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|| News Item: Posted 2001-01-23

The Count on Cigars: Havana, Rum & Baseball
By Eric Risberg

Photo by
The game was over. The Raiders had lost, the pictures were sent, and now it was time to make my way out of the broken glass, twisted metal, smoldering barbeque coals, and all that was left of the Raider Nation at the some corporate name Coliseum in Oakland. While waiting for a couple of colleagues to join me at a neighborhood pub in San Francisco for dinner after the game, I bumped into a longtime sports photographer I have known for 25 years. He said, "I've got a bone to pick with you. What is this cigar stuff? I just don't get it. I thought the shooter was supposed to be about sports photography. What's next, stories about wine, travel, and golf?"

This isn't the first time I've been asked this question. I explained to my friend that what I was trying to do was to get photographers to think about enjoying themselves, whether it be with cigars or some other passion - in other words, to be able to find a way to relax from what can be a stressful profession. Simply put, it just isn't all about photography all the time.

Following that line of thought, here's a reflection on my most recent trip to Havana this winter. It will be about travel, rum, not wine, and maybe just a scent of a cigar and a hint ofphotography.

The evening flight from Cancun to Havana was full as usual. This time, instead of many horny American men clutching their latest Cigar Aficionado magazine issue containing a travel guide to Cuba, the flight was filled with many doctors and nurses carrying medical supplies to a country that continues to feel the effects of a 40-year-old trade embargo. So began my recent trip to this mysterious island, to a place where in many ways time has stood still and one is transported back in time - to the year 1959, or even 1859 when walking through some sections of Old Havana.

While I have to admit that it was my interest in cigars that initially led me to Cuba, I think that cigars are really just one of many interests that have piqued my fascination with the isolated island. Since my first visit a few years ago, I have continued to discover new things, and this recent trip was no exception. For those with an interest in photography, music, rum, cigars, old cars, architecture, or fishing, Cuba has to be one of the most amazing places to experience these treasures. It is a place where you can roam with a camera, with endless picture possibilities at every turn.

For those who have thought of going, you might consider going soon before it changes too much. Each time I visit, I notice more change and slowly see Cuba beginning to catch up with time and gradually beginning to resemble the rest of the world.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
After wandering the streets of Havana during the day, the evening highlight was going to Havana's many music clubs. The clubs don't open until after 11 p.m., the music gets really hot around 3 a.m., and the clubs often close after 6 a.m. The experience of the visit is so intoxicating that you want to enjoy as much as you can, and you get an extra energy boost from the excitement of being there. My traveling companions, fellow photographers Dan Coyro of the Santa Cruz Sentinel and Kevork Djansezian of the AP in Los Angeles, typically would only get a couple of hours sleep each night during our stay and would sometimes take a brief nap in the afternoon.

The music we heard ranged from hearing older women soloists belting out old Cuban tunes at the Gato Tuerte club across from the Nacional Hotel to hearing the sensational eight-piece all woman's group, Canella, perform in the underground jazz club, LaZorro el y Cuervo. While listening to the music, we would enjoy a large churchill or double corona-sized cigar along with either a mojito, daiquiri, or Cuba Libre. The combination of the rum, the cigar, and music gets inside you and lets you easily lose track of the hour.

I have always wanted to experience Cuban baseball, especially since the Orioles played a couple of games with the Cuban team. The Cuban baseball season begins in the winter and ends just before May. On this trip, we learned that the two Havana teams, the Industriales and Metropolitans, were playing an evening game at the Stadio Latinamericano. (This would be the equivalent of the Yankees playing the Mets at Yankee Stadium.)

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
After taking a taxi to the stadium, we found a lone entrance in right field and made our way into the stadium. Before getting out of the taxi, I said to Dan, "I think we should ask the taxi to come back at a certain time, because I think we may have trouble getting out of here." He said we'd be fine. There were no parking lots, no other taxis, buses, or anything, just a neighborhood of houses and a few businesses.

Inside the sparsely filled stadium, we made our way into seats behind home plate. Young boy after young boy tried to sell us autographed baseballs for $5 with balls and autographs so worn you could hardly read them.

