Many people come here for the cigars, and discover everything else the country has to offer.” Hendrik Kelner, master blender at Davidoff, explains the importance of cigars to the Dominican Republic when I talk to him in his private cigar lounge, La Tabaqueria, in the country’s second largest city, Santiago.
This is where your travels should start if you come to this Caribbean country due to your interest in cigars. The vast majority of the factories, like Davidoff, Fuente, La Flor Dominicana and La Aurora, are located in or outside a city that is surrounded by beautiful mountains and tobacco fields. You can also take numerous factory and field tours, if you so desire.
“You have everything here, from box makers and machine operators to factories preparing blends and tobacco farms,” continues Kelner. “It’s a cluster.” Most factories welcome visitors, especially groups, more or less at any time, some of them more actively than others.
“We’re going to have educational programs for smokers, where you can spend a couple of days with us and we organize tasting, blending, different seminars and visits to the tobacco fields,” says Gustavo Velayos Marugán, sales and marketing director at La Aurora. “Education is really important. Just to give you an example, 90 percent of smokers don’t use their noses when smoking. They just keep the smoke in their mouths. We’ve done something similar before, where our representatives have gone to places abroad to educate, but now people can come here, and that should be more interesting. They can get more involved in tobacco and we can actually show them more of the production process, like the fields and the rolling areas.”
La Aurora used to make cigarettes for Philip Morris and they also make the most popular beer in the Dominican Republic, Presidente. And if you want to know a little bit more about the history of the company you can always visit the cigar museum built at the culture centre, Centro León.
Personally, I recommend the tour at La Flor Dominicana (LFD). At the ProCigar Festival in February, CEO Litto Gómez gave his first tour ever, and it is the most relaxed and participatory tour I’ve ever taken. You just feel like a part of the LFD family.
From Santiago it’s not far to the beautiful beaches of the north coast. The bus to Puerto Plata takes about one and a half hours and, moving east, you have both Sosúa and Cabarete within an hour’s drive. Cabarete is most famous for its wind and kite surfing, while the waters of Sosúa are a bit clearer and calmer. Puerto Plata is where the resorts and casinos are.
On the beaches, eager vendors try to sell you everything from small souvenirs to boxes of cigars, but it’s best to avoid negotiating with them if you don’t want overpriced cigars. “The prices in the Dominican Republic are generally more or less like in the US, maybe a little higher,” Antonio Gómez, vice president at La Flor Dominicana, says. “But in the tourist areas they tend to jack up the prices even more.”
To put this to the test, we ask the price of a La Flor Dominicana Oro in the Best Taste Factory Cigars Shop on the main street in Cabarete.
“It’s 20 dollars,” the salesman says after either racking his brain for the actual price, or the price he’s trying to get. “It’s a very expensive cigar.” Retail price: 12 dollars.
In other words: buy your cigars in well-known lounges or retailers in the bigger cities, away from the beaches. On the opposite coast, about four hours straight down from Puerto Plata lies the capital, Santo Domingo, a city jam-packed with culture and history. La Zona Colonial in the city centre presents various old churches, cathedrals and ruins from, as the name suggests, colonial times.
In my book and, to my surprise, considering it’s the capital and by far the biggest city in the country, it’s also a lot less stressful and strenuous than Santiago, where salespeople and people in general can sometimes be very annoying in their approach to making an extra dollar.
Here you can visit lounges like the Cameroon Cigar Lounge or La Azotea at the Dominican Fiesta Hotel & Casino, a lounge made almost entirely of crystal.
You can also visit two shops on the main street of Calle el Conde – La Leyenda del Cigarro and Caoba Cigars. The latter even has a factory above the Hard Rock Café, in a small indoor mall next to the store. “We’re a new brand, with only about 20 years in the business, but we can compete with big brands when it comes to quality,” Joaquín Cambeiro Oreiro, general manager of Caoba Cigars, says.
Upon request they give small tours in the store that demonstrate how a cigar is made. “We show them the whole process, but this is just a small factory that we have in the center. We also have a big one on the outskirts of Santo Domingo.”
Because their factories are located outside the duty-free zones, their own cigars are also a lot cheaper than in the US or Europe. “All the cigars produced by the factories in the duty-free zones are for export, but we’re a local business as well,” he explains. “Here you can buy a Caoba cigar for 3 to 6 dollars – it would cost 14 or 15 in the States.”
If money isn’t an issue, however, one of the most exclusive resorts in the world is located an hour and a half away from Santo Domingo, outside the town of La Romana. Studying Google Maps you realize that the resort is actually bigger than the neighboring town with a population of 130,000. On the premises there’s a private beach, a marina full of luxury yachts, a shooting range, a polo field, five golf courses, and much more. The prices at the hotel range from 525 dollars for a room to 2,300 dollars per night for a villa. If money isn’t an issue.
For many reasons, the best month to visit the Dominican Republic is February. It isn’t too hot yet and it’s carnival time. Throughout the country a carnival is held every Sunday, climaxing with an enormous parade in the small town of La Vega, about half an hour south of Santiago. It’s the country’s independence day as well as the last day of the carnival month, so the celebration is grand, to say the least.
On one of our first Sundays, we catch the carnival in Santiago. It goes on for hours. But it turns out to be nothing compared to what we get to experience in La Vega.
We thought we’d missed everything because the streets were almost empty. But then, suddenly, the street we’re in fills with people, and immense sound systems start pumping out merengue and bachata. For the entire five- or six-hour parade, TV is broadcasting live right in front of the bar in which we’re sitting, and for this whole period of time we have to shout to one another to make ourselves heard. It’s a fantastic display of happiness, celebration, colors … And pain.
One thing you should know when visiting a Dominican parade is that you have to watch out for your behind, since some of the characters in the parade traditionally walk around with what symbolizes a pig bladder.
It’s a hard, stuffed American football-shaped thing with a tail that they use to hit their fellow parade participants as well as innocent bystanders on the backside. With full force. And it hurts.
But it’s a fun tradition as well. It keeps you on your toes, like the Dominican Republic in general.
It’s more a country for the comfortable traveler rather than for backpackers; hostels are few and far between, but it’s still a country in which you need to keep your eyes peeled. Just make sure you do that with one of their more than 200 million excellent handmade cigars that they’re exporting this year.
Retailers & Lounges
Lounge EjecutivoLa Azotea
8th floor, Dominican Fiesta
Hotel & Casino
Avenida Anacaona 101
T 809 562 8222
Av. Máximo Gómez 53
(Hotel Barcelo Lina)
T 809 687 7685
Virgilio Díaz Ordoñez 48
T 809 368 5888
Pat’e PaloEuropean Brasserie
Calle La Atarazana 25
T 809 687 8089
Cnr Calle Cesar Nicolás Pensón No. 14
Esq. Dr. Delgado
T 809 274 0404
Av. George Washington No. 25
T 809 686 2940
Calle El Conde 109
T 809 685 6425
La Leyenda del Cigarro
Calle Hostos Calle El Conde 161
T 809 682 9932
Vitolas Cigar Club
Avenida Estrella Sadhala
T 809 583 8899
Carretera Luperon k.m.1
Plaza Gurabo local 101 y 102
T 809 581 1009
Factory replica at
Avenida 27 de Febrero 146
Santiago De Los Caballeros
T 809 582 2315
Altos de Chavon
Casa de Campo
T 809 523 8111
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2015. Read more