About 40 years ago, Havana had hundreds of small cigar factories and shops churning out and selling smokes for locals as well as visitors to the former Spanish colonial city. Today, only a few factories and shops exist, but their enormous selection of cigars remains incomparable.
Just visit one of the La Casa del Habano stores in La Habana, such as the one at the Partagas factory, the shop at 5th Avenue y 16 or the store Club Habana at 5th Avenue 188-192, and you will quickly understand. Dozens of brands are usually available, as well as an equally diverse range of sizes and shapes, from simple pocket packets of five Romeo y Julieta petit coronas to cedar cabinets of 50 Partagas Lusitanias. There's something for every cigar smoker here. Plus, prices are the lowest in the world.
"Most of our clients come in with something in mind," says Osmany Rios Moreno, the young manager at 5th Avenue y 16. "They usually want to buy a specific cigar, whether it's a Cohiba Robusto or Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona. People seem to focus on the top brands [Cohiba, Montecristo, Partagas and Hoyo] and they want the most popular sizes [robusto, double corona and torpedo]. But occasionally, someone comes in and asks what I think is best to buy and I recommend some of the lesser brands or smaller sizes, since they can be as good or better smokes and better value."
It's this sort of helpful advice that makes the difference. Among the dozens of cigar shops in Havana, a knowledgeable and accommodating staff is rare. Most shop assistants (not to mention the cigar jockeys selling fake smokes in the street) know little about the product, and most seem uninterested in your business. Only a few shops even allow you to open boxes to check on the quality and color of the cigars before buying. Even fewer allow you to buy good-quality individual cigars.
"The fact is that it's hard to get the right people to work for you in selling cigars," said Enrique Mons, the manager of Club Habana's La Casa del Habano. A bear of a man, Mons has been in the Cuban cigar trade his entire life, with experience on plantations as well as in factories. No one knows more about cigars in Havana. "I try to be a source of information for my customers, so that they are not only buying cigars but learning about them," he says.
When I am in Havana, I usually use the cigar store at the Hotel Nacional as a starting point for buying cigars. It features a wider array of single cigar choices than any other shop I've visited. Be advised, however, that not all the cigars on display in the counters outside the walk-in humidor are for sale individually. Examine the top boxes of each stack when you enter the well-stocked walk-in humidor; if the price marked is for a single stick, then you can buy them by the piece. Buy a few things you want to try (I usually go for a few robustos, figurados or double coronas) and then take off to the next stop with one of them alight.
Relaxed with a morning cigar, I usually set out for the Partagas factory store, a true Mecca for cigar lovers, which has a breathtaking array of inventory on the ground floor of one of Cuba's great landmarks. Ask to visit the lounge behind the door at the back of the main shop floor, where you will see a walk-in humidor filled with Cohibas, Partagas, Ramon Allones, La Gloria Cubanas, Hoyo de Monterreys and Punches, as well as Trinidads, Cuabas, Vegas Robainas and San Cristobal de La Habanas. Introduce yourself to Abel Esposito Diaz, the shop's manager and ambassador to all of Cuba's cigar-seeking tourists. He'll help you choose wisely. The other staff members are equally helpful and most speak some English.
After Partagas, I pop over to the La Corona factory, a few blocks away on Calle Agramonte, and check out what's offered. Another legendary factory, La Corona today is the home of Hoyo de Monterey and Punch, including the much-sought-after double corona format of each. The rollers in the shop are usually some of the best on the island, so ask them to bang up a fresh double or robusto for you. You also can have a drink or a coffee from the bar and small lounge area just beyond the cigar counters while you browse the inventory.
The La Corona factory is about to get the same cleanup treatment as Partagas underwent a few years back, which will include extending the mezzanine area over the store floor. So the shop, which is known as the Palacio del Tabaco, should be even better. Try to arrange a visit to the factory with the cigar shop staff. "There are only three Cuban shops located in actual factories [Partagas, La Corona and the Vegueros factory in Pinar del Río]," says Omar Gonzalez, the manager of the La Corona shop. La Corona is the "mother factory" for the new Cuban brand, San Cristobal de la Habana. "So this is a unique experience for our visitors. Even those who don't smoke can appreciate the art of cigarmaking!"
In between visiting the two factory shops, I always try to stop at the small, atmospheric shop in the tiny, cigar-dedicated Hostal Conde de Villaneuva. The shop is on the second floor in three small rooms with thick wooden beams and whitewashed walls. It's as if you were buying cigars 100 years ago. The staff is friendly and knowledgeable and they make excellent coffee, which goes well with the cigar conversation and selection.
Then, I head to the suburb of Miramar, about a 20-minute drive away, straight down the Malecún to Quinta y 16, better known as Fifth Avenue. There have been many good managers of the shop, and it's now run by the energetic Osmany Rios Moreno, who studied for a year with Abel Diaz at Partagas, both in the factory and in the store.
