Banana Leaf and other things to avoid…

I have written before of he perseverance of the Cuban people. That quality has, for the nation, served them well in times of great hardship. It does, however, have a downside… mostly for tourists.

It is hard to walk through Old Havana, or really any area where tourists congregate, without being accosted by myriad taxi drivers and other enterprising individuals offering taxis, tours in classic American convertibles, and of course cigars.

The taxis and cars are fine (although the engines are usually Korean or Japanese, and I am still amused when I see a ’57 Chevy with a DVD player in the dash); the cigars are what we call Beach cigars… or Cigars In Name Only. It seems that everyone you meet has a brother sister father mother uncle aunt son or second cousin twice removed who works in the factory and steals entire boxes of cigars for your bargain hunting pleasure.

‘I give you good price! Bon precio!’ However there are a few problems with this, not the least of which is that anyone who has ever taken Economics 101 will tell you there is virtually no chance that something that legitimately costs upwards of $600 can be so easily obtained for $25.

If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. There are plenty of cigar rollers working in shops and resorts in Cuba who roll non-branded cigars, and I am a huge lover of these; they are not Habanos, but they are legitimate hand-rolled cigars. What you buy in the streets (or on the beach, or in mercados, or wherever someone takes you to hawk his wares) may have some tobacco in them… but don’t count on it. My Cuban friends and I call them Banana Leaf Rolls… for exactly the reason you might think.

A true Cuban cigar is made from long leaf filler. If you don’t believe me, cut one open and see. It is clear as day that the filler (and binder) of a Real cigar is made of leaves that go from the cap to the foot. Cut open a Beach Cigar and you will find pieces… not only of leaf, but sticks, floor sweeping, and worse. To say that smoking them is hazardous to your health is an understatement… not to mention just simply wrong.

In conversation with a friend recently they told me ‘hey, even if it is fake, they are still Cuban cigars, right?’ Wrong. There are two ingredients in a Cuban cigar: tobacco, and minute amounts of vegetable glue that binds the cigar together. Beach Cigars have so many unknown and unknowable ingredients, and are terribly unhealthy and unsanitary.

There are plenty of people who come to Cuba to buy cigars and resell them at huge markups in North America. I even know of some such individuals who pay for their entire trips that way… and don’t even smoke. That is their business. I don’t make money off cigars, else this site would be http://www.profitfromcigars.com. That is not to say that I can’t spend a week in Cuba at an all-inclusive resort, buy 50 cigars to bring home, and pay less than I would for the same fifty cigars in Canada. When I ran my own business I was able to do that more often; now I settle for coming when I can get time off.

Cigar smoking is an expensive habit, there’s no doubt about it. If you live in Canada, a Cohiba may cost as much as $90 for a single cigar. There are real bargains in Cuba… the same cigar may cost $35…. that is your bargain. Anyone who tries to sell you a Habanos cigar for less than the Cuban retail price is not offering you a bargain, they are offering you counterfeit goods at huge profit… to them, because you would be wasting your money. If you are still put off by retail price, buy custom-rolls which are usually much cheaper, and often just as good. Fake cigars are just terrible… and the number of people I know who have smoked these phonies, then told me they think Cuban cigars are no better than non-Cubans, is staggering. It is just bad for business.

If every cigar I have been offered in the street had been stolen from the factories, there would hardly be enough left to stock the shelves in Havana, let alone feed the huge export market. Not to mention one simple fact: while tourists are free to do what they like here, Cuba is still a communist dictatorship with a tremendous security infrastructure, to say nothing of the huge penalties for stealing from the state. We are talking years in prison. Visit a cigar factory and look around at the security in place. The cigar rollers (among the highest paid workers in the country) are not going to risk going to jail and ruination… certainly not for cuc25.

If you are lucky enough to take a tour of the cigar factory floor, some of the rollers will offer you cigars (without the bands) at great prices… I once bought 10 Montecristo Edmundos for $40. They can get in trouble for this, but there is no counterfeiting involved… and the cigars are truly fresh and from the source. But unless you are a true expert, the counterfeits in the street will be hard to spot… they do a pretty good job.

Here is a simple rule: if you buy at the LCDH they are real. If you buy elsewhere (including from the hawkers standing right outside the factory) they are not. No exceptions.

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