Farming is a hard life no matter where you are. Imagine having to sell 90% of your crops to the government at a price the government sets. That is the reality of farming in Cuba.
We visited a tobacco farm near Viñales, a few hours from Havana. This is a beautiful valley surrounded by limestone mountains that reminded me of Vietnam. Cuban and foreign tourists stay in one of the hundreds of private homes with rooms to rent in order to visit the picturesque valley. It is a great place for tourists, but a hard life for the locals.
Luis, our photographer guide, has spent time getting to know the residents of a small village outside of Viñales, where people work as farmers and offer horseback rides to tourists. We strolled through the village on two occasions meeting families and being invited into homes.
Tobacco is grown in the red soil of Viñales. Seeds are planted in the fall and the leaves are harvested in the spring. The leaves are dried, sorted, and fermented over a process of several months. They can be stored for several more months or years. The quality increases with the amount of time they are stored.
Women roll the cigars by hand. Each cigar has the three types of tobacco leaves rolled into it to balance the flavor. A cigar costs about $3. Since the government owns the farmland, farmers keep only ten percent of their crop and sell the rest to the government. The ten percent they keep can be sold on the black market for extra income.
Charcoal is another product of the region. We spent an afternoon photographing two men and a 16-year-old working a charcoal field on the side of a road. Wood is piled high into a pyramid shape and burned for about a week in order to produce the charcoal. The fires must be fed day and night with more wood. After being in the smoky environment for just a short time, it is hard to imagine such a life.
Viñales Valley, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a top tourist destination in Cuba and well worth a visit.