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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

(continued from page 1)

"The big asset here is this," says Plasencia Jr., pointing to the dark brown, loamy soil in a field. The perfect cone of Concepción looms in the distance. The tobacco plants, grown from criollo seed from Havana, are light green, healthy and relatively uniform in height. The flowers are topped during the growing process and the plants yield 14 to 16 leaves. Núñez becomes visibly excited looking at the vibrant plants. He digs his hands into the earth between the rows of tobacco. "This is cake," he says, sniffing the dirt. He points enthusiastically to the pinpoints of white root growing through the earthen wall.

The rich soil gives the tobacco grown here a sweet, earthy taste. It has a mild to medium body that allows the tobacco to cure quickly. When we smoke samples in the curing barns, there is little of the harshness typical of such young, unfermented tobacco leaf. Núñez stretches out 30—day—old leaves in a dusty curing barn, showing off the reddish—brown color, then presses his burning cigar to one of the stretched leaves. The heat immediately burns a circle through the leaf that begins to grow, with a halo of silver ash. Thin wisps of black smoke curl toward his nostrils. The smell of nuts and light earth fills the air.

"Dulce y fuerte," he says with a broad smile. "Sweet and strong."

Nick Perdomo is another fan of Ometepe. "I personally love it," says the owner of Tabacalera Perdomo, who has used Ometepe leaf in some of his blends. "I believe it enhances the blend quite nicely. As far as the taste, it is unique in the sense that it has a great aroma and a sweetness that rivals tobaccos from the Jalapa Valley. But it also has a great richness and strength that Jalapa doesn't have."

Not everyone has been sold on the promise of Ometepe. Jose Padrón has said his family considered using its tobacco in the 1970s, but abandoned the idea because they felt the tobacco lacked flavor.

Although Ometepe is a lush landscape, known for richly flavored produce, the entire island isn't suited for growing. "Some areas of the island we can't grow tobacco because there is too much sulfur," says the senior Plasencia.

Furthermore, many added expenses are associated with growing on the island. Simply getting here compounds the cost. Labor is harder to find and more expensive than in the landlocked regions of Nicaragua. The inhabitants seem to have an "island" work mentality. Plasencia groans that he can't get the workers to labor past noon. It's not an easy life, by any stretch, but it's far easier than in many other Nicaraguan towns. The water is brimming with fish, crops grow with ease in the fertile, volcanic soil. Tourists frequent the island, money in tow.

The Plasencias are extremely pleased with what Ometepe offers, and their customer, Núñez, couldn't be happier. Life is good on Ometepe, and not just for the people in charge, but for the typical residents of the island. The people smile, seem well fed. At the end of a long day, the last ferry is ready to leave Puerto de Moyogalpa. Young boys in swimsuits climb from the lake, stand on the concrete wall at its edge and flip backwards into the deep, dark water. They come up grinning. A vendor, standing amid a growing pile of zesty rinds growing at his feet, sells fresh oranges that he prepared with several fast cranks of his apple peeler. A large truck groaning with ripe watermelon struggles to make its way over the wet gangway and onto the ferry for the hour—long ride back to the mainland.

Núñez, the Plasencias and the rest of the party climb up the ladder to the top deck and ease into the metal chairs. The elder Plasencia takes another cigar from his always—brimming shirt pocket and smiles, squinting in the fading sunlight. "You see," he says, "what it takes to make a cigar?"

Volcano Photos by Brent Winebrenner/Lonley Planet Images

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