Local Artist – Trinidad, Cuba
The Plan: Take advantage of the situation (our trip to Cuba), and bring back as many Cuban cigars as we possibly could between the two of us. Buy them in box lots, at rockbottom prices, and return to Merida as fully-satisfied happy campers. I did my research, and we were each allowed to bring back two boxes (with 25 cigars in each box) duty free. Do the math, that would be a total of four boxes, or one hundred Cuban cigars. Great plan.
The Problem: Come to find out, that to take Cuban cigars out of Cuba, you must first purchase them in a government store. Upon purchase, you are presented with a government-certified factura proving that they were purchased legally. Try to leave the country with cigars and no factura, and the cigars are confiscated prior to boarding the plane. Not a huge problem, except. There’s always an except isn’t there? In the government stores you pay full retail for the smokes—and they ain’t cheap. We’re talking $8 to $30 USD per stick. The whole idea was to buy them cheap in Cuba. Bummer.
The Solution: Oh yeah, Steve always has a solution—a Plan B. Buy black market cigars illegally and consume them while in Cuba. This solution had a couple of advantages: It would support the local economy (the money would go directly into the pockets of the sellers as opposed to the government), and we could buy them really cheap. I’m talking $2 USD cheap. The government is fully aware of what is going on, but tends to turn a blind eye on the illicit transactions. They just don’t want cheap cigars leaving Cuba (en mass) and messing with the world price. Domestic consumption doesn’t affect world price.
The Cigar Man
Executing the Solution: While walking the streets, you are approached about every five minutes by someone trying to sell you black market cigars. In Trinidad we accepted the proposition. “Hey Meester, you wanna buy some ceegar’s?” It felt like he was offering up his seester for some fun and games. “Si Señor” I responded. So we followed our new amigo through alleyways and byways until we finally reached a small house. After initiating the secret code (knocking on the door) we were admitted into the casa, led down the hallway, and into a back bedroom. And there on the bed we found, not his seester, but box upon box of Cohiba cigars (the premium brand of Cuba). Every shape and size was displayed as flagrantly as comely whores at a Mexican brothel.
The Product: But are these real Cuban cigars? Of course they are dumb ass, you’re in Cuba for Christ’s sake. Cuba grows some of the best tobacco in the world; do you really think they’re going to pay some other country to import their inferior tobacco? Cuba has plenty of tobacco. Cuban’s don’t counterfeit Cuban cigars. Period. They’re mostly Cohiba—Cuba’s finest, and the preferred smoke of Fidel himself (Che preferred Monte Cristo, even with his lifelong battle with asthma). The sticks are packed in genuine Cohiba boxes, with all of the proper seals and stamps. Everything about them is legit, except they don’t come with a government-certified factura—therefore you cannot legally remove them from the country. And I don’t think Cuba is the country you would want to get caught smuggling contraband. These are not stolen cigars from the Cohiba factory. They are produced (probably under Cohiba supervision) in small, scattered factories throughout Cuba to meet the tourist demand. I’ve smoked enough cigars, Cuban and otherwise, to know a good cigar when I smoke one. These are excellent Cuban Cohiba’s, and smoke just fine—they are not Mexican knockoffs.
The Price: Buy government-certified cigars, in a government store (for legal export), and expect to pay full retail price: $8 to $30 USD per stick. My black market fellow wanted $50 C.U.C. (approximately $50 USD) for a box of 25 cigars. I bought them for $40 C.U.C. and probably could have done better—however, at $40 C.U.C. the per stick price dropped to $1.60 USD. $1.60 USD versus $8 to $30 USD per stick is quite a price savings. So, during our stay in Cuba we smoked well, and we smoked cheap.
The Verdict: Although we weren’t able to bring smokes back with us to Merida, we did solve our problem for the remainder of our trip. Cuban cigars are great. But are they the best? I don’t think so personally. With a sophisticated palate you soon learn that Cuban cigars are pretty one-dimensional. They lack complexity. Cuban cigars are made of only Cuban tobacco, whereas cigars from Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic can be made utilizing a number of different tobaccos. Cigars utilizing different tobacco’s for the wrapper, filler and binder can be very complex—almost like a premium Scotch Whisky or a vintage wine. It’s funny how you can get used to something—there was a time when I would pay almost anything for the privilege of smoking a genuine Cuban cigar (and I’ve paid upwards of $50 USD for a single stick), and now that I smoke them every single day I miss the variety of other brands. Mexico does not allow private cigar importation. So I’ll just have to be satisfied with my Cuban’s.