“Tales from El Cocodrilo” by Trevor Olsen | Cigar Reviews by the Katman

Long time reader, and friend, Trevor Olsen, recently visited Cuba for pleasure. Trevor is a Canadian and had no issues, problems or restrictions, like newly visiting Americans have.
He was kind enough to put his trip in writing for all of us to enjoy.
So…enjoy!

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Tales from El Cocodrilo

Written by Trevor Olsen

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Habana captures your every sense.

We walked almost everywhere, aside from a cigar hunting expedition in the embassy district of Miramar, amongst the bustling labyrinth of narrow, unrestored streets of Old Habana. Your eyes are treated to architectural delights created when the baroque and neoclassic styles were hip. Many of these buildings have been standing well before your great-great-great-grandfather walked the earth; the sheer amount of history of this city is both amazing and overwhelming. Walking on the crumbling cobblestone streetscape, you are flanked by centuries-old courtyards, plazas, and cathedrals. The tropical heat radiates from the old and sometimes crumbling stone buildings like a forge and any wind gust greets you with a kaleidoscope of smells. People in first-world countries have forgotten what life used to smell like: soil, sewer, oily diesel fumes, body odor, cooked food, and tobacco.

And the noise! Habana is a cacophony of diesel engines roaring, carefully inserted into classic American automobiles, people shouting and laughing, dogs barking, and horns blaring. The only way to escape the constant soundscape is to rise above it and escape to a rooftop patio or perhaps flee into the bowels of a (hopefully) air-conditioned building.

For our Habana leg of the trip, my wonderful girlfriend and I stayed in a casa particular – which is a government-licensed lodging similar to a B&B. This is one of the best ways to experience Cuba. We stayed with a wonderful family in the heart of Old Habana. They were very kind and welcoming, which is a nice change of pace from the coldness and aloofness we experienced from some resort employees. I don’t blame the resort staff; it’s a difficult, thankless job. All of the resort staff is university-educated yet work long hours for little pay. These jobs are the ‘good’ jobs in Cuba. Plus they have to deal with asshole tourists who don’t understand why they can’t have ice in their drink. Like many things in Cuba; sometimes there’s ice, sometimes there isn’t.

Many people don’t realize the vast discrepancy between Cuban and North American lifestyles. Did you know that the average Cuban only makes around $17-30 USD a month?!? Yes, this includes doctors. Try wrapping your head around that one. This means that Cuban cigar rollers cannot afford to purchase the cigars they roll; it would cost them a half-month of wages just to purchase one premium cigar. Sure they get their rice and bananas from the government for free, but it’s a hard, hard life for Cubans to make ends meet. Forget 7-Eleven, Starbucks, or Walmart. That shit doesn’t exist down there (yet?) and the only billboards you will see shout ‘Viva la Revolución!’ to the populace.

Resort food is less than to be desired for, but, Habana’s paladares are nothing short of world-class. We ate at several locations throughout the city and were blown away every time at how delicious and affordable the food was. One paladare, named Castropol, overlooks the Malecón and we had the privilege to dine on the balcony and watch the sunset bleed through the blackened silhouette of the Hotel Nacional before plunging into the Gulf of Mexico. Fresh sole, pan-fried in garlic butter, with fried bacon and tomato-stuffed plantains, washed down with cold bottles of Cristal beer. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Or can it?

“Look! It’s her!” I whispered to my girlfriend as we entered the wood paneled La Casa del Habano. After weaving our way through the expansive and blessedly cool basement terrarium of the Meliá Habana Hotel we were greeted with a smile by none other than Yolanda Medina.

Yolanda is arguably one of Cuba’s finest torecedores and her custom-rolled cigars have been wowing cigar lovers for decades. She has rolled cigars for about 48 years or so and worked her way up to production manager at multiple factories. She left the Partagas factory in the late 90’s to take up shop at the Meliá Habana and has been there since. One advantage of being a torcedor of such legendary status is she personally gets to select what tobacco she wants to use for her cigars.

After gathering my wits, I meekly approached the small vertical humidor cabinet to peruse her latest offerings. I was instantly gob-smacked by how affordable these cigars were. $3.50 for a corona? $4.00 for a robusto? Madness! My internal thoughts were something like this: MINE ALL OF THEM MINE I WANT THEM ALL DUTY FREE LIMITS BE DAMNED. With all of that nonsense out of the way, I selected a conservative number of coronas, my favorite vitola – à la Katman, and rejected the urge to grab a bundle or two.

