Every picture tells a story, and I’m reminded of this every time I look back over the thousands of photos I’ve taken over the past six years. So I’m starting a “Friday Photo” mini-series to tell the tales behind some of my favourite shots, as well as the stories of the people in them.
Because, of course, the people you meet while travelling are always the source of the best stories.
The man in the hat is called Juan, and he is a Cuban tobacco farmer. He lives in the lush, tropical valley of Viñales, in the west of the island, and I reached his farm on the back of a little horse called Mojito, led there by my wonderful cowboy host, Fidel.
Juan hand-rolled the fat cigar in front of us in the little wooden hut, next to the huge barn filled with drying tobacco. The leaves had been fermented for four months with honey, vanilla and just a little rum, and smelled delicious enough to eat. Juan passed one around the room – everyone kept grabbing it to inhale one more time. Then he took a small bundle of leaves, rolled them and held them in place with paper. Dark brown leaves from the inside of the plant were then rolled diagonally around it, and the classic form of the Cuban cigar appeared before my eyes. Before lighting it, a little honey was dripped onto the end. It was a sweet, fragrant smoke.
Sadly, Juan gets to prepare just 10 percent of his crop this way; the rest is given to the government. Adding chemicals to ensure the cigars stay fresh for up to 10 years, the finest cigars are produced for export, including Fidel Castro’s preferred brand, Cohiba, and Montecristo – preferred by Che Guevara.
I like this image because it’s timeless, because it conveys the hot, rustic atmosphere inside the hut. It’s manly, and serious, and sweaty, and quite real. And because on my travels I find it fascinating to trace things back to where they originate: chocolate, coffee, tea, rice… and cigars.
Hi La Nomidita,
I really enjoyed reading about your experiences in Vinales. I am visiting the area in 2 months where I hope to film with local workers on the plantations for a documentary on Cuban food. I’ve been told there are many great places and characters to film in the area and so thought I’d get your recommendations on people to contact out there, and to hear any other suggestions.
Thanks and look forward to hearing from you,
Hi Tom, thanks for the message. I stayed with a couple called Fidel and Marisol, just a couple of minutes walk away from the main plaza in Vinales. They were wonderful and Fidel has horses and can arrange trips up the hill to his organic farm. Unfortunately I don’t have contact details for them – I found them, as with so many things in Cuba, through word of mouth. I’m sure if you asked around in Vinales you would find them – it’s a very small town!
I also highly recommend visiting the little botanical gardens in Vinales – again, just a couple of minutes from the main plaza, opposite the petrol station. Fruit is falling off the trees – including chocolate – and the people who work there may be able to give you a little tour. Buen viaje!