Nicholas Melillo, founder of Foundation Cigar Company, has lived in Nicaragua for 13 years. He’s giving you an insider’s look at what makes this country a must-visit in 2017.
For those that like to take trips off the beaten path, Nicaragua is a must. What makes this country a must-visit destination? For one, it’s the people. If it weren’t for the people of Nicaragua, I wouldn’t still be living in the country. They have treated me with the utmost respect and kindness, and they want to share their rich culture with all who are open to learning about it.
Second is the country itself. Amazing beaches on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, lagunas, lakes, volcanoes, islands, hiking, surfing, waterfalls, rivers, nature reserves, fishing, coffee, and cigars—what Nicaragua has to offer to any traveler is endless.
If you’re planning a trip here, you must visit Estelí for the cigars. That goes without saying. I would suggest starting off at Laguna de Apoyo Nature Reserve, which is located close to Managua, between Masaya and Granada. It is a volcanic lake with dark sand beaches, kayaking, swimming, hiking, bird watching, and scuba diving.
Then, I would head to the volcano Masaya, which is a caldera that was formed 2,500 years ago. It is Nicaragua’s largest national park and has many pit craters in which you can look down into a smoking volcano. There is also a museum that goes into detail about Nicaragua’s chain of complex volcanoes.
The colonial city of Granada would be my next stop. It is located on Lake Nicaragua and is one of the country’s oldest cities. There are many beautiful colonial buildings and churches throughout the city. It has long been a center of commerce for gold, silver, and timber.
I would highly suggest visiting the island of Ometepe, which is formed by two volcanoes rising from Lake Nicaragua. The name “Ometepe” is from the Nahuatl language, translating to “two mountains.” Ometepe houses some of the oldest indigenous petroglyphs and artifacts of Nicaragua. Head to the beaches in and around Rivas and San Juan del Sur. Playa Maderas is great for surfing and relaxing on the beach. The resort is owned by the Pellas family, and they have done an amazing job creating the ultimate Nicaraguan beach experience. Another great resort north of Mukul is Rancho Santana. It consists of five distinct beaches with world-class surfing, chefs, accommodations, and service. They also have a great cigar selection.
Escape to El Tisey
In my leisure time, I usually travel up into the mountains, just outside of Estelí, to a place called El Tisey. It’s a beautiful piece of property with a bed-and-breakfast and a nature reserve. There is a great hike with a view of Estelí. To the north and to the south on a clear day you can see Lake Managua and the Mombotombo volcano. All of the food and drinks at Tisey are farmed organically on the property. It is a great and relaxing getaway from Estelí.
The Capital of Tobacco
In 2015, six of every 10 awarded cigars were manufactured in Nicaragua. Add to this the fact that Lonely Planet ranked the Central American country at No. 4 in its 2015 “Best in Travel” list—and that Cigars & Leisure’s readers ranked it as their second-favorite international travel destination—and you have your next must-visit destination for all cigar enthusiasts.
Arriving into Nicaragua will almost certainly mean arriving into Nicaragua’s capital Managua. Set on the banks of the lake that gives the city its name, Managua is a vibrant city born out of many years of turmoil and civil unrest. Thankfully, those days are over, but still, many tourists opt to quickly travel through the city to one of the country’s smaller, calmer cities. However, if you do choose to stay in Managua, a great place to get an overview of the chaotic city is at Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa, which occupies a hill overlooking the city. For many years this spot was home to the Somoza family, which held power in the country for over 40 years.
Back in Managua, you may wish to spend the evening at one of the city’s many casinos, where you can smoke a fine Nicaraguan cigar as you play the night away. You should take usual precautions after dark, especially with any casino winnings, by using only licensed cabs.
Continue directly to the city of Estelí, often referred to as the “capital of tobacco.” Being home to 30 of the country’s 33 tobacco producers does provide the substance to back up its claim to being the heart of the cigar industry. Estelí is a regional capital and for thousands of years has been of significant strategic importance. In more recent times it was a stronghold of the Sandinistas, the group that overthrew the Somoza regime in 1979. The city still bears witness to this revolutionary spirit with brightly painted, if somewhat faded, murals around the city.
