The crew of Christopher Columbus first discovered tobacco on the island of Hispaniola (today shared by the  Dominican Republic and Haiti), then encountered it again once they got to Cuba. And over the centuries, Cuba has become famous for cigarmaking, but this craft hardly been limited to this single isle – in fact plenty of other countries turn out them out, too, such as the DR, Honduras, Nicaragua, and even the United States (and in some cases in greater numbers).  But especially because of Cuba’s combination of skilled growers and rollers, together with optimum soils and climate – especially in the west of the island where much of the growing is concentrated, Cuban puros (also known as habanos) have long been considered the crème de la crème by many, perhaps most aficionados.

There are a bit over two dozen brands, the most popular of which is called Montecristo; others include Romeo y JulietaPartagásPunchHoyo de MonterreyQuinteroH Upmann, and Cohiba (the last a popular and top-quality brand created in the early 80s; its latest version, added in 2010, is the limited-edition Behike). The westernmost province of Pinar del Río, especially its Vuelta Abajo district, remains the epicenter of the country’s tobacco industry, though there are other areas east of Havana around the center of the island near Trinidad, and out east in Oriente near Santiago de Cuba.

Cigars are an important hard-currency earner as well as a definite point of prestige for the government, and for many visitors they’re a pretty big part of the tourism experience. Every time I go to Havana’s Hotel Nacional I spot foreigners lounging out in the courtyard over stogies and mojitos (the capital also boasts a handsome cigar-themed boutique hotel, the Conde de Villanueva); Havana’s Corona and Partagás cigar factories, little changed in generations, are popular stops on the sightseeing circuit; and the Festival del Habano brings enthusiastic crowds to town every February.

Non-Cuban Cigars Rising, But…

More than a few cigar aficionados assert that Cubans are still the best cigars in the world, but others say that the post-revolution exodus of generations of Cuban tobacco seeds and cigarmaking talent to places like Honduras, Nicaragua, and especially the Dominican Republic has led to quality from those countries as good as and in some cases better than that coming out of Cuba. In many cases it pretty much boils down to a matter of opinion, and at least some of the reverence for Cuban cigars may be due to longstanding mystique – and at least for Americans, a bit of the “forbidden fruit” factor, since their import is banned by the longstanding U.S. government embargo of Cuba.

Furthermore, more than a few experts have noted that Cuban quality has declined since all manufacturing was seized and consolidated by the revolutionary régime in the early 1960s, causing many brands to go defunct and driving out of the country a lot of the folks most skilled in the craft. Since then, mismanagement, corruption (the latest big round of arrests was in 2010), and periodic crop failures have also taken their toll.

Yet even today, habanos do in fact remain among the world’s best and they’ve certainly held on to their cultlike following.  So if this kind of thing appeals to you I highly recommend a stop by a quality foreigner-oriented cigar shop in many of Cuba's resort areas or larger cities (standalone or at various hotels and resorts)  and check out the “sticks” (as smokers call them), to see what all the fuss is about.

Photo: Flickr/James Emery