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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.

"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

Plasencia Photos by Angelo Cavalli

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