Cuba Travel Guide
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, May/June 2007
(continued from page 7)
"I wanted to give to the foreign visitor the same service that they would receive in those countries I visited. That is when the store was opened on the corner of 5th Avenue and 16th, which was the first fine cigar shop in Cuba. Later came the Partagas shop and a few others, and now you see cigars being sold here like all the other great cigar shops around the world."
It was his dream of taking a more professional approach to selling cigars on the island that has made the Cuban capital the most exciting place in the world to buy a smoke. Visiting a top cigar shop in Havana is like going to a great wine merchant, chic jeweler or cool clothes store. Just about every cigar in current production in Cuba is available, each cigar is stored perfectly humidified, and the service is friendly and informative. There's nothing better than browsing through a Havana cigar shop and buying a few boxes while discussing your purchase over a smoke with a strong espresso or seven-year-old rum.
"There's nothing like buying a cigar in Havana," says Mons. "It's a new experience every time. Just to come to Cuba is a new experience for most people."
Every major hotel, restaurant, bar and club offers cigars for sale. Moreover, you can still smoke just about anywhere you want—although I was recently asked to leave a bakery when I walked in with my smoldering Romeo y Julieta Short Churchill. I guess it was justified, even in Cuba!
Although there are so many places to buy cigars in Havana, only a handful of shops offer top-rate selection, service and storage. There are too many shops where the cigars are not well kept and the staff knows very little, or absolutely nothing, about cigars.
In general, the La Casa del Habano shops provide the best selection, offering the latest sizes and shapes as well as special limited-edition humidors. They all have rollers on the premises who can make bespoke cigars for customers. Ask one of the salesmen for advice on what's the newest or rarest available. Many speak English. In addition, all of the top shops offer locker space to maintain your cigars if you don't want to take them all home, and these stores are a great place to meet other smokers, who tend to hang out, smoke and drink at these establishments, particularly at Mons's and the Partagas shop.
Interestingly, price is not a factor in deciding where to buy a cigar. The government regulates all the prices, whether you're buying a small carton of five Montecristo No. 4s or a box of 50 Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2s. Prices have increased significantly over the last three to four years and now cigars cost about the same here as they do in many key markets in Europe, including Spain and Switzerland.
When buying cigars, beware that the streets of Havana are busy with people selling fakes. I recently stopped in at the Partagas factory cigar shop in downtown Havana and I was almost knocked off my feet by aggressive fake-cigar hawkers. They all swore that they worked in the factory themselves or had family members high in the Cuban cigar industry to assure the authenticity of what they were selling. One even tried to entice me by saying that "you smoke what you like first and then you buy what you want." Don't believe any of them and stick to authorized shops.
The Cuban government has cracked down on the trafficking of fake cigars in recent years. For example, tourists are not allowed to leave the island with more than 24 individual cigars without an official receipt. And customs officials closely check anything above the limit. They even page travelers over the intercom system at José Martí airport to come to the customs office, so the authenticity of the purchases can be confirmed. In addition, restrictions exist on how many cigars passengers are allowed to bring to their next destination. For example, travelers to Mexico are permitted only one box of cigars and those who go to European countries are allowed 50 cigars, duty-free.
It's all more the reason to buy cigars from reputable merchants such as Enrique Mons. The veteran cigar man probably never dreamed he would help create the best place on earth to buy hand-rolled cigars when he opened Cuba's first premium shop. But he did seem to know that it was what he wanted to do and he doesn't have any regrets. "I now don't have to go anywhere because people from all over the world come to see me," he says with a huge smile and a smoldering cigar in his hand. "This gives me great happiness. I do this not as a job but out of love. It's more than a hobby or job. It's my life."
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