Walking like a man in a dream I approached the walk-in humidor with my thoughts buzzing like little bees.

After visiting a few cigars stores in Cuba you start to get a feel for their offerings. Most shops sell the same brands and sizes with the majority of them being relatively fresh. However, treasures can be found if you take the time to travel out of the way and dig around a bit.
Nope. Nope. Nope. Jackpot. I spun the cabinet of Punch Double Coronas around to spy a sexy box date of May 2011. After quickly flicking my eyes towards the price sticker, I heard a quiet whimpering sound and realized it was my wallet. These puppies ain’t cheap.

Even though my wonderful and beautiful girlfriend thinks I’m nuts, she’s very supportive of said craziness. After a brief internal debate at the thought of blowing the majority of my cigar budget all at once, she said, “When and where are you ever going to find a box of those that are that old?” She’s an amazing woman.

I kindly asked the proprietor if I could inspect the cigars for mold and those little beetle bastards and he responded with gusto in a deep and odd-sounding voice, “Of courrrse my friend…” Think of blending a clichéd Mafioso movie Don with a Spanish Fred Flintstone and you would be in the ballpark of what he sounded like.

He carefully slid open the lid of the massive cedar cube placed on the glass counter before us and peeled back the protective wax paper. A nightmarish vision of cracks, exposed binders, and jagged hairline fractures screamed up at us from under the silky yellow ribbon and it appeared that this malignant infection had spread to quite a few of the outer cigars. My gut dropped. I felt devastated after taking the time to calm my wallet down from its earlier panic attack.
The proprietor, whom I will lovingly call Don Pedro Picapiedra (the Spanish translation of Fred Flintstone), calmly looked up at me and said, “Don’t worrrry my friend. Yolanda can fix theeese. “YOLANNNDAA!”

That’s the perk of having such a skilled artisan take residence in your cigar shop. Don Pedro Picapiedra explained it would take about half an hour for Yolanda to work her magic. This provided me with the perfect opportunity to sample one of her custom coronas and pair it with some strong Cuban coffee. We stood and watched, transfixed in the delicious peppery, pungent smoke as Yolanda carefully unbanded the afflicted cigars one by one. Next, she removed the damaged wrappers and fortunately, only about five or six cigars out of 50 were affected. The new, chocolaty wrappers were rolled on lickety-split and her ancient-looking chaveta went to work whisking away the excess wrapper leaf. After the caps and bands were re-applied with fresh gomma, she proudly showed us her wizardry before carefully lowering them into the box.
I thanked her kindly for her assistance and carefully shook her hand. She replied, “De nada.”

Returning to our Varadero resort proved to be quite the adventure in itself. It was a perfect storm of hastiness, the inability to speak Spanish better than a one-year-old child, and simple inexperience.

After thanking our wonderful casa particular hosts for their hospitality and kindness, we trundled with our bags over to the old, antique elevator, slid the worn lattice gate closed, and made our way down to the din of Old Habana to fetch ourselves a cab.

Legitimate cabs in Cuba are government-licensed and display little yellow stickers on their windshield. However, due to the crushing poverty, many citizens opt to do a little driving on the side to help make ends meet. There are no shortages of cabs in Habana, that’s for sure.
We flagged down the first cab we saw, which was a dark blue steel behemoth made when John F. Kennedy was pumping hands and kissing babies. As the car drew closer my internal sketch-o-meter’s arrow flicked steadily to the right.

Varadero’s resort strip lies approximately 150 kilometers (93 miles) away to the east of Habana and should take approximately 2 hours to get there by car or 3.7 weeks by bus. I knew these statistics but in hindsight I don’t think the cab driver did. After asking several people beforehand, we determined that this jaunt would cost about $80 CUCs ($80 USD) and anything more than that would be unacceptable. Never agree to the first price a cab driver offers as almost everything is marked up to take advantage of us capitalistic gringos.

