Back in Nicaragua

The blast of sultry, tropical air hit me as I walked off the American Airlines jet in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. I was a bit bleary eyed—on Tuesday night Cigar Aficionado held its Night to Remember charity dinner, which meant only two hours of sleep for me to make my 6 a.m. flight—but a smile came to my face when I felt the heat. I'm happy to be back in Nicaragua.

I've come to this Central American country many times for Cigar Aficionado, touring the country's rich tobacco lands and walking through its cigar factories. I was last here in December 2009, and I'm back for the same reason—the second Nicaraguan Cigar Festival.

When I joined Cigar Aficionado in 1995, Nicaraguan cigars weren't a major factor in the U.S. market. Today they loom large for cigar smokers and are one of the largest producers of cigars by hand in the world. In terms of quality, their presence resonates even more. Cigars from Nicaragua, and those made with Nicaraguan tobacco, do very well in Cigar Aficionado taste tests. The soil here is amazingly rich, and the nation is blessed with three distinctive major-growing regions, as well as smaller ones.

I saw one of those regions on Wednesday, touring a tobacco field called Villa Vieja with José Orlando and Jorge Padrón, the father-son team that makes Padrón cigars. It was nearly 5 p.m. by the time we reached the field, typically a poor time to see tobacco because it tends to droop that late in the day. But these plants looked great. There was a nice breeze in the field, and the leaves were big, wide and healthy. I had Jorge describe the tobacco for a bit as I shot some video.

It's been a very good year for tobacco here. I talked to several other growers that night at the festival dinner, which was held at La Gran Fabrica Drew Estate. On Thursday I'm heading out to other regions of Nicaragua to see more tobacco, so I'll see if the crop is good all around the country.

The event at Drew Estate featured free-flowing cigars made by various members of the Nicaraguan Cigar Association. I puffed on a Padrón Anniversary Exclusivo natural, one of my favorites, before lighting up a new cigar called a CroMagnon, which had a solid backbone of flavor. The cigars were flowing in abundance, as was the beer and rum.

Late in the evening, two of Nicaragua's finest cigar men—Gilberto Oliva Sr. and José O. Padron—were honored with lifetime achievement awards from the Asociación Nicaraguense de Puros. The crowd truly appreciated the work of these elder statesmen of Nicaraguan cigars.

It was a long, long night. One of the tour buses encountered some problems, so dinner and the auction went very late. The lack of sleep caught up with me, and the auction was still going on at 2 a.m. when I finally said "no mas" and headed out. I was dragging from the lack of sleep, and I knew I had to be on the road early Thursday morning to start the long ride to the north of the country to see tobacco in Jalapa, where Nicaragua's finest wrappers are grown.

"Assuming this year's crop is a better-than-average leaf, how long until we start seeing this fabulous stuff getting rolled and sent to the stores? 2 years, 3, 4??? Just wondering when to place my order and stock up..." —April 7, 2011 20:45 PM