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Under The Volcanoes

Tobacco men travel to the volcano-studded island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua for the next big thing
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

The rusty boat chugs through the gray waters of Lake Nicaragua, which seems more like an ocean, thanks to the chop, the sharks and the boundless horizon. Lakes are not supposed to be this large.

The pilot stands behind an oversized wooden wheel in the cabin on the upper deck. A colorful painting of the Virgin Mary to his left watches over his boat and its two dozen passengers. The ferry is on course for the twin peaks that are shrouded by clouds in the distance. It's the volcanic island of Ometepe, a jungle paradise that's home to howler monkeys, jaguars, exotic birds and a small amount of sweet, earthy tobacco.

The latter is what has been luring cigarmakers recently. Ometepe offers something new—even among the diverse and well—regarded growing regions of Nicaragua, where the black soil of Estelí yields strong tobaccos that power the nation's blends, the rocky soil of nearby Condega provides a middle-range flavor, and the red clay land of Jalapa produces smooth, elegant and silky rich wrapper tobaccos.

Viewed from above, the island resembles a dumbbell, with each volcano representing one of the weights. Maderas, the dormant peak in the east, is the smaller of the two. The lagoon in its crater is a popular destination for ecotourists hardy enough to make the 4,572—foot hike to its peak. Concepción, the western peak, rises majestically from the sea of green ringing the bottom third of the island in a nearly perfect cone. At 5,282 feet, it's Nicaragua's second tallest volcano and one of its most active. On July 28 of last year, it erupted at least four times, showering ash for miles.

The name Ometepe (pronounced oh—meh—TEH—pay) comes from the Aztecs' term for two peaks. Today, 35,000 residents live year—round on the island, which is visited by thousands of tourists drawn to the island's extraordinary beauty, wildlife, quiet and unique settings. Hotels are tiny and rustic. Rooms can be had for $21 a night; $46 gets you air conditioning and a terrace. A typical restaurant is Charco Verde, or the Green Lagoon, a calm oasis on the edge of the lake. Diners sit under thatched roofs, listening to the pounding of the surf on the dark sand beach, and feast on fried guapote, a delicious but homely fish—with a menacing mouthful of serious teeth—that lives in the lake.

Tobacco men don't come to Ometepe for the guapote, but for the volcanoes. Volcanic soil is prized for tobacco growing, hence many of the world's cigar tobacco growing regions—Ecuador, the San Andres Valley of Mexico, Sumatra—sit atop rumbling plates, where fresh rock from the earth's core occasionally rises to the surface. Nicaragua's nine active volcanoes are arranged in a diagonal line running southeast from San Cristobal in the northwest down to Concepción.

Nestor Plasencia and his son, Nestor Jr.
Getting to Ometepe can be a chore. Coming from the capital, Managua, requires an hour—and—a—half drive southeast to Granada before riding a ferry for one hour across the lake. Sometimes the boat is a rusted passenger ferry, with an alfresco upper deck and a covered area complete with a television and a soda machine. The back of the ship is typically filled with trucks that will ferry produce from the island to the mainland on the return trip. The smaller, wooden boat presents a more difficult and bumpy ride. On one trip, a traveler was forced to stand among a herd of goats, which tend to nip at fellow passengers. I'm traveling with Nestor Plasencia and his son, Nestor Jr., who contract with some 20 farmers to grow filler tobacco on the island. They say they are the only ones growing tobacco here now, although others did in small part, during the cigar boom. "Ometepe is unique," says Plasencia Jr., a trained agronomist like the elder Plasencia and the heir apparent to his father's tobacco and cigar empire. "It's a small area, with two volcanoes. The drainage is very good. There aren't too many places in the world where you can find this." The surrounding freshwater adds abundant humidity, especially in the morning—perfect for growing tobacco. The soil is so rich that few fertilizers are required.

The leaf has made an impression on Angel Daniel Núñez, the president of General Cigar Co. and a lifelong tobacco man. "The first time I smelled this, I made the decision right away—let's move on this," says Núñez, who is along for the trip. "From day one, the burn and that aroma, it was totally different from what I had tried before." Núñez has agreed to purchase all of the Plasencias' tobacco from Ometepe, and he's already using it in such brands as Bolivar and Partagas Limited Reserve Decadas.

The filler the Plasencias grow is cured in simple, old curing barns lined with chicken wire and plastic sheeting. One of the 30—odd barns is very small, with a tin roof. Asked why he doesn't change the plastic to the thatched sides typical of other growing areas, or to wood, the elder Plasencia shakes his head—he doesn't want to change the way the people do their work. Change doesn't come easily here.

Cigar tobacco is relatively new to Ometepe. Cigarette tobacco was grown on these lands starting around the 1950s, but that business is long gone. Some tobacco was grown during the cigar boom, then Plasencia did soil analysis on various plots around the 107—square—mile island before growing one sample acre in 1994. "It's really different," says Plasencia, with his easy, contagious smile. Today, he and his son grow about 130 acres, with three separate plantings a year.

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