Of course the real reason to be here is to experience the area’s cigar culture. In 2015, the cigar industry contributed $185 million to Estelí’s economy. It was the Cubans, who know a thing or two about cigars, who first realized, in the 1950s, that the area’s fertile soils and humid climate combined to produce the perfect conditions for growing the finest tobacco. Since then, the list of fine brands produced here has become like a “who’s who” of the industry, with brands including AJ Fernandez, Drew Estate, Joya de Nicaragua, Padrón, Oliva, Don Pepin Garcia, and Rocky Patel all being rolled here.
Many factories offer guided tours of their production rooms. Some are happy for visitors to come for free on the understanding that many will go on to purchase at least a few cigars at the end, while others charge a modest fee upfront. Given that relatively few tourists venture here, you may well find you have a one-to-one tour experience.
If you have a “must-visit” brand, then contacting the company before you leave home will normally result in an invitation being offered. However, the best way to decide which site to visit is simply to ask your hotel to arrange something. They will know which producers run the best visits and can also help you with transport to and from the factory. One notable option is the Tabacalera Santiago factory, which allows you to see the whole production process from its start, with an assault on the nostrils through to the nimble-fingered wrapping.
Alternatively, if you want your trip packaged, Drew Estate runs all-inclusive Cigar Safaris, which allow you and a small group of fellow cigar aficionados to immerse yourself in all things tobacco over three nights, even giving you the opportunity to blend your own cigars. The trips are good value but sell out fast.
Aside from tobacco, the region’s soils also give life to huge biodiversity. So once you have learned everything there is to learn about rolling the perfect cigar, there is an abundance of natural beauty to enjoy just outside the city. The TreeHuggers tourist information center can arrange for you to explore the area anyway you like—on foot, on horseback, or even through the opportunity to stay in a traditional homestay in the Miraflor Natural Reserve. This is a truly immersive way to properly experience the life and culture of the Nicaraguans.
If you are in the mood for dancing, then fill yourself with Latin spirit, loosen up your hips, and head to one of the city’s many nightspots. For an authentic night, Semáforo Ranchón Bar attracts an eclectic crowd to party in their cowboy hats until the early hours under its thatched roof. If you prefer to join the young and beautiful crowd, you’ll want to head to one of the city’s two nightclubs. CigarsZone is an appropriate recommendation for readers of this magazine, but be warned—do not even consider venturing there unless you are willing to make an effort on the outfit front. This is the place that the young and the beautiful go to mingle and be seen.
Rather than retracing your steps back to Managua for your return flight, you can take the legendary Pan-American Highway. The network of roads that links Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of Chile will allow you to travel back south via the colonial city of Leon. En route, those with a sense of adventure who don’t mind getting dirty in the name of a good time can stop off at the Cerro Negro volcano.
The key reason to stop here isn’t the hourlong climb to the top, even though you’re rewarded with the odd sense that you might be on the surface of the moon. Nor is it the spectacular views over the many craters and fumaroles of the volcanic chain or the lush landscape that the volcanic soils support. No, the real reason to spend an hour ascending to an elevation over 500 meters is the opportunity to spend just 10 minutes whizzing back down again on a sandboard. Sandboarding is similar to snowboarding, although do not worry if you have never set foot on either type of board. The experience here involves sitting down for the hair-raising dash back down the black volcanic sands!
So, what do you know about Nicaragua now? That it is home to some of the best cigar brands on the planet, that its people are an enigmatic and friendly bunch who are proud to show off their country to visitors, and that and that it is one of the few places in the world where you can slide down the side of a volcano at up to 59 mph. What else is there to discover? Visit to find out.
Go independent: Flights to Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, depart from Atlanta, Houston, and Miami. Flights start from $102 with Spirit.
When to go: Given the country’s varied geography, climatic conditions vary. However, the best time to visit is during the dry season from November to April.
Good to know: The entry tax is $10, payable in U.S. dollars or Nicaraguan córdobas.
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