The large walk-in humidor is replete with virtually every great brand's best sizes. There are humidors, cutters and lighters, and ample space to examine them and put them to work. A conference room sits alongside the main selling floor, where you can inspect your purchases, light up, and have a coffee or a drink. The bar is spacious and well stocked. There's even a good, small restaurant in back for lunch or dinner.
My final stop is about 10 minutes farther east on Fifth Avenue to Club Habana. A gated facility, which was the elite Biltmore Club before the revolution, it includes a large, luxury clubhouse, beach, spa, gym and tennis courts. Used mostly by diplomats and foreign businessmen, it is also available for the use of Meliá hotel guests (another reason to choose either the Meliá Cohiba or Meliá Habana hotel). However, for cigar smokers, the main reason to come here is the La Casa del Habano operated by Mons.
Enrique Mons is perhaps the most experienced cigar man in Havana, having been supervisor of quality control for Cubatabaco (the name of the global distribution company for Cuban cigars before the present Habanos S.A.) during the 1970s, and majordomo of the 5th y 16 cigar shop until two years ago.
Place yourself in his hands. Ask him what the best cigars are at the moment. He'll steer you the right way both to the very best quality and the very best value. Many of his customers simply phone him and ask what's good and tell him to put boxes away for them. Others refuse to make purchases when they drop in unless he is there to bless the sale.
Seated in the lounge adjoining the shop, sipping excellent espresso, Mons explains that most of his customers are just too busy to hassle with running around cigar shops and buying cigars. "So they simply rely on me," he adds.
It's certainly understandable, but buying cigars in Havana can almost be as great as smoking them.
The shops listed are the best on the island, particularly those in Havana. If you buy from them, you will get what you want or come damn close. Here are a few rules I follow when cigar shopping in Cuba:
1. Don't blow your wad on day one (unless you only have one day) since you will always discover the very thing you've been searching for immediately after you've spent your last carefully allocated dime.
2. Try to arrange your shopping tour to first visit one of the shops that allow sales of individual cigars. Select a few different brands and sizes, and smoke them over the next few hours (or days) before making larger buying decisions.
3. Whenever possible, open boxes before buying. Look at the general appearance of the cigars. If they look rough or the colors of the wrappers are not what you want, don't buy them. More important, don't buy cigars that smell of ammonia or give off other volatile aromas. Those are made from raw tobacco and will smoke harshly. Lightly squeeze a few of the cigars in the box to confirm that they are not overfilled or plugged. Nothing is more frustrating than a cigar that doesn't draw properly.
4. Try to buy older cigars. Cigars with only a few months of box age are usually harsh and less enjoyable than those with more age. A box with even six months of age is better than one with two. Use the simple code on the bottom of boxes as your guide.
5. While it's good to listen to cigar shop staff, let your eyes tell you what looks good; it's also wise to prepare a list of those cigars you particularly wish to buy, otherwise you'll end up with too many smokes to take home.
6. Consider renting a locker at one of the stores (usually about $500 to $600 a year). You'll be able to store excess cigars under perfect conditions and begin to rotate stock on subsequent visits, smoking aged cigars while you select new ones to begin the aging process.
7. Make sure that you leave the shop with proper receipts. Otherwise, your cigars may be confiscated by Cuban Customs when you leave the island. Everyone is allowed to take out two boxes of 25 cigars each without receipts.
8. Don't forget that most countries have a limit on how many cigars you can bring in duty-free. For example, the limit in Europe is 50 cigars, although you can usually pay the extra duty. Mexico officially allows only 25 cigars, although travelers in transit can ask Customs officials to transfer their cigars to their connecting flights and circumvent that limit. Americans traveling directly from the island may return with a total of only $100 worth of Cuban products, and then only when they travel with a valid visa. Americans who enter and leave Cuba through a third country have no cigar allotment.
La Casa del Habano (Partagas Factory)
Calle Industria, No. 520
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 33 80 60
Palacio del Tabaco (La Corona factory)
Calle Agramonte, No. 106
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 33 83 89
La Casa del Habano (Fifth Avenue)
Calle 5ta., esq. a 16, No. 1407
Tel: 24 79 74
La Casa del Habano (Club Habana)
5ta Ave, No. 188?192
Tel: 24 33 00
La Casa del Habano (Hostal Conde de Villanueva)
202 Mercaderes, esq. Lamparilla
La Habana Vieja
Tel: 62 92 93
Calle O, esq. 21
Tel: 33 50 54
El Corojo (Hotel Melía Cohiba)
Calle Paseo e/1 y 3
Vedado, Municipio Plaza
Tel: 33 36 36