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The Forbidden Souvenir…Cuban Cigars

Posted by Tony & Cheri on February 24, 2008

“The most futile and disastrous day seems well spent when it is reviewed through the blue, fragrant smoke of a Havana cigar.”
Evelyn Waugh

Boxes of Cuban cigars waiting for buyersWe often associate the quality of things with where they come from. For instance, popular belief tells us the best chocolate is from Switzerland and the best wines are from France. And it is widely believed by many that the world’s best cigars come from Cuba.

Some countries like the US refuse to trade with Cuba and have a strictly enforced embargo on all Cuban goods, including cigars, prohibiting their purchase or importation to the US. However, Mexico does not participate in the embargo. Tourists in Mexico can find such treasures as Cuban cigars, cigarettes and rum for sale here. It seems that Cuban cigars are especially sought after by Americans in Mexico as the souvenir of choice despite the prohibition. Perhaps it is because of the legend of how great Cuban cigars are or perhaps it is the lure of the forbidden. Whatever the reason, it’s a common sight in Playa Del Carmen to see visitors from all over the world lighting up under the portrait of a cigar-smoking Che Guevara which seems to hang in every tobacco shop down here.

Unfortunately, in addition to fine Cuban tobacco, the unsuspecting tourist can also find plenty of counterfeit Cuban cigars. All too often someone says, “I smoked a Cuban cigar. It wasn’t anything special at all.” Sadly this person probably never did smoke a real Cuban. The $20.00 Cohiba he bought from a street vendor may actually have been a cheap $2.00 Mexican cigar with a fake band. It is a very common scam but one that can easily be avoided.

Recently we did a tour of the local cigar shops to talk with the owners, salesmen and smokers to find out how anyone visiting Playa Del Carmen could tell the difference between a true Cuban and a fake one. It turns out it’s not very difficult to guarantee your Cuban cigar actually came from Cuba.

Che Guevara enjoying a Cuban smokeThe first rule we learned is to only buy from a licensed Cuban tobacco dealer of which there are several in Playa. Never buy from someone on the beach, the street or in a small market or store. Such people have no access to Cuban trade goods and aren’t authorized to sell them.

Next we heard about packaging. Cuban cigars are usually sold in boxes of 15 or more. The box is always completely made of either wood or strong cardboard…top, sides and bottom. The box should be sealed with an engraved stamp from the Cuban government that has a secret hologram on it that only appears under black light. Any reputable dealer will be glad to show you this hologram.

We were told that NO Cuban cigar is sold in a wooden box of less than 15 cigars and never in a box with a glass or plastic lid. If you are offered such a “gift” box, the cigars are most likely not true Cubans.

Cuban cigars are sometimes sold in groups of less than fifteen, but only in cardboard and paper containers printed with the name and logo of the maker on the front. In addition, each individual cigar within the container is in a plastic or metal tube with the name of the maker printed on it. No Cuban cigar maker sells cigars in clear, unmarked plastic or glass tubes. A cigar offered as a Cuban in such packaging is a fake.

You can also examine the cigar bands or rings for authenticity. The bands should all be uniform in their placement on the cigars. One should not be much higher or lower than the next one. The bands should be wrapped completely around the cigar and the band should overlap itself neatly when wrapped around the cigar. A band which is lopsided or badly wrapped is a dead give away of being a fake. And of course the bands should match. A band with part of the logo missing or cut off is obviously fake, as is the cigar it holds. The printing on the band of a true Cuban cigar will be perfect.

Finally we were told to look at the cigar itself. A true Cuban should feel firm but not rock hard. It should be well rolled but not look like an assembly line product. After all, these are hand made cigars; small differences resulting from the hand rolling of the cigars indicate authenticity. And smell the cigar. A Cuban will have a very strong but not unpleasant odor. If you cannot “taste” the cigar by its fragrance before lighting it up, it is not a true Cuban.

Cigar rollers at Morgan's Cigar Store on 5th Avenue at Calle 6Now you know how to avoid being ripped off with a fake Cuban cigar. But how do you choose a real Cuban cigar from the many different brands and types? We suggest reviewing the ratings and articles on Cuban cigars in Cigar Aficionado Magazine, or on their website, www.cigaraficionado.com There’s lots of great information here to help you pick the type of cigar you think you might enjoy.

So where can someone go to buy a Cuban cigar in Playa Del Carmen? There are six Cuban tobacco dealers on Fifth Avenue who sell authentic Cuban tobacco products. They are (going south to North on Fifth Avenue):

1. La Bodeguita del Medio, in the Paseo del Carmen shopping center at the southern end of Fifth Avenue. The Bodeguita del Medio is a restaurant, bar, souvenir and cigar shop. You’ll find Cuban music, logo clothing and an excellent selection of authentic Cuban cigars. The name and the ownership is the same as the Havana nightspot made famous by Ernest Hemingway. You can take your cigar outside, sit at the tables and chairs that are provided and sip an excellent glass of Cuban rum while you smoke.

