ESTELÍ—Atop the Tisey mirador, looking west, I lean into a burly Pacific breeze blowing in over an ocean of rolling hills. Barely visible on the horizon, several cone-shaped volcanoes remind me that yes, I am still in Nicaragua.
That’s how faraway and fantastic it feels to hike through pine trees in Central America in the middle of the rainy season. The Tisey-Estanzuela Nature Reserve is only a short drive from the center of Estelí, but the small altitude gain enhances the region’s drizzly splendor.
A few hours by bus north from Managua, the Sebaco Valley gives way to the Segovia Mountains—steep, rocky hills, pine forests, and wide river valleys whose soil is perfect for growing many things, including tobacco.
Estelí is indeed at the center of the international hand-crafted cigar industry, which supports tens of thousands of families in the region. In addition to tobacco farms, there are processing and rolling factories in and around the city, as well as a giant network of growers, buyers, and sellers.
The tobacco industry is also starting to create tourism jobs. Many travelers are coming to Estelí to see where their cigars are made. They either travel on their own or as part of a specialized group like the Cigar Safari, a program offered by Joya de Nicaragua and Drew Estate cigar companies. Other travelers come to Estelí to order custom cowboy boots, tour the city’s famous street art, enjoy the climate, go hiking to Tisey, or—if they are like me—all of the above.
Estelí is the capital city of Nicaragua’s great green north, a loose, low-built city of 100,000 residents. It is an important commercial hub that straddles the Pan-American Highway. My friend drops me off in the city center just as the sun is going down. I set off to find my hotel.
The sky is blue growing bluer, then black, but the central plaza is well lit and filled with Nicaraguans — schoolchildren, teens, lovers, and oldtimers throng together to talk, eat, and sit on benches. I walk through the crowd and aim for the opposite side of the church.
In Nicaragua, people do not use street names or even house numbers. Directions begin with a landmark, followed by a series of turns. The card in my hand reads “Costado Noreste de la Iglesia Catedral 1c al Norte 75 Vrs Al Este,” or “from the northeast side of the cathedral, one block north and 75 varas east,” a vara being an old Spanish measurement equal to roughly three feet, of course.
Traveling in Nicaragua is curious like that. It’s one of the safest countries for travelers in Central America, but it’s also the most misunderstood country in the region. I cross the street toward the church. The air is cool and smells like rain.
Hotel Puro Esteli
I turn a corner, weave around a man on horseback, and begin counting off seventy-five varas east. In the lobby, Nicholas Melillo, one of the proud owners of Estelí’s newest hotelito, Hotel Puro Estelí, greets me with a huge smile. He is holding out a hand to shake and a cold Toña for me to take. “Buenas noches, Señor Berman!”
Nick Melillo is Executive Director of Tobaccos and Production at Drew Estate. He is based in Boulder, Colorado but travels every month to Estelí, where he helps oversee operations at the factory there. Traveling to Estelí so often, Melillo was eventually tempted to open a nine-room budget hotel with a little bar and restaurant.
Melillo’s partners in the hotel also work for Drew Estate factory—General Manager Manuel Rubio and Head of Cigar Inventory Ramon Medal. The three men opened Hotel Puro Estelí in mid-2012 as a side project, totally independent of their work at the factory, but still related. It’s basic, clean rooms have private bathrooms and surround a small courtyard. And, of course, Hotel Puro Estelí has the best hotel lobby humidor a cigar lover could want.
“We have brands and sizes that would be difficult to find anywhere else in Nicaragua, or even the world,” says Melillo, showing me the current selection.
“Liga Privada Number Nine, T52, and Unico Series,” he points them out to me. I take a deep, earthy huff of the freshly aged tobacco before me. Melillo is considered a master tobacco blender of both infused and traditional cigars. “I’m also working on a private label, specially blended for the hotel and factory tours by yours truly.”
In Nicaragua, the word “puro” has a range of meanings—in addition to the obvious translation, pure, the word is used to mean genuine, authentic, natural, or totally! The song “Nicaragua Mía” by Tino López Guerra, is a perfect example, with its wildly popular patriotic line, “Soy puro pinolero, ¡Nicaragüense por gracia de Dios!” I’m an authentic, 100-percent pinolillo-drinker, Nicaraguan by the grace of God! (Pinolillo is the national drink made of ground and toasted cornmeal, and “pinolero,” or “drinker of pinolillo,” is one of Nicaraguans’ favorite nickname for themselves.)
“Puro” also means cigar. And staying at Hotel Puro Estelí grants me access not only to the premium sticks in the lobby, but also to exclusive cigar factory tours plus a visit to Drew Estate Subculture Studios, where local graffiti artists work on commissioned projects, from cigar labels to enormous murals.
Kicking back in the hotel bar, I order a beer, a plate of tostones, and a cigar, which burns long and evenly into the night — forcing Melillo and I to take things slowly as we talk, drink, and eat, and as he introduces me to more of his friends.
Whether cigars, rum, or chocolate, I get a thrill out of tracing a product to its origin and sampling it amid the same air, soil, and climate in which it was grown — and with the very people who cultivated and crafted it. To continue such a tour in Nicaragua, I could drink coffee in Matagalpa, eat cheese in Chontales, sip crab soup in Corn Island, sample vigorón in Granada, or enjoy fresh fish in San Juan del Sur.
But right now, I’m smoking a puro in Estelí.
Joshua Berman is a freelance writer, Denver Post columnist, and author of the first four editions of Moon Nicaragua. His website is joshuaberman.net.