I headed for Cienfuegos from Trinidad. Many actually suggested that I gave this town a miss. I though I’ll see for myself. Caught the Viazul bus at 7.45am. I had booked my accommodation through Nilda. A bicitaxi man picked me up and dropped at the Casa Regla. The room was small and an even smaller bathroom. No windows but the door had some slits on them. All these for 25CUC! I would not suggest this place to anyone unless they dropped the price.

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I was out onto the streets with a rather uncertain tummy. Yet, the exploration goes on. I walked across the wide Paseo El Prado. Soon I met with two famous Cuba’s personalities – a bronze statue of local boy Benny More, a musician and vocalist, on Prado. Looking from above is an oversized poster of Che Guevara, a revolutionary leader.  They made an odd couple. People gathered on this street to chat and rest. It was exposed to the sun as shade was limited. Close to the La Union Hotel, I had breakfast. Bicitaxi peddlers waited looking for their next fare on the street with an unused rail track in the middle. I ventured further into a pedestrian only boulevard. I slowly dragged my weakened body across this street packed with people and ended at the Parque Jose Marti. Heavy smell of fumes from buses and lorries hung heavily in the hot late morning air. It was a hot day with only a few people wandering this park. However, on its peripheral, restaurants and retails shop were doing brisk business. I visited the Palacio de Gobierno. All the explanation were in Spanish and only a few artefacts and exhibits were on display. Across the plaza, the grand neo-classical Catedral de la Purisima. The architecture, classical faded colonial grandeur, here is quite different from other places I had visited. They are grand and definitely make a statement. A great place to people-watch. Strangely, I noticed several Che portraits but not Castro. It was extraordinarily hot and humid in Cienfuegos. To escape the heat, I entered a shoe shop. It was temporary bliss – air condition.

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I took a tour of Montero Cigar Factory close to the train station. . A local bicitaxi guy took me there. Unfortunately, all the explanation was in Spanish. In this factory, dried tobacco leaves are purchased, processed and distributed as handmade cigars. Only a handful of staff were on the floor today. Most were women and interestingly, only less than twenty percent smoked. Most work around eight hours a day. The graded leaves, slightly transparent and moist, are handed over to individual staff member. The initial process is to remove the midrib and stack the halves. These leaves are then moved to the ‘rolling’ room. About ten leaves are rolled tightly and placed onto a mold which is pressed for about twenty minutes. At this stage they do resemble a cigar but ‘rough’. The final part of the processing is to use high quality leaves as the casing and smaller cut pieces onto the ends. Plant resin from Canada is used to glue the leaves. The process is complete – a handmade Cuban cigar.  It looks simple enough but the skills required is in the experience. In this factory, all kinds of brands are made based on leaf quality – Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas, a more. Each worker is not confined to making one ‘type’ of make. It depends on the quality of leaves given (plus the experience required for the expensive ones). An adjacent room is dedicated to making various grades for the domestic market. All the cigars are then checked for quality and eventually packed into boxes. All the finished products are sold to one company – Habanero, a state owned entity. As we passed a locked room, the guide mentioned that this is where the most expensive leaves are kept. All the products are distributed through two companies, both subsidiaries of the Habanero Company.

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