Estelí

Had breakfast and fueled up on coffee at my favourite corner cafe before heading off to meet Susie and Ana for our cycling tour to the tobacco finca. I arrived to find Ana going over all the bikes with a fine tooth comb and rejecting several as not being up to scratch. It turns out she is a bit of a cycling enthusiast back home in Costa Rica, so knows a thing or two about a bike. I was happy to leave her to it as I only usually check seat height and whether the brakes work. After about an hour (nothing happens fast here…), Ana was satisfied that everyone on the tour had a bike of acceptable level and we took off.

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We rode out of town along paved streets and then off down a dirt road which took a bit more focus to avoid separating oneself from one’s bike over dodgy potholes. That was the difficult part, as it was hard to focus on road hazards when there was so much spectacular scenery to take in. Tobacco fields in various stages of cultivation separated out the various cigar factories we passed. Rustic wood slab drying sheds were dotted over the countryside and everything was back dropped by jungle covered hills.

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We crossed a stream and rode into the finca we were to visit. Our guide took us from section to section to meet local workers who manned that particular part of the growing process. We saw the seeding and the seedlings in the large greenhouses, then went out to one of the fields where another señor explained the planting out and eventual harvesting process. We also learnt a little of the history of the tobacco and cigar industry. Evidently, during the revolution Cuba lent significant support to the socialist FSLN movement which also included support in developing Nicaragua’s tobacco and cigar industry. After the revolution, the Cubans were allowed to stay and today have large partnerships with Nicaraguan tobacco and cigar manufacturers.

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After viewing the drying shed and having the process explained, we mounted our steel steeds and rode back to town. As we had started so late, we had a slight delay to the start of our cigar factory tour, but as most of us were on the finca tour it didn’t really matter. The cigar factory we were taken to was just across the road from Treehuggers and was a small Cuban-Nicaraguan affair. We were shown the fermentation room (which if you came out of in a conscious state, you were doing well…) and a room about the size of an office tearoom where half a dozen women were sitting around a large table sorting the dried, fermented leaves and de-stemming those which had been missed. There was a lovely communal atmosphere around this part of the process, with the women chatting and sharing a laugh.

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It was then on to the rolling room where the process of combining leaves into the final cigar takes place. A couple of dozen workers were seated side by side, combining the required leaves to make the different styles, sizes and brands the factory produced for. This was the final stage in the process and after rolling, the cigars were placed in a press in batches to compress further. Trimmed and finished with an outer sheaf, the cigars were then ready for packaging.

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I was bemused to notice a couple of hombres choofing away on massive cigars whilst working, despite the ‘no smoking’ sign displayed on the wall. I asked one of the señors about this and he said one was only allowed to smoke the company’s cigars and these were provided free as the company believed it helped workers with the process if the knew what they were making. I’m not so sure it would have helped with their future respiratory health issues, but this is Nicaragua after all.

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We were then taken to a small stockroom where a massive cigar was lit and passed around for all to sample. Whilst the communal stogie did the rounds, we were free to make purchases from the stockroom at ridiculously cheap prices. Although this was a fairly small operation by Nicaraguan standards, cigars were being produced for some of the finest brands in the world.

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We thought we still had time after the tour to visit the Museum of Heroes and Martyrs and made our way there straight afterwards only to find it shut. We went around the corner to make enquiries and was told that the old woman who usually does the tours was unwell and hence the Museo was closed. Not deterred, Susie continued making further enquiries and we ended up in an art studio that focused on supporting youth art programs and street murals. A very interesting conversation evolved about their work and Susie and Ana took advantage of the offered tour of murals around Esteli the following day. I would very much have loved to have joined them but had my canyon tour already booked.

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Susie then made enquiries at the fire station over the road from the Museo and spoke to an aged hombre whilst waiting. Susie asked him if he fought in the revolution as he looked about the right age. His answer was interesting. He said it was all in the past and he that doesn’t like to talk about it anymore. He just wants it to stay in the past and for everyone to move on with life. Whilst Esteli was a stronghold for the FSLN during the revolution, there still would have been people who did not support the FSLN or simply did not take sides but who would have experienced massive trauma despite this. He also could have been a disillusioned FSLN member who just wanted to put it all behind him. And who could blame him?

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I went back with Susie and Ana to their hotel rooftop terrazzo where they met up with the son of a friend of Ana’s who now lives in Esteli. Caesar works in the cigar industry here but makes flavoured cigars which evidently are quite popular. He recommended a restaurant for us to go to for dinner which ended up being a great choice. A fairly early evening was in order for me as I had an early start the following day.

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