The highlands of north-west Nicaragua have the perfect climate for growing two plants that have become massively important to the country’s economy – coffee and tobacco. Whereas the mountainous departments of Jinotega and Matagalpa are in coffee country, Estelí department is famous for its tobacco fields and cigars. And having missed out on seeing a cigar factory in Honduras (due to it being closed for Easter), Estelí presents the perfect opportunity to see how these famous stogies are made.
Nicaragua’s cigar industry was started by Cuban immigrants, who fled Cuba after the revolution in 1959. They took their tobacco seeds with them (and their growing and curing techniques, too). The USA’s government’s embargo against Cuba in 1963 (making it illegal for Americans to possess Cuban products) also helped, by popularising non-Cuban cigars. And since then, Nicaragua has become almost as famous, popular, and well-regarded as Cuba for its cheroots.
I book a half-day tour with Tree Huggers, a tour agency run by a lovely and helpful English lady, Jane (aka Juanita), who’s lived in Estelí for years, and who knows more about the area than most locals. My Nicaraguan guide takes me in a taxi, past the few remaining bombed-out and bullet-holed buildings that are a testament to the strategically-located and left-wing city’s unfortunate role in Nicaragua’s revolution (when the Sandinista stronghold was heavily bombed by the Somoza regime), all the way to the factory of the Cuban-owned Tabacalera Santiago, on the outskirts of town.
Even the security guard on the other side of the front gate has a fat cigar in his mouth. The enormous, yellow-and-blue factory is arranged around a courtyard with a tinkling fountain in the centre. And already, there’s a sweet smell in the air coming from the surrounding buildings…
In a slightly-strange, reverse-order-kind-of-way, the first room that we visit is the woodworking shop and packing area, where hundreds of cedar-wood boxes are made and stored, to house and transport the final product. There’s no work going on, just two young guys smoking cigars and reading newspapers. But the smell of freshly-cut wood is (to my nose, anyway) even nicer than the sweet aroma of fine cigars.
Then we visit the fermentation area, where thousands of tobacco leaves from the surrounding fields are baled up and cured, for up to a year. Like the roasting of coffee beans, the curing of the tobacco leaves is the main thing that affects the smell and taste of the final cigar. So leaves from the same field can end up with entirely different tastes, depending on the type and length of the curing process.
The room is full of leaves, all slowly cooking in their own juices, and with giant thermometers and barometers on the wall measuring the temperature and humidity. But the one immediate aspect of the room is the smell – the fumes are incredibly intense, and not in a sweet-smoky-aromatic way, more like in a bleach-squirted-in-eyeballs way. The ammonia (one of several impurities) that’s being sweated from the leaves scorches the eyes and throat. And after five minutes or so, I have to make my excuses and go back outside, coughing and watery-eyed; I’ve no idea how people can work all day in there.
Next up is the drying room. Once the leaves have fermented, they’re left to dry, on racks, for anything up to a year. Then they’re sorted, into either filler leaves (the tobacco inside the cigar), binders (the leaves that hold the filler together), or wrappers (the outer layer).
Next door, a room full of women are seated round a huge table, each one with a pile of dried tobacco leaves in front of her. Their job is to strip the main vein from the middle of each leaf (which ensures that the filler burns evenly when the cigar is smoked). They also place the stripped leaves into matching piles according to their colour, i.e., which shade of brown they are (although, they all just look brown to me).
In the enormous rolling room, teams of rollers (one male and one female) sit at stations making the final cigar. The men take five leaves and roll them together loosely in their hands, before pressing the hand-made cigar into a hand-operated rolling machine (My guide tells me that men have to do this part, as the rolling machine requires “man’s muscles”!). Once rolled, the cigar goes into a mould, which is then placed in a vice, to ensure that it holds its shape. Shaped and pressed cigars are taken out of the moulds by the women, who place the cigar on a wrapper leaf, cut the leaf, and then roll it around the cigar, securing it all together with vegetable-based adhesive. The final touch is a small circle of wrapper, glued on to the top. The whole process takes less than a minute, and looking around the room at all the rollers, and the machine-like speed and precision with which they do their jobs, I’m not too surprised when the guide tells me that the factory produces a whopping 30,000 cigars per day.
I even get to have a go myself – although, at my rate of working, the factory would be lucky to produce 30 cigars a day. And I still need a considerable amount of help from the professional rollers to produce a stogie that looks vaguely acceptable; but eventually I have my own handmade cigar, the length and girth of a Polish sausage. And when I’m done, the guide kindly lights up my finished cigar for me, and we complete the rest of the tour with me puffing away – in a building full of paper, cardboard, wood, tobacco, and every other flammable material you can think of. I get the impression that Nicaraguan health and safety isn’t as stringent as in other countries…
The factory makes a range of different cigars under different brands (one of the most popular is the spectacularly-named Rocky Patel Vintage Torpedo). And in the last room, yet more ladies are packaging up the different brands of cigars into different boxes (most of the cigars are destined for export, mainly to the USA and Europe). At the end of the room is a storage area full of cigars, stacked up high on shelves like stockpiles of missiles in a silo, some with their pointy ends protruding, as if to make the weapon analogy even more obvious.
At the end of the tour is the ‘showroom’ – a slightly fancy description for a shop that you can smoke in. But, with cigars retailing here from 1US$ upwards, it’s many times cheaper than what you’d pay for the same thing abroad. Hence the popularity of the tours, and Nicaraguan puros in general…