your cigars and get them lit quickly with as little fuel as possible.
- Cheap cutter
- Paper products (tissues, baby wipes, toilet paper)
- A pen in your carry on luggage
- As soon as you clear Cuban Immigration find a kiosk, at the airport, that sells internet cards and buy a couple. At the time of our trip they were $1.50 for a one hour card. Wifi is free in Cuba but the internet is not.
You Have Arrived
If you foolishly decide to go this trip alone you need to get from the airport to your hotel or Air BnB. In Cuba there are two kinds of Taxis. There are pros and cons to each of them and sometimes you simply do not have a choice as only one is available when you need it.
Private taxi cabs have the letter P as the first character on their license plate. Not all cars with the letter P are taxis so look for the Taxi sticker in the upper left corner of the windshield they tend to be less expensive and are mostly early 50’s cars from the US although they can also be Russian cars from the 80’s. A ride in one of these taxis is not required to be private, meaning the driver can continue to pick up, drop off, and charge other passengers during your ride to maximize his profits. You should get a price up front for the ride as it’s often up for negotiation. Keep in mind that these drivers may or may not speak english so have a translation app handy if you are not fluent in Spanish.
Most of the government Taxis are “Taxi Yellow” and are post 2000 Korean or Japanese made vehicles. The trips taken in these cars are metered and regulated by the government and as a result they tend to be a little more expensive. It’s still a good idea to get a ballpark figure before climbing inside. The rides are 100% private so regardless of how much room there is available in your cab you have it to yourself. These Yellow taxis have the letter D as the first character on their plates and feature a baby blue sticker covering the right hand side of the plate indicating the car is owned by the government and that this is a “professional” driver. Professional drivers must maintain a 0% blood alcohol level at all times when behind the wheel or they will lose their license for 1 year mandatory with zero tolerance…imagine, a government that holds its workers to a higher standard than its constituents? Regular drivers are allowed .05% which is .03% less than the US. The penalty is loss of license for 6 months, mandatory.
Once in the car be prepared for your first real culture shock. The major thruway in Havana is a 2-3 lane highway adjacent to the seawall. The left lane is 80kmh, the middle lane is 60kmh, and the right lane (when there is one) is a turning lane. The next thing you may notice is at first you won’t see any street signs. The signs are house shaped 1’ high blocks of granite on the corners of the streets that have Letter names of the streets on 2 sides and Number names on the other 2. Letters go North-East and South-West while Numbers go North-West and South-East. Right of way is decided by the amount of damage that a vehicle will inflict in a collision. Pedestrians are the lowest on the totem pole so if you ever have to cross a street in Cuba, leave extra room and don’t assume they plan on slowing down. The driver of the car expects you to not be there when he drives through that spot.
You may hear a lot more honking than you are used to here in the US. Honking in Cuba means something completely different than it does here at home. The horn in Cuba alerts other drivers, intersecting traffic, or pedestrians of a vehicle’s presence. We saw zero road rage while we were there. Everyone seemed very content to move aside after hearing a honk from the car behind them. All honks were quick multi bursts like you might give someone who doesn’t realize the light has changed. Not once did we hear a long blast which would indicate a pissed off US driver. One interesting fact we heard from a driver was that the Presidential Rotunda is the only rotary in the world that does not give the right away to the driver in the rotary. A directive from Fidel Castro himself, drivers in the rotary must stop and allow drivers in that are entering.
Politics and Random Facts
Havana comes alive at Sunrise (about 6:20am in February) and dies right down at sunset (6:30 pm). Cuba is an island nation that has relied on shipments from other countries to supply it with certain goods not produced on the island. This leads to very conservative habits with respect to certain resources like paper goods, bottled water, and petroleum products. Almost nothing is ever wasted. Regular water is stored, for household use, on the roof. Hot water is heated by gas, oil, or solar. Water is always conserved and never wasted even though it’s not drinking water because the valve from the street is only turned on for 2 hours a day to refill the reservoirs. This is something to keep in mind when you are the first one in the shower. Treat the water like you treat the butane in your lighter and use it sparingly.
With how many miles they have on them, I was impressed at how well the motors sounded on all of the 1950’s cars. One of the drivers let me in on a little secret…Instead of buying new cars the owners of these taxis retrofit diesel engines for their torque and gas mileage. There is no organized system of credit like we are used to so Cuban workers buy what they buy in cash only. They work extremely hard for their money especially if they have a second job on the private market. When it’s time to make the buy from their saved money they negotiate the price, and buy it outright.
