Buying Illegal Cuban Cigars on Havana’s Black Market

Recently Chandra and I were able to (legally) travel to Cuba.  This trip  was probably one of our best and most unique experiences abroad.  No place in the world is like Cuba and to experience it is probably the closest thing you’ll get to time travel.  We traveled along with our good friend Brett and one day while Chandra relaxed in the hotel Brett and I set out to procure some authentic Cuban Cigars.

The secret to this man's saggy creased skin and bloody face?  The finest cigars money can buy - Cubans!

The secret to this man’s saggy creased skin and bloody face? The finest cigars money can buy – Cubans!

We had stopped into several tobacco shops and a box of Monte Cristo #4’s was always at least 107 CUCs (roughly $100). FAR too much money for two non-cigar smokers to spend on cigars.  So we had decided to do something a bit unconventional – try to buy them on the black market instead.  Why not?  We had been shopping the shops right around Parque Central in the middle of Havana and it took about 10 seconds after walking out of the tobacco shop before a guy casually walked past us saying “cigars – good price”.   It was on.

Traffic in Havana Cuba has basically looked exactly the same since the early 1960's

Traffic in Havana Cuba has basically looked exactly the same since the early 1960’s

What sort of good price? Well that was yet to be negotiated. We were asked to follow the guy (we’ll call him Carl) down a side street. Carl was a black Cuban and seemed nice enough.  We walked a couple blocks outside the square down a street that no tourists were venturing down and into the entry way of an apartment building.  The entry way was only about 10 feet deep by 4 feet wide and was really just a base of the stairs leading up to the apartment building that was home to about 70 people.  Here we met Carl’s “colleague” who works in the cigar factory and started to get a sense of how this business comes together. Carl apparently felt no threat from us as he was willing to explain how the whole operation works with basically no prodding.

The guy you choose to buy cigars from illegally on the street should look absolutely nothing like this.

The guy you choose to buy cigars from illegally on the street should look absolutely nothing like this.

Basically, Guys like Carl’s friend basically just steal the cigars from the factory everyday when leaving work (sometimes they get a few cigars for free to be fair).  A few cigars one day and a few more the next day and eventually you have a box of cigars (25).  Next you have to steal the individual pieces of the boxes along with the cigar bands and the labels and you can then reconstruct the finished product off-site.  Now you have a completed box of real Cuban cigars ready to sell for 100% profit.

All Cuban cigars are made by hand in factories that don't even need electricity to operate.  Making Cuban cigars is an art.  They are perfectly wrapped - not like those Dominican cigars - they're too tight!

All Cuban cigars are made by hand in factories that don’t even need electricity to operate. Making Cuban cigars is an art. They are perfectly wrapped – not like those Dominican cigars – they’re too tight!

After some negotiating we decided on a price. 60 CUCs for two boxes of Montecristo #4’s (roughly $30/box).  In any store in the area the same thing would sell for 214 CUCs.  But who cares? As soon as he explained the operation it was clear that anything they get for these cigars is money in the pocket – so why not? At 60 CUCs for two boxes everyone was happy. And we had a deal. Now we needed to get the cigars. This was a bit more of a problem.

Apparently they can’t keep everything in one place so there is a network of runners going from location to location as customers place orders. Carl had originally brought two boxes of Cohiba (the best of the best) but when we wanted the slightly more mild Montecristo #4’s he had to send runners to get the boxes from elsewhere. In just a few minutes the three Cuban men standing guard outside the door parted and a young Cubano came through the entry way, pulled up his shirt and revealed a box of Montecristos underneath tucked into his pants. The first box had arrived.  We examined it and it looked identical to the boxes we had seen in the shops. Knowing that these cigars being stolen was FAR more likely then counterfeit, we felt comfortable with the deal.  The second box was a bit harder to come by.

Since it was going to take awhile to coordinate its arrival (remember, nobody has cellphones) we settled in for a bit of a wait.  We declined invitations to follow Carl and his associates to another location to pick it up. We also declined the invitation to come upstairs and relax in the living room while we waited for it to arrive. And inevitably we also declined the offer of some prostitutes that were coming and going as we waited.  It was an interesting scene.  Throughout all this we were laughing and joking with Carl and his friend and he was telling us how bad life in Cuba is. They gave us some coins with Che Guavera on them.  Cuba uses two currencies (one for locals and one for visitors) so this was our first opportunity to see the local currency first-hand. It was actually a pretty interesting encounter.

Montecristo #4 fine Cuban Cigars ready for smoking!

Montecristo #4 fine Cuban Cigars ready for smoking!

In the end they also asked us for any sort of clothing we could spare. T-shirts, shorts, anything. We didn’t have anything of course and we felt bad that we couldn’t help them out. Regardless though – the 60 CUCs that we paid them is roughly four months of a Cuban salary!  So at least there’s that. Plus buying stolen cigars on the street puts money into the hands of everyday Cubans instead of into the hands of the government-owned Cigar industry. So oddly enough – buying black market cigars in Cuba is kinda the more ethical thing to do.   I suppose that statement depends on where you fall on the political spectrum.

As we finished the deal I packed up the cigars in a shopping bag and Brett walked out first.  He turned left and a police officer thrust out his arm stopping Brett in his tracks. I think our hearts both skipped a few beats there for a second until we realized that side of the street had just been closed and we were being told to cross.  Whew!

Chandra enjoying the fruit of our illegal labor.  A fine Cuban cigar.

Chandra enjoying the fruit of our illegal labor. A fine Cuban cigar.

In case you are wondering, bringing cigars from Cuba back into the United States is illegal and in violation of the 1963 Cuban Embargo.  If you get stopped with cigars they will most likely be confiscated.  But…you probably won’t get stopped.

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5 Responses to “Buying Illegal Cuban Cigars on Havana’s Black Market”

  1. cigarmilt
    January 20, 2014 at 8:08 am #

    Well you just described one of the oldest cigar scams going. The cigars are counterfit, the fact is not everyone works in a cigar factory. The reality is if you buy them on the street they are not real. The best you could hope for is they used cheaper cigars just changed the bands. I have had many trips to Cuba and have smoked Habanos for years. Bottom line is I hope you enjoyed your cigars, if you did great you beat the odds.

    • David DiGregorio
      January 20, 2014 at 8:27 am #

      You could certainly be right. But we really enjoyed the experience as well as the cigars!

      • cigarmilt
        January 21, 2014 at 8:12 pm #

        David, I am so glad you enjoyed the experience, that is what travel abroad is all about. Cheers.

  2. Николай
    January 30, 2014 at 5:24 am #

    Hey guys. I must say that the dont steel cigars from tha fabric! The get 2 cigars per day, amd others they make themselves. I bought a box of MonteCristo #3 myself for 45 CUCs, and some of them were great – like the ones i tried on the factory and some was really shit… But still – it worth the price))

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  1. 5 Ways Technology Is Ruining Travel - Vagabondish - August 13, 2013

    […] If you search for how to buy Cuban cigars in Cuba on Google, you’ll get hundreds of pages that insist your only option is the government shops and guys on the street are a big mistake. But ignorantly seeking out “off-market” cigars led us to a glimpse of Cuban reality we never could have had on our own. […]

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