After half an inning, it began to rain lightly and we went in search of some food. The only food we could find was one man cutting some meat from a bone for sandwiches and one ice cream stand with a very long line. We found the hall of fame similar to the statues in center field at Yankee Stadium. Next thing we knew it began to pour rain, a siren sounded, and the lights went out in the stadium. The game had been called. It was now raining so hard nobody was going anywhere. Another young boy came up to us and asked us if he could get us anything. We told him we needed a taxi. About a half hour later, he found us one. We were happy to get out of the soaking experience and make our way to dinner at a private paladar restaurant, La Guarida, where the movie Strawberry and Chocolate was filmed near Old Havana.

Photo by
One of the favorite parts of the trip was getting the opportunity to learn more about rum, including visiting the museum of rum, having free run of a rum factory, and tasting rums that I had never tasted before. Near Old Havana, my friends and I visited the Casa del Ron Museo where we were able to tour a very lifelike model of a large rum factory modeled after a Havana Club factory located outside Havana. We also learned about the history of rum and the importance of it relating to tourism and the production of sugar cane. But what turned out to be our biggest surprise was meeting the manager of the one small rum factory located in Havana and getting invited for a tour and tasting.

After visiting countless wineries, I had never visited a rum factory and was quite curious to see one. Quite the opposite of a Napa winery, the Bocoy rum factory in Havana did not disappoint. Looking like a neo-Classical building with columns and rows of swans along the lower patio, the inside was very industrial with concrete floors and walls on the ground floor where all the barrels filled with rum were stacked in the aging room. What was fascinating was the smell -- aromas of caramel, molasses, peach, and alcohol. It was also interesting to see the aging master blender checking the various barrels.

At this point, the rangefinder camera came out. I started shooting everything around me while listening to the blender talk about how rum is made. We spent a good hour just wandering the floor of the aging room
Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
soaking up the smells and sights of the factory. After our tour, we were escorted into the factory manager's private tasting room and were asked numerous questions about what we thought of the factory and how could they get more people to come there. It was at this factory where we tried the Legendario extraseco (very dry) rum that is only made at this factory. It was here where we were able to find the rum that Cubans call the very best, the 12-year-old Metusalem which is made in the former Bacardi plant in Santiago. We were invited on our next trip to come back and spend as much time as we like at the factory.

As for cigars: While I was excited to see the shelves full of torpedos such as Upmann and Montecristo No. 2's, along with some belicosos available for the first time, it seemed like there was lots of quantity, but not as much quality. Most of the wrappers were very light, and in some cases they were green. A couple of store managers said to us that customers had told them some of their favorite cigars did not taste exactly the way they were supposed to. Checking the boxes, we noticed that many of the cigars on store shelves had just been rolled the month before. Many of these cigars stilled smelled of ammonia and were way too young to smoke. Some were spongelike and appeared even wet. However, we were able to enjoy some excellent smaller cigars that had been aged, including the new San Cristobal de La Habana principe -- a great after breakfast/lunch cigar.

A few final thoughts: Cuba is getting very popular. It was filled with more tourists than I have ever seen there before. There were many tourists from Europe, especially from Spain, and even the American Jewish Congress was having its meeting in Havana. A number of the places made famous by Hemingway that you could quietly walk into a few years ago now have tour buses and vans lined up outside. A number of the restaurants that used to be good were not as good; however the best meals are to be found in many of the private paladars that operate out of people's homes. At one called LaCasa, we had an excellent meal, in a '50s home with '50s d├ęcor. The manager of this paladar told us that Caroline Kennedy was just there the week before having dinner.

Photo by Eric Risberg

Photo by Eric Risberg
On photography: On this trip, most of the photography I did was with a Canon S100 digital Elph camera, and I shot black and white film with a Contax G2 rangefinder camera. The Elph was a great companion, especially when I compare the size to the Canon/Kodak DCS520 I lug around every day.

For the diehard cigar aficionados out there: I found a cigar-themed hotel in the old section called Hotel Conde de Villeneuve. The suites are cigar-themed after popular brands, and they contain photos of the growing region and factories.

My favorite spot in Havana: El Relicario cigar bar at the Melia Cohiba. You can just sit there and relax with rum and a cigar; the attendants use cedar to personally light your cigar for you. They have a great cigar selection, and you can buy individually. It's cool to walk in and order from a "cigar menu."

Until next time,
The Count

("The Count," Eric Risberg, is a staff photographer with the Associated Press in the San Francisco Bay Area. He regularly writes for Sports Shooter on cigars and life and how to enjoy both.)

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