2. Morgan’s Cigars, on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Calle 6. Morgan’s is a large tobacco store with an excellent selection of low priced Mexican tobaccos and high quality Cuban cigars. Their claim to fame is their outside rolling table where cigar experts hand roll cigars which you can then purchase. However, these are not made with Cuban tobacco. Still, it’s fun to watch. If you use your VIP Smart Card, you’ll receive a 10% discount.

3. Señor Habano Cigars, on Fifth Avenue between Calles 6 and 8. A small shop with a large selection of Cuban cigars. Smoking accessories, t-shirts and other paraphernalia are also available.

Authentic Cuban cigar packaging and boxes4. Havana Cigar Company, across from the Tequila Barrel on 5th Avenue between Calles 10 and 12. This small cigar store offers the requisite Cuban selection and some lower cost cigars as well. Tony bought a really cool Che Guevara t-shirt there.

5. Casa Partagas Cigar Shop, on 5th Ave between Calles 12 and 14. Another basic smoke shop with an excellent selection of Cuban tobacco, including Cuban cigarettes, which are hard to find.

6. La Casa Del Habano, on 5th Avenue between Calles 26 and 28, right around the corner from our favorite hotel, the Luna Blue Hotel & Garden. This is an international franchise with shops in Germany, Saudi Arabia, Aruba, Argentina, Great Britain, Spain, and France. This is a cigar bar. They offer the widest selection of finest Cubans and both indoor and outdoor smoking areas. They are seriously into Cuban tobacco here and will take their time to work with you finding the best smoke for you. UPDATE: Sorry to say this one has since closed.

A Cuban cigar is a thing of quality. It is expensive and unique. A good Cuban will smoke slowly for an hour, sometimes more. It is to be enjoyed by itself or with a glass of good wine, whiskey or better yet, Cuban rum. It is not something you rush through or casually light up on an evening of bar hopping or partygoing. Think of the Cuban cigar like you would a glass of excellent wine…something to be quietly enjoyed to its fullest.

Finally, a word of caution. While many places in the world restrict public smoking, Mexico does not. Here in Playa Del Carmen it is up to the individual to decide what is polite public smoking. Use some common sense and an awareness of those around you. Don’t light up your cigar, regardless of how expensive it is, in a restaurant or crowded bar. You won’t be able to give the experience the attention it deserves, and it will force those who may not share your enthusiasm to literally swallow your smoke. If you want to smoke in public, choose a table far from other people. Better yet, find a place where you can enjoy your smoke in peace. A walk along the ocean, a chair in a beach club pulled a respectful distance away, or a smoking deck or area of a club all fit the bill.

Enjoy.

“A good Cuban cigar closes the door to the vulgarities of the world.”
Franz List

20 Responses to “The Forbidden Souvenir…Cuban Cigars”

  1. Bob Verney said

    I know someone who has an opened, green sealed box of Cohiba / legitimo tabaco, 25 cigars, importado LaHabana, Cuba. The box is wrapped in a pale paper.
    They would like to know the value. Is that possible?
    Thanks.

    Sorry, wish we could help, but we can’t. We have no idea what it’s worth. We suggest maybe one of the many Cuban cigar websites that are on the internet, as a source for info.

    Tony & Cheri

  2. Carlos said

    See you guys soon!

  3. Al said

    Wow! What a great article! Kudos to Tony & Cheri you are the best! Thanks for the info.

  4. jb said

    thanks so much for the info.

  5. Absolutely great information. Who knew? Keep up the great work.

  6. Graham said

    I just recently visited Playa Del Carmen Last week 10-31, brought 4 Cohiba Sublimes @22.00each usd.

    at Morgan S Tobacco. I am sorry to they were couterfeits.

    I unfortunately did not smoke any these while I was still in Playa, but discovered the problem when I arrivied in Cancun.
    I HAVE CROSSED Morgan S Tobacco off my list!

  7. Graham, sorry you got ripped off! Tony buys his cigars from either the store at Bodequita de Medio Restaurant & Bar or at Casa Partagas. Would you mind sending another reply and let us know how you discovered they were counterfiet? Taste, wrapping or something else?

    We also wanted to let people know that Casa Del Habano closed this summer.

    T&C

  8. Patrick said

    I have to give a wholehearted recommendation to the Havana Cigar Company – Michelle was a tremendous help to me during my recent trip to PDC. If you want Cuban cigars from a great store – go to Havana Cigar.

    I didn’t attempt to buy Cuban cigars at Morgan’s, although I did pick up a few of the handrolled cigars out front and am letting them sit in my humidor for a few weeks before giving them a try.

    Partagas and La Bodeguita del Medio are also good – the nice thing about the latter is the good food and drink that you can enjoy while having your cigar.

    Thanks for providing this resource for discussion – it helped me out tremendously as I ended up bring a list of these shops with me so that I didn’t waste time hunting around for legit shops.

    Unfortunately there are guys hawking $1 and $2 “Cuban cigars” and drugstores selling them out of jars at the register.

    Here’s the reality – good Cubans cost anywhere from $10 – $40 per stick, and retailers who appreciate the quality of a good Cuban cigar are going to put forward a store that reflects their belief in the product. They are not cheap – but if you are a regular cigar smoker who has developed the palate and appreciation for quality and regional differences, it is a good investment to sample the Cuban product.

