Thursday 9 February 2023

Cuban Time Machine

#expeditioncruising .

Words and pictures: Roderick Eime

“Date un toque,” says Benito in his boisterous and charismatic style as he pours us both a shot of his homemade rum. “Kill the rat!” - which I take to mean 'hair of the dog' or similar.

I take mine neat like my host and the clear liquid is surprisingly smooth and soothing, while others prefer a shot of the farm's other product, coffee. Mix the two and you have a 'carajillo' (goddam!). Pleased with my appreciation of his product, Benito throws his bear-like arm around me and we pose for a photo.

Benito Camejo Nodarse (on the right)

Benito Camejo Nodarse is a local legend in the Viñales Valley, a region recognised by UNESCO not for its rum and tobacco, but for its limestone karstic formations that rise as high as 300m in some places. Hiking and rock climbing are popular sports for adventurous visitors.

Here is Cuba's western Pinar del Rio province, the supposed birthplace of modern tobacco cultivation, we're visiting the small 25-acre farm that Benito and his family have worked for five generations. The allotment is typical of the many similar farms operating in the region for many decades producing mainly tobacco, but also sugar cane, coffee and rum.

Around 90 per cent of Benito's crop is selected for agreed government production under controlled conditions while any remainder is left for him to sell as he wishes. These is typically as 'cleanskin' cigars which come without any certified branding but smoke as well any Cohiba or Monte Cristo for a fraction of the price. Yes, I bought a clutch of 10 for not much more than a buck each.

The primary crop was first cultivated right here by the Spanish in the 16th century. Modern tobacco is derived from the wild 'cohibo' weed used by the long-gone Arawak indian 'belique' (shamans) during ceremonies. From that rough leafy plant sprung a most valuable export product that has become a major contributor to the Cuban economy alongside coffee and sugar.

We're here on Peregrine Adventures' 8-day 'Cuban Panorama' tour, a flavoursome mixture of small-ship cruising and land excursions covering both coastal and inland attractions like the Viñales Valley, but also to the fabled, UNESCO-listed city of Trinidad de Cuba on the southern shore. In this immaculately preserved city, we wander the cobblestoned streets and alleys closed to all but foot traffic and the occasional donkey or handcart.

In stark contrast to the fading metropolis of Havana, Trinidad's preserved and brightly-painted buildings as featured on so many postcards, rise only a storey or two except for the few prominent edifices around the Plaza Mayor like the church and municipal museum. There isn't the sad crumbling demeanour of the many grand buildings of Havana, instead it retains a lively 'old world' feel with bars and restaurants sprinkled among the dimly lit thoroughfares and usually thronging with camera-toting travellers. Our evening meal is taken at a local restaurant where we are serenaded – and transfixed - by a talented quartet of young musicians

We're sailing aboard the classic, 34-guest motor cruiser, MV Callisto, but you could just as easily find yourself aboard the 48-berth sailing yacht, Panorama, on the same itinerary We take our meals in the timber-lined dining room below the bridge and enjoy cocktails either in the convivial saloon on the same deck or outside on the sunny aft.

Every foreign tour operator must employ a local guide and ours is Gus, who enriches our understanding of this complicated country with in-depth discussions about its history and delightfully candid descriptions of everyday life in this peculiar Caribbean socialist republic.

Comfortable cruising is becoming the pre-eminent touring choice for visitors wishing to see as much of Cuba as possible without the nuisance of checking in and out of hotels and rushing for waiting coaches. In conjunction with Greek small ship operator, Variety Cruises, 40-year-old Peregrine Adventures operate the small ship alternative in Cuba offering intimate and stress-free explorations of this intriguing country.

To mix it up, we do stay at an idyllic beach retreat at Maria La Gorda on the far western tip while visiting a local village and school near the Guanahacabibes National Park, home by the way to the world's smallest bird, the tiny (2g) bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae). Yes, we saw one, just.

We also check out the busy port town of Cienfuegos, near the site of the famous 1962 Bay of Pigs invasion, where Callisto shares the pier with three other cruise ships of thankfully moderate size. Founded by the French in 1818, the city has its own distinct character and it's here we are treated to a most impressive a cappella performance by the national choir.

Naturally, there is plenty of time spent in the capital, Havana, where all the key sites are visited including an excursion in immaculate Chevy Impala classic taxis to Hemingway's former Cuban haunt, Finca Vigia. If I'm to believe my guide, Ava Gardner used to swim nude in the pool, much to the displeasure of Mrs Hemingway.

But Cuba does that to you and if Hemingway's famous quote 'Live the full life of the mind, exhilarated by new ideas, intoxicated by the romance of the unusual' is accurate, then it could well have been written about Cuba.


Harvesting Cuban tobacco has become a near-science. Knowing when to pick the leaves and exactly which ones is a technique handed down over many generations, making the product from Pinar del Rio renowned by cigar aficionados the world over. The top leaves, called 'volado' (hot), are harvested first and used as a binder for the cigar's contents. Next, a week or so later, the 'ligero' (light) leaves are plucked and used as the wrapper. Finally, the lower leaves or 'seco' (dry) ones are gathered and used for the filler. The various qualities and proportions will dictate the final flavour and aroma of the cigar.

The writer travelled as a guest of Intrepid Travel aboard MV Callisto under charter from Variety Cruises.

The story originally appeared in MiNDFOOD Magazine

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