While in Cuba, you’ll undoubtedly have the chance to sample Cuba’s signature products: rum and cigars. Since tobacco and sugarcane were brought to the Caribbean by Spanish conquistadores, the two plants—which thrive in the Cuba’s tropical climate—have been profitable cash crops in Cuba. In fact, of all countries in the world, Cuba dedicates the second largest land area to tobacco cultivation, and for many decades, Cuba was the world’s top sugar producer.
The region around Pinar del Río is Cuba’s primary tobacco-producing region, and not surprisingly, the center of the Cuban cigar industry. Tobacco leaves are harvested, dried and aged using traditional methods that use heat and shade to regulate the leaf’s sugar and water content—it’s a delicate balance that must be properly maintained to avoid rot. For a high-quality, authentic cigar, it’s essential to spend the extra money for cigars rolled by hand. Cheaper manufactured cigars are easy to buy in Cuba, but true aficionados wouldn’t dare touch factory smokes.
Cuban rum is distilled from molasses, a thick syrupy by-product of sugar cane. The brownish-black liquid was first fermented with water and yeast to produce alcohol, which was boiled off and collected in column stills and known as aguardientes (literally, “firewater”). Over time, the distillation process became more refined and the taste dramatically improved. By the mid-19th century, Cuban rum had become renowned and desired around the globe. Production went through the roof during American prohibition when Cuba became known as America’s “unofficial saloon.”
Alcohol and tobacco products no longer have restrictions specific to Cuba, and now follow the same rules the US enforces for all countries, which dictate your purchases must be for personal use only. This means that most people will be able to bring back as many as 100 cigars and several bottles of rum.