My first full day in Cuba started before sunrise, less than three hours after I got into bed.

Thankfully, the jazz festival had ended at some point after 4:30 a.m.—which is the only reason I managed to sleep at all—and I needed to get some work done before the day’s festivities began. So, after pecking away on my computer and eating a quick breakfast, I was off to the Hotel Palco where the Festival del Habano’s trade fair is held, the same place as it’s been since I’ve been attending the Festival.

When I arrived at the hotel, I immediately noticed something was different than normal. For one, security was tighter—or should I say, security was present since there is typically not really that much security from official police or military actually wandering around—and I was turned away from one of the entrances and told to go another way to get to my ultimate destination, i.e. to pick up my press credentials.

After saying hello to the always wonderful Habanos S.A. press team who gave me said credentials and tickets for the various events happening this week, it was time for the familiar walk through the hotel to one of the large conference rooms where the annual Festival press conference would take place. I arrived right on time at 8 a.m. only to see a large crowd of people outside of the room, signifying that the first activity of the day would not be starting on time.

In fact, after everyone managed to get inside the room and find seats the press conference finally started 55 minutes late—hey, its Cuba!—but it quickly became apparent that there was a larger issue. Although the Habanos S.A. representatives who were giving the press conference were all talking in Spanish, the interpreter machines were not working until well into the proceedings, meaning anyone who did not speak fluent Spanish was essentially left in the dark about what was being discussed.

However, it turned out I had bigger fish to fry: while waiting for the machine issue to get fixed, I started thumbing through the catalog that was handed out hen we walked in and realized there were quite a few new cigars being released during the Festival than Habanos S.A. had previously indicated. That list includes:

When the press conference was over, it was time to walk around and see a bit of the trade show that would soon officially open, although quite a few of the vendors were still putting final touches on their displays. As I wandered around, I spoke to a friend who told me there was a possibility that Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel might make an appearance at the opening ceremony, which made quite a bit of sense considering the extremely unusual enhanced security measures that I noticed that morning.

Talking to a few other people garnered a bit more information, so I was able to make my way to the ground floor of the convention center, where a mass of people was already milling around. Díaz-Canel did indeed show up and after a (very) brief ceremony, he, his entourage and representatives from Habanos S.A. quickly walked up the stairs into the convention proper. The press was not allowed to follow until Díaz-Canel had left, so I waited around for another 10 minutes or so and then made my way back to the condo I am staying at this week.

After doing a couple of hours more work on halfwheel posts, a couple of the people I am staying with invited me to lunch in Old Havana, so we took the 20-minute trip to a restaurant just off the main square. Since the Conde Villanueva hotel was nearby, we decided to make the short walk in order to visit the La Casa del Habano store located inside the hotel that was managed by Reynaldo González Alfonso, one of the most famous custom cigar rollers in the country.

I say was, because that hotel—and the La Casa del Habano—no longer exist.

It turns out that both the Conde Villanueva and the LCDH that was located inside have been closed; the door was locked securely and the large windows that looked into the hotel had been shuttered. After asking around, I learned that Reynaldo and his family are now in Mexico, and there are no immediate plans to reopen either the hotel or the LCDH inside that Reynaldo made famous.

Disappointed, my group returned to our condo to get ready for the Festival’s first large evening event: the Welcome Evening dinner. Each of the three official dinners being held this week at the Festival will celebrate specific brands or releases, and the Monday night event is commemorating the Montecristo Open line. Therefore, it is no great surprise that the dinner will be the first time most people outside of Habanos S.A. got to see and smoke the newest addition to that line, the Montecristo Open Slam, a 5 3/5 (142mm) x 52 a vitola known as Idílicos that appears to be a new vitola for the Cuban cigar world.

About an hour later we pulled up to Club Habana, a historic complex located on a beach on the western side of Havana—it opened for the first time in 1928—that features gorgeous outside lounges and plenty of space for an event of this magnitude. Club Habana has been used to host a number of dinners during past festivals, most recently for the debut of the Bolívar Reserva Cosecha 2016 in 2020, an event that included an acrobat attached to a gyroscope-type harness that allowed her body to move in almost every direction as the balloon slowly rose and descended multiple times as it made its way towards the main building.

Maritza Carrillo González (L) and Luis Sánchez-Harguindey Pardo de Vera (R), the two Habanos S.A. co-presidents.

However, when it comes to the history of the Festival del Habano, Club Habano may be best remembered as the location of the “eventful” launch of the H. Upmann Sir Winston Gran Reserva Cosecha 2011 in 2017, which was delayed for almost two hours after an unexpected monsoon closed the beach section of the event and all but one of the musical acts that were scheduled to perform were canceled.

The night started off with a group simulating a cheerleading routine, followed by a few speeches by Habanos S.A. representatives—including its new co-president, Maritza Carrillo González—all of whom spoke while standing on the large balcony of the main building.

Editor’s Note: I used to play with that Babolat Pure Control back in the day. — Charlie Minato.

There was then a very cool light display in the air above the large building that was made up of a multitude of individual drones changing locations and colors while arranging themselves into different shapes before attendees were allowed to pass through to the back of the building, where the main event was taking place.

As has been the case for every dinner I have attended at Club Habana, the aforementioned main event was massive in both breadth and scope when seen for the first time. The layout of the event included close to thirty food stations with different kinds of foods and deserts, more than 10 bars serving a multitude of drinks, a pair of putting greens, a few different photo opportunities for the guests—including a horse with a jockey—and multiple musical acts performing throughout the night.

Customarily, guests are given gift bags as they enter one of these Festival events, and last night was no different. Those bags featured not only a Habanos-branded cutter and lighter, but also four different Montecristo cigars including a coffin containing two of the new Montecristo Open Slam vitolas.

After about five hours, the dinner was finally coming to an end and it was time to travel back to the condo in an attempt to catch up on some sleep before Tuesday’s activities began.

This story is part of halfwheel’s coverage of the Festival del Habano XXIII, the 2023 edition of Cuba’s annual cigar festival. For more coverage of the festival, click here.

Overall Score

Avatar photo

Brooks Whittington

I have been smoking cigars for over eight years. A documentary wedding photographer by trade, I spent seven years as a photojournalist for the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star Telegram. I started the cigar blog SmokingStogie in 2008 after realizing that there was a need for a cigar blog with better photographs and more in-depth information about each release. SmokingStogie quickly became one of the more influential cigar blogs on the internet, known for reviewing preproduction, prerelease, rare, extremely hard-to-find and expensive cigars. I am a co-founder of halfwheel and now serve as an editor for halfwheel.