A thick cloud of smoke hung in the air at Havana's annual cigar festival, where some 200 smokers took part in a novel contest to produce the longest unbroken ash.
Many of the participants, foreigners as well as Cubans, finished with throbbing headaches but smiling faces, laughing and clapping as their smoked-down stogies were transformed into prodigious pillars of ash.
Each smoker started out with a 17.8-centimetre (seven-inch) H Upmann label cigar, an esteemed Cuban brand.
The challenge was to produce one intact ash that came as close as possible to the length of the cigar at the start of the competition.
Contestants sat with heads tilted backwards to prevent the ash from crumbling onto the table -- or onto their faces.
In between puffs, they held their stogies as close as possible to vertical, in a sometimes futile effort to keep them in one piece.
"It was exhausting," said April Angeloni from the United States, whose impressive showing, measuring 13.9 centimetres, was nevertheless some three centimeters too short to win.
The prize went Friday to Olivia Terry, a Cuban journalist who managed to puff through 16.9 centimeters before the ash broke.
"I did not expect such a result," Terry said, adding she just joined for fun.
"It's much harder than it looked," said another participant, Tamara Teixo, a Spaniard who markets Cuban cigars in Russia.
Chilean sommelier Sebastian Pardo said he had unlocked the secret to keeping the gray column of consumed stogie from cascading to the floor.
"You have to have a good pulse and smoke very slowly," he said, adding that it was a challenge because, with all the smoke in the room, "one begins to choke a little."
It was the first time that the contest was held at this annual gathering of cigar aficionados and merchants from around the world, which is meeting this year for the 16th time.
The competition was held Thursday at Havana's convention center, a venue usually reserved for august events involving politicians or foreign statesmen.
Some contestants had to quit, complaining of dizziness and nausea.
But there was at least as much lightheartedness as lightheadedness, as participants gave rave reviews to the event.
"I liked this contest, and I especially liked the flavor of the cigars, which were delicious," said Lazara Anastasia Garcia, who works at a cigar factory in Cuba.
Tobacco is one of Cuba's top exports, behind nickel and biotech products.
Cuban cigar sales were up eight percent last year, reaching $447 million.
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