Rum and Cigars - what else?

Trip Start Dec 15, 2011
Trip End Dec 31, 2011

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Flag of Cuba  , Pinar del Río,
Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This was the day we saw the Cuba we all hear of - the Cuba of ron and tabaco. In the city of Pinar del Rio we spent the morning in a cigar factory, learning how the cigar comes to be. It is all a very lengthy process. We were told that about 80% of the tobacco grown in Cuba is from Pinar del Rio province. All the cigars made at this factory were hand-rolled. Inside the factory-cum-museum we were not allowed bags or cameras, so you just have to picture in your head a small room with 10 or 12 rows of benches, about 4 seats wide, with each employee doing their separate part in the rolling. An average cigar uses about 5 leaves of tobacco: 3 in the center, one to "bind" those together, and then the sealer, the best leaf, on the outside. They are then tested for air circulation, inspected by some people in a locked room who not only inspect them with their eyes, but their lungs, as well, then they get left for about a month in a cool room to de-humidify. They are sold in cedar boxes, under such brand names as Monte Cristo, Romeo and Juliet, Cohiba, etc. 

 Next, we entered a rum factory, where the specialty was a dry rum made with fermented Guayabita fruit. They are stored in barrels of 90% alcohol for a year and a half. The barrels used were originally from Canada, and once held whiskey! We sampled a few in the gift shop. 

A one-hour drive was to follow, as we headed to las Cuevas de las Portales. We met our 55-year-old guide, Juan-Carlos and he showed us to the caves. The cave mouth runs alongside the San Diego river. We followed our guide down, down into a large cavern, where we came upon an original concrete water cistern and tables from when Guevara occupied these caves with his forces in '62. There was even spraypaint on the rocks inside left by workers who had built a set of stairs after the fact, their claim to fame. This cave was Che's military base for the western part of the island, therefore many aspects of it have been preserved. The perimeter is roughly 25 km, and Juan-Carlos recounted that the comandante would eventually walk this route every day with 40lbs on his back, in order to train for his mission to Bolivia. 

 We saw the area used as Che's sleeping quarters, with an escape tunnel and telephone, and a cot for his girlfriend of the day. It was all very historic and interesting, and I'm not even really one for history. I think it's funny how the pop-culture image of Che influenced my perception of him - after reading up and watching documentaries, it's easy to see him as more of a cold-hearted military general than a passionate, anti-establishment, free-the-people fighter. 

Anyhow, our guide was very friendly, and dad and I had a good time talking to him with our limited Spanish. After a small picnic, we drove to our point of departure by bike. This day was about 26 degrees, but a nice breeze kept the heat down. The only problem with the breeze is it always happened to be against, not with us! We biked roughly 30km. One thing that sticks with me from this ride in particular were three little girls standing by the road in a village we passed through, who reached out and gave us high-fives as we passed; curious, pink, sweaty people who whiz by their house on fancy bikes.  We would get varied responses to the sight of our group - some waves, nods and smile, some laughs, smooches, mutters, or looks of disinterest.  Some strange looks at our near-empty bus following diligently behind, especially as we would pass large trucks with passengers crammed to the point of standing in the back. As many as thirty people must have been in some of the big dump-trucks that rattled by. It seems as a Cuban, you take a ride where you can get it. 

Our next hotel was in the small settlement of Las Terrazas. On the way,we stopped in San Cristobal for a breather, where Lisa lent me some Cuban Pesos (CUP, or "coop"), which is the currency native Cubans use, so I could buy an ice cream. It was really good. And cost about 4 cents (the oddities of using CUP vs CUC). We finally reached our hotel, La Moka, where I fell in love with the building - there was a giant tree in the middle of the floor! Everything was very open, and built around the sturdy trees instead of over them. I liked the design. It was a very nice room (compared to our first hotel), and our shower was like nothing I'd ever showered in before - you were basically showering in a window, looking out over the houses of Las Terrazas below. 

We went out for dinner as a group, to La Casa del Campesino, or Farmer's House, for some more good, home-cooked Cuban food. While there seems to be limited supply of fresh veggies, or a wide selection of ingredients, on the island, the local people always know how to whip up a tasty meal. 
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