I’ll never forget the first time I bought a box of cigars in Cuba. It was back in 1996 at the end of a weeklong tour of the island—my first. After spending a day visiting Cuban tobacco farms, my colleagues and I pulled up to a cigar store in Pinar del Río on a mission to procure the finished product.
The shelves were loaded with Vegueros, a brand that was rolled locally, and new to all of us. A domestic brand at the time, it would become export-only the following year. I smoked one, and found it interesting, but not intriguing enough to warrant a box purchase. I wanted something better. I looked around, opening a box here, flipping another there to check the box codes that revealed the factory and date of origin. And then I found it.
It was a package of Bolivar Corona Extras bearing the box code FPG OVSE, which meant it was made at the Partagás Factory in March, 1994. When I cracked open the lid the wrappers staring back at me were nearly black. The barnyard aroma—what a good friend always described as “hay and horseshit”—hit me square in the nose. As incongruous as it may sound, we cigar devotees know that smell as a good thing—and I had to have them. I looked at the price: $62. I paid the bill with American dollars, pried the first cigar from the box and lit up right there, happy as a pig in, well, hay and horseshit.
Those cigars are long gone (sadly), but I’ve kept the box, and I use it at home as a repository for mementos from over the years—and as a reminder of a truly great purchase. Since then Cuba has raised prices in the domestic market considerably.
Comparing my notebooks from my trip this year to that first trip, prices on cigars have risen by 50 to 100 percent, depending on the brand, over the past 16 years. Also, dollar pricing is a thing of the past, and today all purchases have to be made in Cuban convertible pesos, also known as CUCs. (Technically the cuc is fixed at the same rate as the U.S. dollar, but exchanging dollars for cucs incurs a 10 percent service charge.)
Despite the hikes, buying at the source is still a good deal, particularly since almost everything else has been hit by inflation as well. Today Cuba offers not only some of the lowest prices on its own cigars anywhere, it also maintains a remarkable selection. Prices are fixed from store to store, so the price you see on one shelf will be the same on others, except for when prices are being changed, and one store might move before another. Simply put, buying a Cuban cigar in Cuba just makes sense, especially if you narrow your search to traditional brands and sizes.
Take Montecristo, one of the most famous cigar brands in the world, which was created in Havana in the 1930s. If you look at the sizes that have been rolled for decades, they are priced quite attractively, despite being roughly double the price they were in 1996. A box of 25 Montecristo No. 1, a Lonsdale size known as a Cervantes in Cuban cigar factories, retails for 167 cuc in Cuban cigar shops. Factoring in the 10 percent charge to exchange U.S. dollars into Cuban convertible pesos, that comes out to about $184 per box, or $7.35 a cigar. The cigar scored 91 points in a blind tasting in the February Cigar Aficionado.
The diminutive and fun to smoke Montecristo No. 4 is even cheaper, at 107 cuc ($117) a box, or 4.28 cuc ($4.70) per cigar. Smaller still, a Monte No. 5 is but 90 cuc ($99) a box. For a big cigar with legendary pedigree, it’s hard to top the Montecristo No. 2. Those stately pyramids sell for 190 cuc ($209) a box, or 7.60 cuc ($8.36) per cigar.
Even the massive Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona is a relative bargain on the shelves of Cuban cigar shops. These stately double coronas sell for less than 10 cuc per stick: boxes of 25 are 225 cuc per box of 25, and the occasional store had gorgeous cabinets of 50, priced at 475 cuc. (There is no comparison to make to 1996 prices. Back in 1996 it was virtually impossible to find a Hoyo Double, or any large cigar aside from a Romeo y Julieta Churchill, in Havana cigar shops due to back orders on those sizes. Other popular smokes, such as Montecristo No. 2 and Partagás Serie D No. 4s were also in extremely short supply.)
When you move to Cohibas, you move up in price. Tiny Cohiba Siglo I’s (4 by 40, the same as Monte 5s) sell for 130 cuc a box. Go up to a Churchill size (the Esplendido) and you’re looking at 449 cuc a box, or about 18 cuc a cigar. Cohiba Robustos are in between, at 260 cuc. Cohibas have gone up about 50 percent in price between 1996 and 2012.
You start to experience sticker shock with Cuban cigars when you move into newer, more limited items. The Cohiba 1966 EL 2011 retails for 241 cuc for a box of 10 cigars, or 24 cuc each. (And it’s an amazing cigar—we scored it 94 points in Cigar Aficionado.) The largest of the Cohiba Behike trio, the BHK 56, sells for 260 cuc per box of 10 in Cuba, 26 cuc apiece, but it has always been outscored by the smaller (and somewhat cheaper) Cohiba Behike BHK 52, our 2010 cigar of the year. It sells for 180 cuc per box, or 18 cuc per cigar.
The Montecristo No. 2 Gran Reserva, which only made its way to Cuban cigar shops in the past six months or so, has the eye-popping price of 500 cuc ($550) for a box of 15 cigars, or 33 cuc ($36) per stick. Only 5,000 of the cigars were made, and they have been very hard to find inside or outside of Cuba. Gordon Mott and I didn’t see any on the shelves in Cuba during the week we were there for the Habanos Festival.
Cuba’s myriad cigar shops remain a buyer’s paradise for Cuban cigar lovers. And if you stick to certain cigars, the prices are cheaper than you might expect. As with all cigars, the highest price doesn’t necessarily mean the best smoke. Even in Cuba.