Mention the word Hispaniola to most Americans they will conjure up visions of Christopher Columbus and his famed landing in the Americas. He named the Island, the 22nd largest in the world, Insula Hispana, meaning “the Spanish Island”. Since then it has found itself the home of two sovereign nations, Haiti and República Dominicana (Dominican Republic). Located in the north-west part of the Dominican Republic is the city of Santiago, home to over 1.5 Million residents and an intellectual, educational, and cultural center. It is also the cigar capital of the world and the primary reason I visited the city recently.
Over the next few issues of Stogie Press we will be writing a series of articles about the cigar industry in Santiago, but first I would like to introduce you to the city as a whole. When my compadres; Ryan Gallimore from Swinger Cigars, Jim Files from Jimmy’s Cigar Shop and I landed in Santiago International Airport we were met by our taxi driver Bernardo.
My friend Ryan, utilizes Bernardo’s services when he comes to the city for business, so over the next 4 days and nights, Bernardo and I got to know each other well. It is always good to have a driver that can speak the native language and also understand English, not to mention knowing the city streets.
We drove to the center of the city to check into our accommodations, the Hotel Los Jardines, a quaint boutique hotel located a short 8 minute drive from Santiago de los Caballeros main square; Monumento de Santiago. I didn’t know what to expect, but was pleasantly surprised with the cleanliness of the establishment and the extremely reasonable $35 USD / night rate.
The staff spoke English well and were very helpful. I learned this is a hidden pearl of a hotel in the city. Many of the cigar manufacturers stay here I am told. I certainly would stay here the next time I visit, especially when you consider the $35 includes a hot breakfast each morning.
Once we checked in, it was time to go find a place to eat, but before we get to the food area, Bernardo takes us around the park that houses Monumento de Santiago, also known as Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración. The monument was originally built during the dictatorship of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo in 1944 as “Trujillo’s Monument to Peace.” He ordered its construction in his own honor. Yet, symbolically the monument was built for the centennial of the Dominican War of Independence, which was fought in 1844 to gain sovereignty from Haiti.
Of course dictators were not in favor in the middle of the 20th century and he was assassinated in 1961. Following the assassination, the government changed the name of the monument to, “Monumento a los Héroes de la Restauración” (Monument to the Heroes of the Restoration). Now it’s dedicated to the heroes of the Dominican Restoration War, fought from 1863 to 1865 against Dominican Colonist and Spanish force. Well there is my first history lesson of the Dominican Republic.
Now, those that know me understand I have traveled all over the world and can be a bit picky with the food I eat, especially the first day in a new country. Knowing that Ryan has been to Santiago often, I put my gastrointestinal trust in him and off we went to visit the food trucks by Monumento de Santiago. So now my next experience in this beautiful country is going to be food trucks! I bite my tongue and go with the flow. It was only 6 months ago that I had my gall bladder removed.
Our trusted driver Bernardo drives us over the food truck area. It is like 11PM and the area is packed with people. Ok, I’ll be quiet and follow the lead. As Ryan and Bernado ordered up some delicacies from Oche A Tu Gusto, which I now know as one the best food trucks in Santiago, Jimmy and I sat and took in the experience. I was introduced to some excellent food my first night and we all made it back to the hotel in one piece. Heck, they even had a portable convenience store cart out there.
Morning came fast as the sun rose over Santiago. It was time to begin what we came here for in the first place. We headed out to the municipality of Tamboril, a bustling hub of the Santiago cigar business located at the foot of Cordillera Septentrional mountains in the northeast of Santiago. This is where many of the Zonas can be found. Zonas are special zones, campuses, industrial parks or compounds that offer a number of special benefits to the occupants most important of these is the tax free status they have for operating. There is one special condition of having a business inside a zona; the finished product must be sold only outside of the country – or in the case of manufacturing, they must export what they produce.
After about 30 minutes of driving through the country side we arrived in Tamboril and it was clear this is a bustling community of commerce with businesses lining the roads and avenues.
We finally make it to our first stop, Tabacalera Las Lavas S.R.L in the Zona Pisano. Now I will tell you, I have worked in some pretty secure places in my life and getting entry into the Zona was just the same. We had to show identification, state our purpose, and who we were visiting. It was like going through a border control station. Of course I learned this is because a Zona is strictly controlled and is like its own little country, with governance, fire control, road mainteince, schools, security, etc. all run by the Zona. Of course no product can be taken out of the Zona when we left. Yep they check the cars before leaving!
So after being cleared to enter we drive over to Tabacalera Las Lavas S.R.L. The first thing I notice is the huge Gurkha sign on the wall of the building!
Once I entered I quickly learned this is one of the biggest manufactures of Gurkha cigars. Tabacalera Las Lavas S.R.L is owned and operated by Luis Cuevas Sr. and his son Luis Jr and has roots that goes back the 19th century. We will be doing a special article on them in a later issue of Stogie Press but for now let’s say I got my first introduction to the inside business of cigars as Ryan worked through the morning showing us what it takes to get a blend produced and getting his next delivery of Swinger cigars to the states.
This was only the start of an action packed week of getting into the depth of the cigar business. Throughout the week we visited a number of Tabacaleras including El Artista, Dominican Big Leaguer and Kelner Boutique Factory. We also spent time in some local cigar shops, restaurants, farms, casinos, and night clubs. We even visited with a local cigar box manufacturer, Artesania Estrella. You can read that article here.
Stogie Press will be posting articles on each of the Tabacaleras over the next couple of months so stay tuned for that, but for now let me take you to one of the highlights of our visit – the Camp David Ranch. No, this is not the US Presidential retreat, but it could be just the same. Camp David is a beautiful resort, set 2,000 ft above sea level with a spectacular view of the Cibao Valley, the city of Santiago, and the Central Mountain Range.
Once you drive up a winding mountain road you come upon it with all its splendor. I told my friend Ryan, next time I visit, I want to stay a few nights here with my wife, it is a perfect retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Operational since 1989, Camp David features hotel and a sublime restaurant that includes a wrap around deck that offers those splendid views as you dine. The food is terrific with ample portions and the deserts were simply delectable. Of course we were there for dinner but they also serve breakfast and lunch 7 days a week.
We enjoyed our dinner on the outside deck overlooking the city and the Cibao Valley. I have to say I felt like royalty sitting there. After dinner we enjoyed some cigars, as the sun set over the city, and the street lights started to glow down below. Heck there was even a rainbow forming before the sunset just to add to the experience.
After the night came upon us, we started our way back down to the city to enjoy some nightclub action, and that my friends, is another story which may well be left in the memory of our minds.
The rest of the week was filled with factory visits and nighttime fun. The highlight of the trip for my friend Jim Files, was our visit to the Davidoff lounge where he got to meet and talk to his idol of the cigar world, Hendrik Kelner, Sr. (Henke). Jim was just beside himself having followed Hendrik his whole life, considering him one of the fathers of the modern cigar industry.
Well, stay tuned as we continue to write out about this wonderful city and take you into the factories, fields and processing facilities introducing you to the many hands that go into making a cigar.