THE NICARAGUA CIGAR
A Chorotega Smoke
It was a breezy January day in 1528. The ancient Nicaraguas settlement of Tecoatega bathed in golden light while the sun sank slowly behind its central square. The servants of Tecoatega’s elderly chief Agateyte quietly prepared the plaza for the coming night’s fiesta. Chief Agateyte, the powerful leader of 20,000 subjects and a standing army of 6,000 warriors, sat alone in his home, having just finished dinner. Agateyte drank tiste (ground cocoa and corn mixed with water) while contemplating the brilliant red sky, puffing slowly on a cigar. Agateyte was sure the Chorotega people were inferior to his own Nicaraguas culture, “rustics”, he mused, “but creative, and damn good with their hands”. Agateyte smiled while gazing at the sunset, stroking his long white beard. Silently he thanked the Chorotegas for their finest invention: his carefully wrapped, smooth tobacco smoke.
In southern Nicaragua, in the chiefdom of the Chorotega ruler Nambi, another party was brewing in the square. More than one hundred Chorotegas assembled in the corner of the plaza began singing and dancing. The Spanish chronicler Gonzalo Oviedo sat nervously with five other Spaniards watching the party began. Oviedo knew Chorotega parties meant excessive drinking and the numbers were decidedly in the favor of the Chorotegas if a drunken fight should break out. The other Spaniards fondled their firearms, while Oviedo fought his nerves by taking notes. He wrote that the Chief Nambi was served chicha de maíz (a fermented corn liquor) in calabash cups by a young girl and noted “the chief himself presented to select guests at the party a handful of rolls of tobacco, each as long as the distance from the end of one’s thumb to the tip of one’s forefinger, consisting of a leaf rolled up and tied with three thin cords of agave fiber.” Oviedo was fascinated by what he saw next, something completely alien, verging on the bizarre for an early 16th century European. He wrote that “they (the Chorotega elites) lit a small space at one end, which began to burn the rolled up tobacco leaves.” Oviedo noted that the smoking process seemed to last all day and “from time to time they placed it (the bundled tobacco leafs) in their mouths, at the end opposite from which it was burning and they suck in its smoke for a short while and then remove it, keeping their mouths closed and holding their breath for a time, after which this smoke emerges through their mouths and noses.”
The Chorotegas called their hand rolled smokes “yapoquete”, but what would stick with the European invaders was the word “cigar”, likely derived from the Mayan verb for smoking “sik’ar”. The habit of enjoying a smoke was prevalent throughout the Americas when the first Europeans arrived in the late 15th century, though the tobacco was ingested in a variety of manners, via pipes, cigars, snuff and even enemas.
It has been suggested by one North American archeologist that it was Nicaragua’s Chorotegas whom invented the cigar. The Chorotega yapoquete was made by wrapping with cords carefully blended tobacco leaf bundles that were smoked at one end. The Chorotegas are believed to have migrated from Mexico to Nicaragua from 700-900 AD, likely passing through part of the Mayan empire during their exodus south. Did the Chorotegas show the Mayans how to smoke tobacco in cigar form, or vice-versa? The earliest known archeological evidence of cigar-style tobacco use dates from 8th century AD Guatemala in the form of a Maya ceramic vase that features a depiction of a person smoking a compacted roll of tobacco leaves secured with string.
When the Spanish arrived to the Caribbean they encountered wide-spread use of tobacco and it was Christopher Columbus’ sailors who first introduced tobacco to Spain and Europe. Though tobacco’s use in American indigenous religious festivals lead some Europeans to conclude that smoking was akin to practicing a pagan ritual and one of Columbus’ crew members was thrown in the slammer for puffing a cigar. The Spanish soon saw tobacco as a potentially profitable enterprise and quickly left behind theological concerns.
The first European led cultivation of tobacco began in 1531 on the Spanish dominated island of Hispaniola. Slowly tobacco spread in Europe, to France in 1556 and to Portugal in 1559. The French ambassador to Portugal, Jean Nicot grew fond of the tobacco and considered it to have numerous medicinal properties. His family name would be lent to give tobacco its own Latin name: Nicotiana tabacum. In 1565 the English began tobacco use and one year later Nicot was sending tobacco snuff to the Queen of France Catherine de Medici to treat her migraines. In 1571, Monardes, a doctor in Seville, Spain wrote a famous study on tobacco’s value as a medicinal plant, citing cures for more than 30 illnesses.
