One of the world’s cigars capitals is a little town called Estelí, in the Northern Highlands of Nicaragua. Cigar factories spot this city where you can visit and buy some quality “tubes” to take home, too, if you like.
Estelí became a kind of refuge to Cuban cigar makers during the Cuban revolution in 1959. The people brought with them the knowledge of growing the tobacco and making the cigars, and nowadays Estelí produces top rated Nicaraguan cigars that are some of the world’s best ones.
Getting to Estelí
Unless you have a car, you have to take a bus to Estelí. There are quite good and frequent connections to Estelí from many cities, but of course, some of the buses are Ruteados (aka chicken buses), and they are not a comfortable transportation.
We took a minibus from León, which took about 2,5 hours. Minibuses are practically minivans with 12-15 seats, so they are much more comfortable than Ruteados and usually faster, too.
Visiting a Cigar Factory
Visiting a cigar factory is one of the must things to do when you’re in Estelí. Even if you don’t smoke, the experience is exciting. On a tour, you can see how the cigars are made, from picking the right leaves for particular cigars to packing them for export.
All of the cigars are handmade from start to finish, and you can’t but admire the craftsmanship of the workers who are rolling the cigars at maximum speed. Your guide will tell you detailed information about the cigars and the making process while you can watch a factory at work from close range.
We visited a smaller facility, which was located near our accommodation and produced “only” 5000 cigars/day. This factory was also one of the most traditional ones. There are also places, which produce as much as 10000-15000 cigars/day, but in these factories, the making processes are more industrialized.
The price of a tour varies. There are many places from where you can book a cigar tour, for example from the Treehuggers (a hostel and a tour organizer in town), but almost any hotel or a Bed & Breakfast can book you one. We paid 6 USD/pp and booked through our B&B, which got us a private tour for just the two of us with an excellent Spanish speaking guide, called Darwin.
Making a Cigar Is an Art Form in Itself
Only the darker tobacco leaves grow in Nicaragua. The stronger tasting cigars are made of these leaves. The milder tasting cigar leaves grow i.e. in Ecuador.
The lighter leaves cannot be grown in Nicaragua because the climate is too cold. The real taste of a cigar depends on the climate in which the leaves are grown, and the leaves also differ in their thickness, color, and smell. So there are many different choices of combinations to make different shaped, sized, and tasting cigars. Even if you’re not an expert, you can smell the difference between the different leaves your guide will give you to try out.
The cigars have their name after their shape. Like one shaped like a rocket is called “torpedo.” The GGI cigar factory where we visited makes many different kinds of cigars. A big portion of their production goes to export, especially to Connecticut, United States. They also have an exclusive patent for one particularly unique shaped cigar, meaning no other factory can produce a same shaped cigar.
The Making Process of Genuine Nicaraguan Cigars
The employees work in female/male teams of two. The man makes the first phase, and the woman does the finalizing. From the picture on the left below you can guess why.
Then the cigars are put into the pressing mould. In the next phase, there is a real professional who rolls some more leaves into them (check the video from rolling Nicaraguan cigars here or from below ) and makes the final, delicate cuts.
The employees have strict rules during the working hours. They’re not even allowed to talk to each other. There was a sign on the wall which said that talking is allowed only on breakfast and lunchtime. Even though they’re not allowed to talk, they are authorized to smoke some cigars when working. The working hours are from 7 am to 5.30 pm. All workers have a target amount of cigars made in a day. If you don’t meet that goal, I believe you’ll quickly be out of a job.
All the finished products are then stored in cooling rooms for three months before they are sold, hand packed, and exported out of the factory. In the cooling chambers, there was every shaped, sized, colored, and tasting cigar you could imagine – shelves after shelves. Those rooms would have been a paradise for any cigar enthusiast, for sure.
Buying Smokable Souvenirs
From many of the factories, you can also buy cigars to take home. From the GGI cigar factory where we visited, you could buy any amount you wanted. You can even buy just one piece of every different cigar you want, no need to buy large packages. Having this option is very convenient because it’s possible to buy many different kinds of cigars for tasting.
The best thing is that the prices are very low compared to what they’re even in the local shops. When you buy directly from the factory, the average price is usually 1 USD/cigar, or 2-3 USD/cigar for the more unusual and rare ones.
If you buy the same cigars from the United States, for example, they usually cost about 10 USD/cigar (or more). And if you buy them from Finland, the price would be even higher (about 12 EUR/cigar and up).
So Estelí is the place to buy all those smokable souvenirs for your friends and family who love quality cigars!