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South-of-the-Border Smokes

Under Towering Volcanoes, the San Andrés Region Produces Richly Flavored Tobacco That Creates Unique Cigars
Gregory Katz
From the Print Edition:
George Burns, Winter 94/95

When Pedro F. Gomez left Cuba 60 years ago, long before the Cuban Revolution spurred an exodus of that country's cigar masters, he was just a lad of 12, not even a teenager. Yet he was already a skilled cigar roller, having worked in the H. Upmann factory in Havana for two years. He had already developed what would be a lifelong appreciation of fine cigars, because he smoked his own hand-rolled products several times a day.

When the young boy left Havana with a few H. Upmanns in his shirt pocket, he started on a restless odyssey familiar in the cigar world. His ports of call included only places where fine cigars were produced and savored as he worked to become a master in his own right. His passport reads like a guidebook to the history of cigars in the twentieth century. First he went to Spain, working in cigar factories there, and then to the Canary Islands to do the same. The United States was next, and he spent years in Tampa, Florida, where U.S. production was rising thanks to an influx of Cuban experts. From there he went to the Dominican Republic--another stopover where Cubans were planting Havana seed with fine results--and then on to Honduras, where he toiled in Copán and later Danlí.

Finally, eight years ago he moved to lush San Andrés Valley in southern Mexico where, at last, he seems to have found a home as production manager at the Matacapan Tabacos cigar factory, home of Te-Amo and other Mexican brands that are finding an increasing number of loyalists in the United States.

Perhaps it's the tropical hills that remind him of his boyhood in Cuba. Or the nearby port of Veracruz, just two hours away by car, where coffee is served strong and sweet--Cuban style--and where the joyous music in the streets has its roots in the Caribbean and Africa, not the mournful highlands of Mexico. But Gomez, who is rarely seen these days without a Te-Amo wobbling in his mouth, says it's the cigars that do the trick.

"What most distinguishes San Andrés tobacco from the other places I've been is that it has everything," he said recently as he took a break from checking out the latest batch of a new line of Te-Amo pyramides, introduced earlier this year and selling well. "You don't have to look in other countries for anything. When I was in the Canary Islands, we had tobacco from many places--Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Brazil--and we had wrapper from many places. It was similar in the Dominican Republic and Honduras. There are only two countries where I have found that you have all the materials you need, all the raw materials for an excellent cigar, only two countries, Cuba and Mexico." While others may dispute his analysis, it is an unassailable fact that Mexico's position in the world of fine, hand-rolled cigars is respected and secure.

The first thing new arrivals notice when they reach the San Andrés Valley, home of Mexico's finest cigar tobacco and the center of Mexico's cigar-export business, is the freshness of the air and the abundance of cool, clear water. Hundreds of rivers and streams crisscross the valley, which is about 4,000 feet higher than the scrublands along the Gulf of Mexico about 50 miles away. The valley is much cooler because of the altitude. A few volcanoes tower even higher, and the rich volcanic soil--high in potassium--nurtures tobacco, which has been cultivated in the region since before the arrival of the Spanish conquerors who landed in the port city of Veracruz nearly five centuries ago.

The tradition of enjoying a fine smoke goes back even farther than the Spanish conquest. Wild tobacco grew in the region, and archeologists and scholars who study the ancient Mayan monuments in the area often find stone carvings that depict exalted priests and Mayan deities smoking long tubes of tobacco, a forerunner of today's premium cigars.

Tobacco played an important role in the Mayan mythology, says J. G. "Pepe" Gutierrez, a vice president of Consolidated Cigar Corp. who frequently visits the San Andrés Valley to check production of the various Mexican brands his company distributes throughout the United States.

"You can see carvings of the gods smoking cigars and blowing big billowing clouds of smoke," says Gutierrez. "In the Mayan mythology, they thought that big clouds in the sky were actually emanations of the gods smoking cigars in the heavens and they thought that shooting stars were actually embers of the gods' cigars. You can see that this means the tobacco is truly a gift of the gods, and over the centuries people have learned to appreciate it. In all of this area, down through the Yucatan and all the way to Honduras, they developed the ability to cultivate tobacco."

The cigars found depicted on Mayan monuments pay homage to a mysterious past when cigars were used in religious rites not fully understood as yet, but the growth of the modern Mexican cigar as an instrument of pleasure is a story told through three revolutions: the Mexican revolution that started in 1910 and broke up many of the great cigar estates that had already formed; the Sukarno takeover in Indonesia in 1949 that brought Dutch cigar makers to the San Andrés Valley in search of a new place to plant their favorite Sumatra seed, which had for years produced distinctive wrappers in Indonesia and would soon flourish in Mexico; and the Cuban Revolution, which brought Cuban experts to the valley to help Mexicans prepare a cigar that would capture the fancy of smokers in the United States--in this case, primarily smokers in New York City--who had been deprived of their Cuban favorites.

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