    With that being said – I highly recommend the Bolivar cigars at Havana Cigar. Full-bodied, great burn, and the best start to a vacation I’ve had in a long time.

    And be sure to say hi to Michelle for me!

  9. Joe said

    I just returned from Playa del Carmen on 31 Jan 2009. I bought a great cuban (Montecristo, 5×50 or 5×52) for $12 that had a smooth finish. I got it at Señor Habano Cigars. I had not seen this article before hand, so I feel lucky. The shop was small, but it had a glass enclosed humidor protecting his cigars at the back, something many of the other rip off shops do not have. Owner seemed to know his stuff and was able to talk about different tastes and consistencies of cubans. He steered me away from Cohiba’s stating that now days they were more name recognition than anything else (I do not know enough to disagree). He claimed the Montecristo was recently reviewed in Cigar Aficianado, but since I do not get that I do not know if he was right or wrong.

    I do not fully recall the Montecristo reviewed, but he said it was recently. Anyone have any ideas since I can not recall the exact cigar I bought?

  10. Grant said

    I have a friend going to Playa, can anyone tell me where he can go to pick me up a couple boxes of cubans without getting ripped off (he isn’t cigar experienced). I have list of cigar shops along 5th Ave, does anyone know how to find out how to get a list of cigar inventory of stores, and pricing? I was able to find a phone # forMorgans Cigars but also read that someone thought they got ripped off from there. Maybe better to buy boxes, not individual cigars? Looking for Trinidad, Diplomatico, Partagas, something that is not really commonly counterfitted.

    I’m not sure the seletions they have down ther so I would like to find out ahead of time if I could. Anyone experienced cigar shopping in Playa before and could help me out?

  11. Vicente said

    Helow.
    Im the CASA DEL HABANO manager in Playa del Carmen.

    WE ARE NOT CLOSED. WE MOVED FROM 5TH. AVENUE TO 28 STREET AND THE BEACH…..just in front of mamita´s parking lot.
    Since we are a franchise we only sell original cuban cigars.

    Hope to see you guys over here.

    • AJ said

      Hey Vicente,
      Are you in the habit of replying to emails sent to your business via your website? We are going to be in the Mayan Riviera next week and I am interested in ordering cigars but no one replies to my repeated emails Casa del Habano.
      Thanks,
      AJ

      • Alejandro said

        Hey AJ and everybody who would be interested in visiting La Casa del Habano in Playa del Carmen. Here is our new website: http://www.lacasadelhabanoplayadelcarmen.com.
        Any question or email you can send through the contact section in this website.
        Hope to see you around to enjoy a nice cigar in our lounge bar.
        Alejandro

  12. Jay said

    I’m going to Mexico in a few months. As a rather new cigar afficianado, I assume that since the US dollar is worth about 12.25X as much down there that a gentleman like myself could score quite a few authentic Cubans for pennys on the barrel? I want to travel just across the border to find a licensed cigar shop that is close. (I don’t think Mexico is all that safe at the present time) Any suggestions? I figure with the currency converter I can get a $20 Cohiba for about $2 US….

  13. ROLANDO said

    QUISIERA SABER EL TELEFONO DE TABAQUERIA MORGAN DE PLAYA DEL CARMER

  14. Kevin said

    Just returned from Playa del Carmen and visited La Bodeguita del Medio while there, was very helpful at the store. I purchased a box of Punch Royal Corona Tubos (Dec 07) and a single (can’t buy Punch in Canada). Smoked the single back at the resort that night and it had no draw terrible, but tasted cuban (was a little worried) Waited to get back home to open the box and they are just perfect cuban’s. They appear to have been stored very well, nice moist cigar with a good draw and very complex smoke. The best thing is the box is already aged a couple of years and ready to smoke if you want.

  15. Ben said

    Hi, just to reiterate the comments above about the La Casa del Habano in Playa del Carmen.
    I live around here and it the ONLY place that I will buy my cigars, I just trust the La Casa brand more than the others…and have known more than one person to be sold counterfeits from more than one of the other stores mentioned above. I won’t name names and I hope that they were one off experiences.

    La casa meanwhile has always served me well, it has a great atmosphere, great mojito’s and they carry Edition Limitada’s that are exclusive to them.

    They are no longer on 5th they have moved down to the beach-end of 28th (just ask for Mamita’s and you’ll find them…

    Maybe I’ll see one or two of you down there for a smoke one day

    Ben

  16. AJ said

    Ended up passing on Playa Del Carmen as we had three days of monsoon weather and wanted to stay close to home. I ended up buying 2 boxes of cubans at duty free and they were a decent price.

  17. Brian said

    Heading down there on May 16th hoping to finally try a REAL cuban. It looks like I will be stopping by the La Casa del Habano, as everyone seems to enjoy it.

    Thanks for all the helpful insight.

  18. Brad said

    I’m going to PDC in September 2010 and I think I will try La Casa in Playa. Any other recommendations? I plan to hit PDC, Cozumel, Cancun and maybe go further south of Puerto Adventuras. I am looking for legit cigar shops with Cubans. Thanks in advance!

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