Horseback Riding & Cigar Smoking in Viñales, Cuba
Originally we were planning on leaving Viñales after two days; but, due to the high-level of travellers over the New Year and the lack of available transportation, we were unable to find a taxi to take us to our next destination! One of the difficulties of travelling in Cuba is that taxis are organised by a network of people who know each other, and they will only leave at certain set times, meaning there is no way to book them in advance. While our casa host Daymi worked hard to secure us a ride for the following morning, we set to planning another day in the rural town. (You can catch up on my previous posts from Viñales here, here and here.) As I have mentioned before, the draw of this area is all the outdoor activities that are readily available from the town. But, horseback riding through the tobacco fields is the number one reason why travellers head to Viñales. Proving once and for all that we all would love to be cowboys and cowgirls for a day, right?
At first, we shot down the idea that we would book onto one of these tours, since the evening before we had already done a sunset walk and therefore (wrongly) presumed that we would be repeating ourselves too much. Secretly, I was a little concerned that any horseback riding tour would be too “touristy” for our liking, as we aren’t super fans of big group outings. However, Daymi persevered and eventually convinced us not to miss out on this opportunity. Once we gave her the go-ahead, she called everyone she could think of, yet was unable to find two available spots! Feeling a little dejected, Tristan went to take a mid-morning snooze, and I sat outside with my book.
After about an hour or so, Daymi rushed outside to tell me that she had found us something and a driver was picking us up in 5 minutes! Still dozy from a relaxed morning spent in the humid Cuban weather, we wiped the sleep from the corners of our eyes, scrambled to pack our things, slathered on sunscreen and filled up our water-bottles (hence my very chill appearance in these photos). Not that I have any regrets in how it went down, it ended up being my absolute favourite day of our entire trip.
I am not exactly sure where we started (or where we ended), but I believe that the message was relayed that we didn’t want to retrace the route we had taken on our evening walk. We drove up to the farm to meet our cowboy Cuzo, who was somehow related to Daymi. I think he had agreed to take us as a favour to Daymi and so it was just the three of us! For $10 per hour, minimum of four hours, it was definitely worth the money. In fact, we were having such a good time that we ended up staying out for five hours! Surprising, considering this day marked my first-time mounting a horse. This alone made it a rather exciting — as well as a very-painful-to-my-bum — day.
To fully appreciate everything we saw (taking photos while riding a horse is utterly challenging), I am going to suggest you watch my travel vlog from that day — scroll down to the bottom. In addition to a vast amount of tobacco fields, scenes include a lot of cows, farmers working said fields, stunning panoramas of Valle de Viñales, and myself bouncing up and down pretending like I know how to communicate with horses — just to name a few. I kept trying to overtake Tristan’s horse, but my horse wasn’t having any of it. He did, however, listen when Cuzo kept randomly signalling him to gallop. That was a crazy ordeal that 100% required a sports bra.
About halfway through the ride, we stopped at a coffee plantation to learn about their process (similar to what we heard the previous evening) and then to consume coffee and lunch. While we were eating, a fantastic 3-person group serenaded us with their own, original Cuban music. Funkier and more upbeat than some of the other music we had heard, we didn’t think twice about purchasing one of their CDs, which later came in very handy when looking for Cuban music for some of my travel vlogs. One of the things I enjoyed the most about Cuba was the abundance of live music. Almost every small restaurant and café had live music on their schedule at some point during the day. It created such a cheerful and entertaining environment wherever we went.
After a typical Cuban lunch, it was time to hop back onto our horses and head to a tobacco rolling centre. At this point, we had been riding for 3 hours, and my bum was hurting a lot. But I soldiered on!
Cuba is blessed to have some of the world’s best locations for growing tobacco. Apparently — due to average temperature, humidity, and a soil packed with nutrients — the finest tobacco offerings come from Vuelta Abajo, an area of Pinar del Río Province.
