It all began with the 1959 Cuban revolution, when capitalist Cuban cigar lords found their businesses liquidated into the new socialism. These artisans of the finest cigars in the world quickly gathered illicit caches of the precious tobacco seeds their families had been cultivating for centuries and fled to Miami. From there, it was only a couple of years before they discovered Nicaragua. One grower told Cigar Aficionado magazine that Cuba and Nicaragua “have the most fertile dirt in the world for tobacco. It’s almost like God said, ‘I’m going to pick these two countries and I’m going to use them for tobacco.’”
And so the core of the old Cuban cigar aristocracy moved to Estelí and, with their precious seeds from the homeland, began turning out world-renowned cigars once again. They endured another popular revolution in 1979, the ensuing civil war and land redistribution, and then survived the cigar boom and bust of the 1990s, followed by the waters of Hurricane Mitch that tore through their fields in 1998. But the business is sunk deep into the rich soil, and the handful of familial cigar dynasties that first came to Nicaragua 30 years ago are still here and still rolling world-class cigars.
Most of the tobacco fields and giant wooden drying barns are found across the Estelí valley as it runs north away from the city, as well as in many upper reaches all the way to Jalapa. In Estelí there are about 10 serious cigar producers, a few of which will let travelers in their doors for an informal tour and perhaps a taste test. Most businesses are zona franca (free-trade zone), however, which prohibits them from selling their product within Nicaragua. Cubanica Cigars keep the doors to their Estelí factory shut for another reason: to protect the trade secrets that produce one of the most internationally acclaimed cigars in the world, El Padrón.
Some of the other heavy hitters are Latin Tobacco, Estelí Cigar, Tabacalera Perdomo (formerly Nick’s Cigars), Plasencia and Nicaraguan American Tobacco (NATSA). Don Francisco’s Tabacalero Santiago is the newest company, one that grows and rolls organic tobacco. Although the main tourist office will tell you all the factories in Estelí offer tours, hospitality varies widely. Don Francisco’s production manager can arrange a tour if arranged a day in advance, and Don Kiki of Estelí Cigars can sometimes show visitors around, maybe even over a cup of Cuban coffee and a smoke.
Cigar-making is a proud family tradition in Nicaragua, and there’s no denying the craftsmanship of a fine cigar. But as the blunt you’re smoking burns lower and the heat of the cherry seeps into the leaf between your fingers, consider the yang side. The push for organic tobacco is growing in Nicaragua, but barely; many producers use chemicals, which invariably find their way into the earth, the water or the lungs, hands and feet of the workers.
And the history burns on.
Photo by Larry Johnson