While Cuba Remains Off-Limits to Americans, Havana and the Island's Beaches Draw Tourists from the Rest of the World
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95
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If there is one thing Havana is known for worldwide, it is fine cigars. In fact, cigars and the city are so closely linked in the international psyche that, to avoid confusion, the state-owned cigar marketing and distribution company, Cubatabaco, recently changed its name to Habanos S.A. Of the six factories in Havana, half (Partagas, La Corona and H. Upmann) are clustered together in the old city. The other three (Romeo y Julieta, El Rey del Mundo and El Laguito) are all within a few minute's drive from downtown. Unfortunately, all but one is closed to the public. The one you can visit, Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas (located on Calle Industria just behind the Capitolio Nacional), is the oldest of the six and something of a showpiece. This year, the factory celebrates its 150th year in continuous operation. Little has changed since it first opened its doors in 1845. There you can see some of Cuba's best cigars being made, including the Partagas 8-9-8 and Cohiba robusto, Esplendido and the Siglo series.
There is something thrilling about buying Havana cigars in their hometown. Though most shops sell by the box only, many hotels and restaurants offer well-stocked humidors from which you can sample to your heart's content. Because of high demand, cigars are now often on back order. But if one store doesn't have something on your list, another might, and since prices can vary as much as 20 percent from store to store, it pays to shop around.
Three of Havana's better cigar stores are in the old city. Of these, the most impressive is the Partagas factory store, owned and managed by Habanos S.A. The shop features a well-stocked walk-in humidor large enough for entertaining distinguished guests. Due to a brisk tourist trade, prices here are unabashedly higher than in most other shops. Still, it is a convenient place to buy if you are on a limited time schedule (even with the premium, prices are reasonable).
Another good old-town shop is the Palacio del Tabaco, on the ground floor of the La Corona factory on Calle Agramonte (across from the Museum of the Revolution). This recently opened, stylish shop is clean, cool and friendly. There is even a bar where you can get an espresso or a cold drink while contemplating your purchases. Check out the roller there too; most often, he is working diligently on Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas, a cigar he has rolled for several decades.
If you still can't find what you want, try the small, no-frills shop in the Infotur office on the ground floor of the Manzana de Gomez building off the Parque Central (just across from the Hotel Plaza), which often stocks otherwise hard-to-find smokes. Also nearby, in the Palacio de Artesanias, which is down on the waterfront, there is a shop at the rear of the open courtyard. This one still seems rustic and appears a little run-down, but Peter Napolis oversees the shop with a keen eye and keeps a good stock of bigger cigars on hand.
At the opposite end of town is the well-known La Casa de 5 y 16 tobacco store, located upstairs in an aging Miramar mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Calle 16. This shop, known for its volume sales to VIPs worldwide, has an excellent selection at good prices. Here you can rent a locker in the humidor to hold your purchases between trips to Havana. Farther out in Miramar (at the corner of Third Avenue and Calle 28) is another shop with the name Palacio de Tabaco. Though small, it is recommended as a good place to find cigars that other stores don't have in stock. There is also Casa del Tabaco El Corojo, located behind the lobby in the Hotel Meliá Cohiba. New, clean, well-stocked and efficiently managed, it is a great place to buy cigars, especially if you are staying at the hotel.
Don't forget the other grand hotels in the city. Both the Nacional and the Comodoro, out in Miramar, have well-stocked humidors. On one recent trip, the former was the only location with some nearly impossible-to-find double corona cigars. You have to look for this shop. It's up a narrow staircase at one end of the lobby. The Comodoro's shop is more open and contains a standard selection of the major brands. The roller there is Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, who started the El Laguito factory and created the blend for the Cohiba cigar over 30 years ago.
A word to the wise: When in Havana (or anywhere else in Cuba), don't buy cigars on the street. It is a given that you will be approached time and again and offered what sounds like the deal of the century. But chances are 99 to 1 that any cigars you buy on the street will be counterfeit. They may bear official stamps and be in the regulation boxes, but nobody is going to sell you authentic Cohiba Esplendidos (which have an over-the-counter value of $270 or more) for $40 a box. When approached it's best to just say no.
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