The principal attraction in town is Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién (tel. 48/77-3069), Calle Antonio Maceo, just off the Plaza de la Independencia. Several fine brands are rolled at this renowned cigar factory. You can walk through the timeless rolling station, where a caller reads news and short stories to keep the rollers interested. You'll also visit rooms where the final selection and grading, labeling, and boxing take place. You can buy some of the wares here, or at the well-stocked Casa del Habano across the street. The factory is open Monday through Friday from 9am to noon and 1 to 4pm and Saturday from 9am to noon. Admission is CUC$5, and includes a guided tour that lasts about 15 to 20 minutes.
The other main attraction in Pinar del Río is the Casa Garay Fábrica de Guayabitas del Pinar (tel. 48/75-2966), Calle Isabel Rubio, 3 1/2 blocks south of Calle Martí. This little factory produces the town's signature Guayabita del Pinar liquor. They produce two types, dulce (sweet) and seco (dry). Both are cane liquors distilled with the fruit berries of a local bush. I like the seco quite a bit. It's a good-quality sipping liquor that, if you stretch your imagination, is almost brandylike. The factory is open during the same hours as Fábrica de Tabacos Francisco Donatién. Admission is free and usually includes a quick guided tour and a stop at the tasting room. Bottles of Guayabita are on sale for around CUC$4.
Aside from the city's two main draws, you can easily spend a few hours walking around town, and perhaps stopping in at either the Museo Provincial de Historia (Museum of Province History) at Calle Martí 58 (tel. 48/75-4300), or the Museo de Ciencias Naturales (Museum of Natural Sciences) at Calle Martí and Avenida Pinares (tel. 48/75-3087). Neither contains exhibits or collections of great interest, although the latter is housed in a wonderful old building with ornate Moorish architecture. You could also check out the Teatro Milanés (tel. 48/75-3871), Calles Martí and Colón, a striking 19th-century theater that is open for visits during the day, and sometimes hosts evening concerts and performances. Admission to each of the above attractions is $5MN.
Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em
When Christopher Columbus first visited Cuba, he found the local population smoking a local herb, cohiba, through a pipe, or tobago. They called the act of smoking sikar. He brought back some samples, and it wasn't long before millions of Europeans were smoking tobacco rolled into cigars and cigarettes. Tobacco was grown commercially in Cuba as early as the 16th century, and by the late-17th century, it was the country's most important export crop. By all accounts, the finest cigars in the world come from Cuba. And of the Cuban cigars available, the crème de la crème are made with tobacco grown in the Vuelta Abajo, the low plains spreading west from the city of Pinar del Río.
Most of the tobacco grown in Cuba is grown on small farms. Seeds are planted each year beginning in late October and throughout November to stagger the harvest. In a little over a month, seedlings are transplanted to the fields or vegas. Plants are carefully tended and regularly topped to stimulate leaf growth lower down. The highest-quality wrapper leaves, capa, are grown in semishade under protective mesh. Harvesting takes place from January through April. Leaves are classified by plant type, growing region, growing condition (sun or shade), and where they grow on an individual plant. All go through an intensive and carefully monitored process of drying, sorting, preparing, fermenting, aging, and finally, rolling. Real care is taken in handling the prized capas. Lesser-quality leaves end up as capote (binders) and tripa (filler).
Throughout Vuelta Abajo, you'll pass field after field planted with tobacco and see the traditional high-peaked, thatched-roof drying sheds. Tobacco from the Vuelta Abajo region is shipped to various factories in the region and around Cuba. The finest brands -- Cohibas, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta, Montecristo, Robaina, H. Upmann, Corona, and Hoyo de Monterey -- are all made with tobacco from Vuelta Abajo.