In the 16th century Mexico was at the front lines of an ideological war between indigenous religious and Christianity. The Mexican Catholic Church passed a law in 1575 against smoking in any church in any province of the Spanish colony. In 1577 a British doctor who had translated the tobacco cures of Monardes to English had also claimed to have discovered new medical uses for tobacco, even boasting the plant as a cure for cancer. By 1606 Spain was becoming increasingly jealous of tobacco use when King Felipe III designated select colonies as tobacco growers and made sale of tobacco to foreigners punishable by death. Trying to monopolize the production side in 1614, the Spanish king then required all new world tobacco to be shipped to Seville, making it the world center for commercial production of cigars, which were known as “Sevillas”. It was outside the cigar factories of Seville that the cigarette was born. The poor residents of Seville who could not afford a cigar would patch together discarded cigar buttes and roll them paper to create cigarettes. The use of cigarettes was then spread by Spanish and Portuguese sailors around the world.
Although pipe smoking dominated tobacco use in the 17th and 18th centuries the cigar would make a comeback in the 19th century before being definitively eclipsed in the 20th century by the cigarette. Today the world’s tobacco companies produce 5.5 trillion cigarettes annually. With daily cigarette sales averaging 15 billion worldwide, the ceremonial smoke of the Chorotegas has grown to become one of the world’s biggest businesses.
The technique of rolling Chorotega cigars may still exist deep inside Nicaragua’s countryside, though it appears likely that in very recent years the art of artisan cigar production has finally been lost. Despite limited colonial period cultivation in northern Nicaragua, the commercial production of cigars in Nicaragua did not get off the ground until after the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Post-revolution Cuban government land confiscations sent Cuban cigar expertise into exile, in search of similar soil and climate conditions abroad. In 1968, Joya de Nicaragua, one of Nicaragua’s most famous brands began growing and rolling in Nicaragua’s northern Estelí province. As more and more Cuban exiles began to arrive the Nicaraguan cigar industry grew in prominence and quality.
Today award winning cigar producers like Padron, Oliva and Perdomo call Nicaragua home and many combine an all Nicaraguan combination of homegrown filler, binder and wrapper that is harvested in Estelí, Condega and Jalapa. The final production of cigars is mostly limited to Estelí, a bustling farming and commercial center that has become a world Mecca for fine cigars, producing smokes that only the Dominican Republic and Cuba itself can rival. There are now at least 13 factories in Estelí which produce hand rolled cigars with daily production easily exceeding 50,000 cigars per day. The process of planting, harvesting, curing, fermenting and rolling tobacco for quality cigars employees more than 4,000 people in the area and even the cedar boxes are made locally in what is often a 100% Nicaraguan product.
Not all the cigar producers are of Cuban descent either. Natives of Estelí, like Don José Briones of Briones Cigar Company have a long tradition of making hand made cigars and while Don José’s factory does not produce the quantities or 90 point ratings of the big name brands, his calm smile and personal touch are appreciated by visitors who are interested to see a Nicaraguan cigar operation without all the Cuban flair. I have been fortunate to bring visitors to both Nicaraguan and Cuban-Nicaraguan operations and the hospitality of the fine professionals who own and operate these businesses is second to none. I also had to good fortune to be hired by one of Central America’s bigger tobacco growers (and finest wrapper producers) the Cuban-Nicaraguan company AGANORSA. They asked me to photograph the entire process of tobacco and cigar production from seedling to shrink wrapped box. The experience was an education and a pleasure.
I invite visitors to Nicaragua to consider a trip into the land of Nicaraguan tobacco. Although we will never have the pleasure of sharing a smoke with a Nicaraguan Chorotega chief, we can meet with a current chieftain of the Nicaraguan cigar industry and learn more about the surprisingly complicated and extraordinarily delicate process of making a top quality cigar, in the land where it all began.
Nicaragua News is a copyrighted newsletter written monthly by Richard Leonardi.