Tijuana. The name evokes trips across the United States border for fun, sometimes illicit, and lots of tequila. Now a booming city of 1.3 million, Tijuana also has an authorized Cuban cigar store. La Casa del Habano (LCDH) is on Revolución Avenue, the main drag downtown.
Drop in and store vice president Moises Vargas will greet you warmly and offer a coffee or soft drink, then guide you into the cozy humidor that houses some of the best Cuban smokes available. Pick a puro and take a seat in one of the overstuffed black leather chairs or sofas in the lounge. The game might be on. Relax.
"Our goal is to make sure you're treated right," Vargas said. "We want to sell you cigars, but we also want you to tell your friends to come in and for that to happen, we have to treat you well so you remember us."
Photos of visitors, some famous ones like Al Pacino, adorn the walls of the lounge. There might be a couple of well-behaved dogs traipsing about as their owners enjoy a robusto or a Churchill with a very good double espresso. The interior wall that separates the shop from the lounge is brick, rounding into an arch at the top.
The shop offers not only cigars, but a small coffee bar and lots of accessories. If the weather's nice, sitting at one of the small café tables outside next to the requisite wooden Indian carries the bonus of watching the promenade of shoppers and cars. Lots of cars. Traffic has boomed with the population in the past two decades. That can influence your decision on how to get across the border.
The border with Tijuana is about a 15-minute drive on Interstate 5 south of downtown San Diego. Park for the day for $7 at the San Ysidro border station lot on Camino de La Plaza. At this point you must decide whether to walk across the border or take a shuttle bus, which is about $11 one-way to downtown Tijuana. You could drive, but the lines to cross can be long, and you would be stuck in the annoying Tijuana traffic. You could also take Uber from San Diego for about $100, plus a border crossing fee.
Walk across. It won't take long. You'll have to fill out a form at Mexican immigration, but you won't have to wait for the rest of the bus riders to clear customs. Getting back into the U.S. with Cuban cigars has reportedly presented some issues.
Vargas explained that since the Obama administration relaxed the rule on the importation of Cuban goods from anywhere in the world, many people have visited the store asking for the Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2, the No. 9 smoke on Cigar Aficionado's Top 25 Cigars of 2016 list. The box sells for about $525. Sales have increased in general, but getting those cigars back into the U.S. presented some problems for their buyers, said David Tourgeman, owner of LCDH in Tijuana.
"Some of these U.S. Customs officers don't even know that it's now legal for you to bring [in] Cuban product." Tourgeman said. Some of his customers, he added, have complained about being stopped at the San Ysidro crossing several times and being taken into secondary inspection on suspicion of bringing in Cuban cigars, despite it being legal to do so.
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) spokesperson Ralph DeSio responded to Cigar Aficionado's inquiries on the matter, writing: "CBP in San Ysidro has not seen an increase in Cuban cigars coming across the border. Due to privacy laws, we cannot discuss specific complaint cases. However, should travelers have a complaint, they are welcome to submit formal complaints through this process at https://help.cbp.gov/." DeSio did not offer how many complaints, if any, there had been.
A recent visit to Tijuana presented no obstacles, only the question, "Anything to declare?" "Not a thing, officer." Getting back is especially easy if you have Global Entry, the program that allows travelers who have been pre-screened expedited entrance back into the U.S.
One last note. If you do visit around lunchtime, make sure to try Caesar's Restaurant, less than a block from LCDH. It's where the Caesar salad was created and they still make one of the best.
La Casa del Habano
Avda. Revolución 111
Centro, 22000 Tijuana, B.C., Mexico
+52 (664) 688-3339
Open every day: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.