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.”
We 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.
The 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.
Now 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.
4. 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.
“A good Cuban cigar closes the door to the vulgarities of the world.”