As part of last year’s Festival del Habanos, the press was invited to visit the Pinar del Río region of Cuba, where some of the most sought after tobacco in the world is grown. Unfortunately, that entailed climbing on a bus, staying with a crowd and being gone for more than 12 hours, something that I did not want to repeat this year.
Instead, I arranged for a car and driver to take me out to the region, which would allow me to stay as long as I wanted and return at my leisure. There are any number of places I could visit—Robaina has a farm there, and the Francisco Donation Factory that makes the Trinidad marca is also there—but instead, I decided to go to see Hector Luis Prieto’s operation in the western Cuban town of San Juan y Martinez.
For those of you that don’t know, Hector Luis is a legend in Cuba. At 45, he is the youngest person to ever win Habanos S.A.’s prestigious Man of the Year Award for production, an honor he picked up in 2008 for having the largest yield of high quality wrapper leaf. Although virtually unknown outside of Cuba, Prieto works the same fields that has grandfather worked, and told me that he rarely leaves the farm, preferring to stay near his home.
The trip there took almost three hours, and when we finally arrived, there were tour buses everywhere, something I was hoping to avoid during the time we were there. There was were tobacco fields everywhere—both shaded and sans shading—as well as the typical barns, workers and equipment. Unlike a couple of farms I have been to with groups in various countries, this was obviously a working farm, but you could hardly tell what was going on with all the people crowding around.
Thankfully, my driver told me that this was not where Hector was, and led me down another path to a different section of the farm, where there was a giant structure built to feed people who come to visit. The whole open-air building was situated on a slight hill that overlooks the San Sebastian River and yet more fields of tobacco, with a bridge used to cross between. Being the type of journalist that would rather ask for forgiveness than permission, I crossed the bridge and decided to take a look to see what was on the other side.
There I found quite a bit of tobaccos plants in various states of growth, as well as some workers who were cooking a pig in an open-air pit, presumably for the people on the tour buses.
They were more than happy to show it off, and while they were not working in the fields at the moment, there was no doubt that was part of their job description. I sat with them for a while, trying to get a natural moment as they joked, laughed and smoked under the trees. I also noticed a very prominent bust of Jose Martí on top of a slab of granite engraved with some of his sayings that is situated right in front of the tobacco fields next to a Cuban flag.
Having finished that, I walked back across the bridge and decided to see if Hector had some free time to shoot a quick portrait. While waiting for him to finish an interview with another journalist, I found a worker rolling some cigars at a rolling table, something that seems fairly ubiquitous at any tobacco event that draws more than a few people.
As with most of the demonstrations in situations like this, he was basically just putting wrapper on cigars that had already been bunched and put into molds, but he was quite good at it, and seemed to be enjoying himself. We were also gifted a custom roll out of a separate bunch, a 6 x 60 vitola that was made exclusively using tobacco grown on Hector’s farm.
Hector was ready, so I took him back across the bridge to get him away from the crowds and shoot a few portraits near the tobacco. While he did not speak much English—and my Spanish is woefully nonexistent—he made an impression, with an obvious pride in who he is and what he has accomplished. In fact, just about every time we stopped shooting for short moment, he would look back to his plants, checking on their progress.
By that time, the crowds had finally shown up and it was time to go, considering there was another three hour drive waiting for us. There were no other events scheduled, so I caught up on some work while I was around a wifi connection and walked around the trade show a bit more before heading back to my place and enjoying a cigar on my patio.