A trip to Cuba wouldn’t be complete without sampling two of its most famous products – rum and cigars. So in Pinar del Rio, I paid a visit to two factories to find out how they make them.
But first a quick note about Pinar del Rio – it’s Cuba’s 10th largest city and the capital of Pinar del Rio province, the western most tip of the island. The most striking thing I noticed as we drove through the city was the huge contrast between the shabby, rundown buildings and the beautiful freshly painted ones. Our guide explained that the bright, colourful buildings all belong either to the government or very wealthy Cubans as the average Cuban can’t afford to give his home a lick of paint.
First up is the tobacco factory, and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting. The cigars are all made by hand and it was fascinating to watch the workers as they sat at their wooden desks rolling and cutting each cigar. They start by rolling up tobacco leaves to form the cigar and once they’re happy with the shape they pop it into a wooden box with lots of cigar shaped grooves carved into it. They continue to roll the cigars and fit them into the box until it’s full, then they place the box in a vice to compress the cigars’ shape. With the box suitably squeezed, the workers take it out of the vice and remove the cigars. They then shape the ends of each cigar, clipping the end you light and shaping the butt into a rounded cone. The finished cigars are then tested using an air pressure machine to make sure the tobacco leaves are compressed enough that they’ll light. All the cigars are put through rigorous quality control tests to make sure they meet the factory’s very high standards. At the end of the tour, the cigars are available to buy for just 2.50 CUC each – less than £1!
Next up is the liqueur factory where I watch as guayabita rum liqueur, a speciality of Pinar del Rio made from little guava fruits, is bottled and labelled. Rum is by far and away my favourite spirit so I happily accept all the tasters on offer – first a spoonful of the raw ingredients, which pack quite a punch, and then shots of the finished products (there are dry and sweet versions), both of which are utterly delicious. After all that tasting it would be rude to leave empty handed, so I happily snap up a large bottle of dry guayabita for the bargain price of 3.95 CUC.