After a little more than three hours of sleep, I was up at 5 in the morning and ready to start my first full day in Cuba with breakfast and a side dish of work.

I have often opined that in many ways, the Habanos Festival is a study in both consistency and chaos: you never know when the scheduled events are going to start—or if they will even happen at all—but the locations of those events tend to follow a very predictable pattern. That was the case for the first event of the day, the annual press conference, where Habanos S.A. distributed details about the upcoming festival and the company’s revenue and financial information for the past year.

In addition, the members of the press are given details on all of the new releases debuting during the Festival. After prepared remarks by Habanos S.A. officials—including the fact that the company reported a record $721 million in revenue last year, an increase of 31 percent—some slideshows and a few questions, the press conference ended, and it was time to visit the trade fair.

Located on two different levels, the Festival del Habano trade fair consists of more than 100 vendors hawking products ranging from brand new lighters and cutters, rum and coffee to historical cigar bands from the 1800s. There are also a number of artists selling items like custom-made humidors, guayabera, hats, luggage and even humidification systems.

While I was walking around the trade show, I noticed that some of the press was gathering on the lower level. After a quick ribbon-cutting ceremony, Oscar Pérez-Oliva Fraga, vice minister of foreign trade and foreign investment, climbed the stairs to the main floor and proceeded to walk around the trade show, accompanied by a mass of photographers, videographers and curious onlookers.

He stuck around for about 30 minutes or so, but eventually, he disappeared, and I decided to visit the La Casa del Habano store located just outside of the convention center.

While it is a smaller store, the LCDH is extremely well-run, and it just happened to have revived a major shipment of cigars—its first new shipment in months—a couple of days before. Included in that shipment were a number of releases I had not yet seen, including the Romeo y Julieta Cupidos and boxes of the Cohiba Siglo de Oro, the latter of which was priced at an eye-popping $4,500, which breaks down to $250 for each cigar in the 18-count box.

However, the various cigars available were not the only new additions in the store: there was also a new POS system for payments, which, for the first time that I can recall in years, actually allows Americans to purchase Cuban cigars with U.S.-based credit cards, something has been unheard of in years past. With that said, there is no way to know if this is just a fluke of the new payment system—which is currently only being used in two of the LCDH stores in Cuba, according to the manager of the convention center store I talked to—or it is a purposeful addition.

It was then time to head back to the house for a few hours of work before getting dressed for the first dinner event of the Festival, which was being held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of Habanos S.A.

There are only so many locations in Havana that can hold the large mass of people attending the event, so it was no surprise when I found out the dinner was being held on the beach at Club Habana in the western side of Havana. Opened in 1928, the location is gorgeous, with a large front yard and an even larger area behind the historic building that ends right on the Straits of Florida.

As attendees entered the grounds, they were given gift bags containing a sampler box of cigars, another single cigar to smoke, and a separate box containing a 30th anniversary-branded cutter and lighter.

Moving further onto the main grounds of the property, multiple things were going on, including cheerleaders, a small marching band, a place to get a photograph with a classic car, and some drink stations serving libations.

After a couple of speeches, the main building was lit up by a video retrospective that seemed to erupt from the front facade. It was a very well-done and interesting effect that lasted about five minutes, after which everyone was invited to enter the backyard where the rest of the night’s activities took place.

As has been the case every time I have attended an event at Club Habana, the main area was massive in scope when seen for the first time, with almost thirty food stations and bars serving many different kinds of foods, drinks and desserts. In addition, there were photo booths for the guests—some with couches and props—as well as a section with tobacco leaves hanging as a backdrop and a roller handing out freshly rolled cigars.

About halfway through the night, the main entertainment started: a woman began doing aerial acrobatics while hanging off of a large ring, a stunning and extremely well-choreographed display that was highly entertaining.

My group left around midnight to go back to the house, where I went to bed—falling asleep instantly—since I knew I had to get up before dawn in order to make the long trip to Pinar del Rio the next day to visit the tobacco fields located in that region of the island.

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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.