Cash is king especially at privately owned restaurants. For a large enough party a smoking section can and will open up with the decision falling solely on the proprietor. The price is only the price when it comes to government jobs like anyone working at Casa De Habanos. Since there are no credit cards the old line “How bout $200 cash money for that box?” falls completely flat. The food is a mix between traditional latin american fair and Americanized dishes. Even Dave had little to complain about. One fun fact is that if you buy a bottle of rum for your table, even at a high-end restaurant, it is a Cuban custom to pour out the first sip on the floor as a gift to the dearly departed. Not doing it will raise way more attention than doing the same thing in the US.
We went in with the game plan to not discuss politics in any way, shape, or form but Trump was brought up almost daily by everyone from Taxi drivers to TV reporters. In fact Dave and I were interviewed separately by a French TV reporter who couldn’t help but roll her eyes at any positive comment about Trump. The big question was if Americans think Donald Trump would drop the embargo completely and open up relations between the 2 countries.
Random Facts I Picked Up On This Trip
- When damaged cigars became a problem cigar boxes began being used.
- In 1894 H. Upmann became the first cigar to be a registered brand.
- Cigars have affected nearly every aspect of modern life from Art to poetry and music to movies.
- Most cigar making countries have one person bunch the tobaccos and apply the binder. The cigars go into a mold for 15 minutes and then the wrapper is applied by a second person. In Cuba The same person who does the bunching also passes the wrapper.
- A pair of rollers in other cigar producing countries can make between 300 and 500 cigars a day depending on the size and shape. In Cuba this number falls between 100 and 120 per day.
Private Tour of the Cohiba Factory
Our last day of this trip opens with a private tour of the Cohiba factory. The factory is home to 217 workers, 67% of which are women. The compound was built by a Holland family man who owned sugar plantations. When he died his daughters gifted the property to the Cuban government who saw its potential as a factory. As guests of the factory we enjoyed some special coffee that is grown and roasted on site. To be a roller in this facility you must qualify for the position even if you have years of experience as a top roller in another factory. Similar to the other factories each worker making cigars bunches and passes wrapper as a solo operation making 100-120 cigars per day depending on size and shape. According to our tour guide each and every cigar that dons the Cohiba band is hand-made in that factory.
Day time highlights included:
- Habano sommelier contest
- Longest ash contest
- Rolling seminar (Dave won in our group)
- Mini Trade Show
- Trip to the fields
- Educational seminars
- Pairings and tasting
The festival opened the first night with an evening dedicated to the H. Upmann Sir Winston Gran Reserve 2011. A second night was dedicated to the world-wide launch of Quai D’Orsay and the final Gala was all about the iconic brand, Montecristo. Each Gala was better and more entertaining than the one before but the biggest and best one was the last night of the Habanos Festival “Moche de Gala.” I have been to only one evening as elegant but it’s clear that the Davidoff Golden Band Awards got their inspiration from this fine event. With 1200 attendees this 19-year-old event held nothing back. One part was the 5 star restaurant dining experience with multiple courses, paired wines, and the added bonus of cigars. Part two of the evening’s festivities was the “night at the orchestra – meets rock concert” fusion of entertainment. Cuban dancers and musicians are known around the world for their award-winning techniques and interpretations. This was the who’s who of singing, instrumentation, dance, and performance art. The highlight of the show was Violinist Ara Malikion. I have seen many violinists play live over a backing track and I have seen others play with an orchestra. Malikion brought his own band and had help from the orchestra and he pulled the whole thing off with ease and grace. Jimmy Page would want to rethink his orchestra if he heard this dude’s cover of classic Led Zeppelin.
When I was asked by Dave to write this overview of our trip I was admittedly a little nervous because I am hardly a world traveler. Thanks to the friendly and safe country of Cuba I now have a benchmark with which to hold all other “out of country” trips. Everyone, from the cab drivers to our house hosts and from the police to perfect strangers, were very accommodating even to those of us who have yet to learn their language. No matter what neighborhood we walked through, or at what time of night, we felt and were extremely safe. For only the second time in my life I can’t wait to get back to a country outside of the United States (read about the first time here).