Leaning inside the car window I attempted to convey our request by employing a combination of ridiculous swooping hand motions and signals, paired with poorly-spoken Spanish words and numbers. Once the driver understood we wanted to go Varadero and how much we wanted to pay, he traced the number ‘80’ on his palm with a tobacco stained finger for confirmation. “Si!” we replied. He cocked his head and thought about it momentarily and agreed to the terms and conditions of our agreement.

Being in a rush to make a dinner reservation we decided to hire him; take a chance, shit your pants.

The first red flag raised was his inability to open the car’s trunk and we were advised by pointing gestures and incomprehensible Spanish that our suitcase would have to ride in the back with us. Ok, no big deal, we’ll use it as armrest. We arranged ourselves on the plush cherry-red leather bench seat (with matching ceiling!) which sagged generously beneath our sweaty bottoms. Flapping my hand behind me paired with a visual inspection confirmed that the car contained no seatbelts whatsoever.

With a belch of stinky diesel smoke and a roar, we made our departure towards the Tunnel de La Habana – which dives under the Canal de Entrada and is fiercely guarded by the historic San Salvador de la Punta Fortress.

With all windows cranked open, the incoming wind was a welcome relief from the onslaught of radiant heat that pumped from what I assumed to be was an old Soviet-era tractor engine. Road noise from this beast was at an all-time high as we rocketed down the beautiful coastline. Cuba really is a tropical paradise and the turquoise and azure rocky seascape made the constant bench seat spring pokes to my ball sack slightly more bearable.

After we crested a long hill halfway through our journey, we suddenly decelerated from what could be an indeterminate speed, as the speedometer maintained a steady-state of zero mph, to a standstill on the side of the road next to a farmer’s field. Our driver flung open and slammed his door, and rapidly walked away leaving my girlfriend and to endure the escalating, muggy heat and listen to the sound of a steadily ticking engine. I craned my neck, looked behind us and saw that our driver was walking towards the policia. Mierda!

Remember that little yellow sticker I told you about earlier? Yeah, our cab didn’t have one. In our hastiness, we neglected to check before we got in to see if our driver had an official government license.

Before we went to Cuba I did a little research on Cuban taxis and discovered a few unsettling stories of tourists being stranded on the side of the road with their luggage, left alone with the choice of thumbing a ride or walking towards some unknown destination. Police officers can easily impound an unlicensed taxi driver’s car and arrest the poor fellow if they do not have a license. Gulp.

With oily beads of sweat trickling down my face I quickly explained to my girlfriend the possibility of us experiencing an exciting, authentic Cuban adventure. She was not entirely enamored with the idea and truthfully, neither was I.

Our driver turned and started the walk of shame towards us (solo!) and lumbered back into the cab. He fired up the engine and fanned a yellow ticket at us while muttering what I’m sure were profanities aimed at the policeman and drove away. Our once unknowable speed could safely be assumed to be the speed limit.

Varadero is a both a resort town and a large resort area spread across a 20 kilometer (12.5 mile) long and 1.2 kilometer (0.75 mile) wide peninsula that juts like a middle finger towards the Bahamas. I like to think the locals imagine it’s aimed at Florida.

It turns out my girlfriend and I knew more about Varadero’s geography than our driver did because he appeared quite flummoxed as we waved him on to continue away from the town proper. Shoulder checking and looking back at me he said, “Varadero, si?” I once again used my tried and true nonsense communication methods to direct him onwards.

The resorts are all located on the north side of the peninsula, fringing on an incredible white sand beach. Wading into the calm, shallow water feels like you are slipping into a bathtub. The resorts expand outward from the town site linearly based on their age. Resorts closest to the town were built many, many decades ago and closer you get to the point, the newer the resort will be. Of course, our resort was right near the point.

Every side road was met with frantic turning gestures by our driver with us responding, “No! Keep going!” This was usually met with a roll of his eyes and the word “far”. Si, si. It’s far.
Faint Latin music greeted my ringing ears as I opened my wallet to gladly pay our driver and escape this monstrosity of an automobile. After the incessant noise of Old Habana the sound of a light breeze, faint crashing waves, and tinkling of glasses was a peaceful relief.

Our poor, frustrated driver rumbled away in the Blue Beast most likely saddened by knowing that his drive was only halfway over and he would have to return to Habana a with a little less money than was expected thanks to that speeding ticket. Methinks he regretted our agreed upon terms and conditions.

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