Located just south of the equator and a mere 2,800 miles from the nearest Pep Boys, Nicaragua welcomed us on our journey with open arms. While the country is beautiful with gorgeous mountains and picturesque green fields, the country is very poor. Its economy is based on agriculture items, such as sugar cane, fruits, and, of course, tobacco. Nicaragua is rich in history with tales of brave conquistadors, riotous revolutions, mysterious pirates, and the occasional US intervention but within the last 20 years, a booming cigar industry has transformed many local communities, which in turn keeps many townspeople and villages employed. The country’s character is defined by its incorrigible spirit. Through its numerous trials and current development efforts, Nicaraguans are welcoming, vibrant, and simple.
Now that you know a little history of this beautiful land, let’s get to the business end of this blog. I was one of the chosen few (certainly not because of my good looks) to be part of a memorable business trip to tour the most famous cigar factories in Nicaragua. Our home base for these tours was the historic town of Estelí where most of the factories are located. There are several other nearby regions that grow tobacco but all of the headquarters we visited were located in Estelí.
DAY ONE: WE ARRIVE!
After a very painless flight (thank you, Valium!), we landed at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport in Managua, and readied ourselves for a two-hour minivan journey to scenic downtown Estelí. Ahead of us was an itinerary full of factory tours. We arrived late that afternoon so we only had one factory planned for that day, the famed NACSA. NACSA stands for the Nicaragua American Cigars, S.A., and produces many J•R brands as well as a healthy portfolio of Altadis smokes. This huge operation has 5,000 employees, and produces 87,000 cigars a day, which averages out to about 365 cigars produced by each roller. This was the perfect factory for me to start my journey. Having been with J•R for 25 fantastic years, I’ve grown to love many of the great cigars being produced in this factory. And, as a side note, it was once the former home to master cigar legend Frank Llaneza. Currently his daughter Carol is expertly maintaining the grounds.
The factory was great; if you ever plan a cigar factory tour, get ready to get your ass kicked! Don’t get me wrong, it is something every cigar smoker dreams of doing but after hitting every phase of production in a heavily humidified environment, you have definitely burned off a few million calories! And speaking of calories, the restaurant that we stopped at for lunch had “criadillas” (bull testicles) on the menu but… I just didn’t have the balls to order it! Sorry, that wasn’t even remotely funny; on a more serious note, one of the rollers at the NACSA factory told me in broken English that they taste just like chicken.
DAY TWO: ON THE ROAD AGAIN!
Day two brought us to the factories of A.J. Fernandez and Plasencia, two great companies with equally great cigars. First Plasencia: Started by Cuban immigrant Nestor Plasencia, this factory turns out a veritable who’s who of cigars like Mayorga, Rocky Patel, Alec Bradley, and, of course, my old favorite, the original Plasencia blend. Within moments,the legendary Nestor Plasencia and Nestor Jr., who both head the entire operation, emerged from their offices, and gave us a bag of their finest cigars. Then. Nestor Jr., along with his esteemed crew of cigar experts, enthusiastically showed us around the whole facility, explaining the process from seed to cigar. Overall, it was a great experience but our time was slipping away so it was off the next factory.
Greeting us at his palatial front office on the grounds of the A.J. Fernandez factory was Ricky Somoza, who oversees all of the production for the company. We immediately took a liking to Ricky after he handed us all a hefty bag of free smokes.
Now, here’s a little information about A.J.: He started rolling cigars in Havana, Cuba, at the age of 15. And with just a few bucks in his pocket, he moved to Nicaragua to escape the oppressive Cuban regime. But rolling cigars was not good enough for this ambitious young man. He started a company with just 25 acres and just two pairs of rollers, and began by filling overflow orders for other cigar manufacturers. But his talents for blending would soon create opportunities to make his own cigars. And it sure did, as his first creation; the enormously popular and highly rated San Lotano brand made him an instant celebrity in the stogie world. And within two short years, at the ripe young age of 35, his factory now boasts 3,000-plus employees and 600 acres. He currently produces up to 10 million cigars a year with 180 rollers working in his Estelí factory. His amazing attention to detail (He oversees every aspect of the entire operation), and by limiting each roller to fewer than 200 cigars a day, A.J. is able to maintain an extraordinarily high level of construction quality. He grows tobacco in Nicaragua and Ecuador, and will employ as many as 1,000 workers during the harvest. A.J., a colorful and outspoken man, graciously invited us to his home that evening for drinks, gourmet Nicaraguan food, and, yes… a mariachi band (I’m still trying to figure that one out)!
After the fantastic evening hosted by A.J. we returned to the fabulous Hex Hotel, which looks like a giant Fed Ex sorting facility. I brushed my teeth, gargled with bottled spring water as to avoid spending the evening on the crapper, and quickly passed out within 10 minutes, exhausted from the day’s journey.
TO BE CONTINUED…