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Shopping in Cuba

Havana's most popular cigar sizes are back on the shelves.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

The slim, beautiful waitress walked over to me, and I gave her a friendly smile. My Spanish was poor, but I knew how to ask for what I wanted. "Partagas Lusitania," I said, pointing to the famous name on the menu. She shook her head. "No, we are out," she said, in very good, accented English. I moved my finger down one line. "OK, a Montecristo No. 2." The pyramid was only $8, a steal, and it was one of my favorite cigars. She shook her head again. "We are out," she said. Only a hint of concern flickered across my eyes. "Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona?"

Now it was the waitress's turn to smile. "Maybe," she said, "you should take a look at the humidor." This was January 1996, and my first trip to Cuba was off to a bad, bad start. I expected more from El Relicario, the cigar bar and lounge at Cuba's finest hotel, the Meliá Cohiba. Only a few of the cigars on the menu were actually in stock in Relicario's humidor, among them a Partagas Serie D No. 4, which is what I ended up smoking that night. Worse news: the bar wasn't an exception. Most of the shops in Havana were out of my favorite smokes. The pickings were slim.

Hotels and cigar shops were low on most blockbuster names and sizes, except for Cohibas. Double coronas were impossible to find, the only Churchill in town was the Romeo y Julieta, and if you were in the market for shaped cigars, your choice was essentially limited to the Partagas Presidente.

Four years later, I'm back at the same cigar bar. I step cautiously into the dimly lit room and move right to the humidor. No menu is going to fool me this time.

I smile at the waitress and lift the top to the humidor. Different story. It's full of cigars -- big, small and in-between. I settle on what I couldn't get on my last visit, the Partagas Lusitania. I pay for it and head on my way.

Cuba has changed since my first visit. This time around, I drop in on four leading Havana cigar shops: the Casa del Habano at the Partagas factory, Cuba's busiest cigar store; Club Habana in the Miramar suburb of Havana, which boasts one of Cuba's finest selections of cigars; Quinta 16, aka the Fifth Avenue store; and the Casa del Habano at the Hostal Conde de Villanueva. I also shop at the smallish cigar store at the Meliá Cohiba, the hotel where I am staying.

All the shops are brimming with double coronas, Churchills, robustos and more. While most of the blockbuster names are easy to find, Cuba is full of bargains -- many boxes retail for less than $100. If you follow certain guidelines, you can even find truly outstanding, well-aged cigars.

If you're an American, the first time you enter a Havana cigar store is a bit overwhelming -- there you are, surrounded by the forbidden fruit. Even if you've shopped for Cuban cigars in other markets, you'll still be shocked by the prices. Cubans on sale in their home country sell for a fraction of their overseas prices. A box that might retail for more than $700 in Canada can be had for less than $300 in Havana.

For most of the cigar boom, Hoyo de Monterrey Double Coronas were like the Abominable Snowman -- often talked about but never seen. There were people who would saw off a right arm for a box of Hoyo Doubles. No need now. Each of the five shops on my visit has them on its shelves, $160 for a box. Other double coronas, including the Partagas Lusitania and Punch Double, are also $160. In contrast to my 1996 visit, double corona prices I see today are identical shop to shop.

(And yes, the $160 price is just that, no conversions needed. Cuban cigar stores price cigars in U.S. dollars and accept U.S. dollars for payment. No pesos need apply.)

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