In the eight years I have been covering the Festival del Habano—my first was in 2016—I have come to realize that there is a similarity to the events that happen. Every aspect is not the same from year to year, of course, but it is fairly close: the press conference, opening of the trade fair and Welcome Dinner are always on the first (official) day, the mid-week dinner celebration is always on Wednesday, the trips to see whatever factories that are on the agenda always take place on Thursday, the Gala Dinner and Humidor Auction always happen on Friday night and so on.

So it was not exactly a surprise to see that the trip to Pinar del Río, Cuba’s premier tobacco growing region, to visit various tobacco farms was scheduled for Tuesday: that is the day the trip has taken place during pretty much every Festival I have covered. However, after I spent more than 12 hours on a bus for a trip that should have taken no more than six hours my first year, I quickly decided that it would be in my best interest to hire my own transportation for every trip that I took to the region thereafter.

With that in mind, yesterday was Farm day which meant getting up early, getting on a (rented) bus with the other people I am staying with and being driven the three hours or so to the farms, where we would disembark, take photographs, ask questions, shoot some video and eat a bit of food before getting back on our bus and reaching Havana a good six or seven hours before the official bus made it back.

Or at least, that was the plan.

The day started out exactly the way it should have: breakfast, getting equipment together and getting on the bus, which eventually began the journey out of Havana. However, after about 15 minutes, it became abundantly clear there was an issue with the engine, as evidenced by the large amount of smoke pouring from the bottom into the bus where we were sitting. The amount of smoke quickly became oppressive, and we were forced to stop and wait for taxis to come and rescue us from the side of the road.

Just another morning in Cuba.

Since the official Habanos S.A. bus had already left, we were unable to hitch a ride with them, so I decided to go back to the convention center to photograph some of the new cigars that were announced yesterday, or at least those that were actually being shown off. I also wanted to see a bit of the trade show itself to see what—if anything—had changed compared to the last time it was held in February 2020.

Sadly, the new Cohiba Espléndidos Gran Reserva was nowhere to be seen, but boxes of both the Bolívar New Gold Medal and Partagás Línea Maestra were front and center. There was also a box of the new Partagás Aliados, an exclusive release that will be sold in both Habanos Specialist and La Casa del Habano (LCDH) stores around the world.

The first time I walked into the trade show part of the Festival, I was a bit taken aback, not just because it was quite a bit smaller than I expected—there are probably fewer than 100 booths spread over two levels—but also because of what is being shown off and sold. Along with larger booths selling the expected products like cigars and rum, but also smaller booths from individual artists selling everything from original art, custom-made humidors, cigar accessories, clothes and historical items such as documents and cigar bands.

Directly across from the main stage of the trade show where the aforementioned new cigar releases were positioned is the hard-to-miss booth dedicated to the Cohiba Atmosphere, a series of exclusive smoking lounges created by Habanos S.A. that debuted in Hong Kong in 2007.

Next, I ran into the Humidores Habana booth, a company that builds custom humidors of all sizes. Front and center in the booth were two massive creations—as in more than six feet tall—built to resemble giant shark fins, with drawers for cigars positioned down the back side.

Moving on down the line, I was drawn to the Havana Rum booth, which was showing off the company’s newest release named Don Navarro which is being released to celebrate the life of the “father of Cuban rum,” the late José Pablo Navarro Campa. This is the same rum the press was given to sample during the exclusive event that took place on Sunday afternoon. It is extremely enjoyable, but I have thus far been unable to confirm when it will be released for sale.

One of the smaller booths that I noticed did not have a specific name, but it was a family operation selling historical cigar bands and other art celebrating cigar culture. Books upon books of everything you can think of, all in very good condition considering how old everything was.

At that point, it was time for me to get a bit of writing work done, so I stepped into the LCDH located inside the Palco hotel—just off the entrance to the convention center—where I was able to sit and peck away on my laptop in a back lounge for an hour so and take advantage of the wifi that was available. Then it was off to a meeting with a distributor before going to dinner and returning just in time to take a nice sunset photograph off our balcony.

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.

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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.