Turning over a new leaf

When Christopher Columbus set off from Spain in 1492 in search of the Orient, he landed at an island he named San Salvador. This tropical paradise is part of what we now know as the Bahamas, and it is documented that the explorer was disappointed to find no treasures here.

However, the native Arawak people, who he noted were ‘the best people in the world, and the gentlest’, bestowed upon him and his men gifts to welcome them to their land. These gifts were wild fruits and wooden spears, as well as bunches of dried leaves, which Columbus described in his journal as giving off a ‘distinct fragrance’.

These unwanted leaves, which were discarded by the men, would in time turn out to be worth much more than any treasures they had hoped to find. But it wasn’t until two of Columbus’s crew landed on the Caribbean island of Cuba, en route to China, that this would be discovered. Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis Torres are thought to have witnessed the island’s inhabitants smoking the tobacco, having first wrapped the leaves in palm or maize then setting light to it.

Returning to Spain Jerez took this custom with him, frightening those who saw smoke coming out of his mouth and nose. Eventually he was imprisoned by the holy inquisitors who believed him possessed by the Devil but upon his release some seven years later, he discovered that the smoking of tobacco had become all the rage.

The art of turning tobacco into cigars by hand is something Cuba is famous for, and Havana is dotted with factories where they are produced. On a holiday to Cuba you can visit one of these factories to experience this highly skilled and fascinating process for yourself. Spain remains the biggest export market for these cigars, receiving some 42 million annually. France is next, followed by the tourists who buy boxes as souvenirs of their visit.

The most important potential market, which is only 90 miles away from the island, is the US. Just hours before cigar-loving President John F Kennedy authorised a trade embargo with Cuba in 1962, he ordered more than 1,000 of their best cigars. The rift between the two countries is now starting to heal but there are still strict rules which stop Americans from buying them.

Every Travelsphere holiday offers exceptional value for money. Included in the price are return scheduled flights/rail travel and internal flights, where applicable, overseas transfers and transportation, carefully chosen hotels, many meals and excursions and the services of a Travelsphere Tour Manager or Local Guide.