Valle de Viñales (where we were) is the other major tobacco growing region. Thanks to its classification as a national park, in the Valle chemical fertilisers are illegal, making all of this tobacco organic. For this reason, local tobacco growers (vegueros) insist that theirs is the best the country has to offer. Either way, Cuba can’t lay claim as the birthplace of cigars, historians give those bragging rights to farms in Guatemala.
In Cuba, growers can own up to 165 acres for tobacco cultivation, but most plots are less than 10 acres. In late October, tobacco seeds are planted and are initially kept in greenhouses for a month, before being transplanted to the fields. The plants then take about four months to grow, typically being harvested in March and April. During these months, the leaves are picked and bundled are then hung in a barn to dry (above right photo).
The leaves are kept in the tobacco house for three months, before being removed from the drying poles, packaged in wooden crates, and then transported to the sorting house — a job that is mostly done by women! At the sorting house, the leaves are dampened, aired, and flattened, and then bunches of leaves are fermented in piles for up to three months.
After this (it is a long process), the leaves are sorted based upon where they grew on the plant. Leaves from the mid-to-upper portion are strong and have minimal flavour, so they are usually used as binder leaves, which hold the whole cigar together. The top of the plant, known as the corona, typically produces leaves with a strong flavour, while the bottom of the plant has leaves that burn the best. So, the filler part of the cigar is usually a blend of these different leaves to achieve a perfect combination of taste and burning quality.
It was fascinating learning so much about the craft and time that goes into making every cigar. Just like the other parts, staying true to the specifications of the wrapper is essential. These leaves are usually grown in the shade to prevent the leaf from becoming too oily or thick, as the ideal wrapper should have few veins and be relatively soft. Most of the flavour of a cigar comes from the wrapper, so these leaves are the most important.
In Cuba, smokers enjoy a rare freedom which generally is no longer found in North America or Western Europe. And that is the opportunity to light up their vice in virtually any restaurant or bar. Even those who detest the idea of puffing can’t help but agree that there is a certain romance to the smoke that drifts across this island. Cubans cherish cigars, literally, and wax poetically with the language of wine aficionados, referring to a cigar’s flavour as “spicy” or “creamy” with hints of “honey,” “cocoa” and “cinnamon.”
Smoking a cigar is hard-work and most definitely a commitment. Over the course of our entire trip, I think Tristan and I may have smoked one cigar, combined. One of our first evenings there (on New Year’s Eve if we are specific), an American guy who considered himself “a pro at smoking cigars” warned me that if I inhaled while smoking, I would end up feeling dreadful. This scared me! And I never fully recovered, nor figured out how to smoke and not inhale. The fish-like bop-bop movement you have to do around the cigar just didn’t catch on to my mouth muscles, and eventually, I gave up.
Our cowboy, on the other hand, permanently had a cigar in his mouth. Apart from when he was eating his lunch, there were probably about 15 minutes total when I didn’t see him sucking on one. Not going to lie, this merely added to his cowboy charm. He told me that he started smoking cigars around the age of 14, a standard age for the 99% of men in Cuba who smoke. For women, it is far less widespread, although it isn’t looked down-upon as it is in other countries where male smoking rates are high (looking at you China!).
I don’t think this outfit (if you can even call it that) warrants a lot of explanation. It was the comfiest combination I had in my suitcase and what I had spent my morning wearing. Some days, especially when travelling, practicality overrides presentation. Although I might have tried slightly harder had I had 15+ minutes to get ready — horse-riding is a chic sport! You know, just for when I show my grandkids photos of the time I met a real cowboy!
Regardless, Tristan and I both agree that overall this was the highlight of our Cuba trip. It just goes to show that sometimes the best days come when you least expect them and being flexible and open when travelling is the key to fantastic experiences. Now I am on a mission to plan another horse-riding day! Although I don’t know if the cowboys in Malibu will constantly be puffing cigars, that might cost extra.