In the past Estelí  cigar factories were often closed to the casual visitor, unless you sought permission from distant owners. Today, many offer tours either to individuals or with a local specialized tour guide; the local INTUR office and the information desk at Casa Estelí can provide a comprehensive list of factories offering tours.
A simpler option is to contact Leo Flores (tel. 505/8415-2428, leoafl [at] yahoo [dot] es), a certified tour guide and expert in the cigar making process. Make sure to call Leo in advance to arrange the tours.
Empresa Nica Cigars (around the corner from the COTRAN Sur, tel. 505/2713-2230) will also allow curious visitors to come inside and take pictures of their rollers. You’ll smell the tobacco from blocks away. They are famous for the padron, a cigar manufactured using organic tobacco that has received international awards and acclaim.
Tabacalero Santiago (tel. 505/2713-2230) gained fame with endorsements from Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Charlie Sheen—and a contract to provide cigars to the Playboy mansion. The owner’s family won its first cigar factory in a poker game in Cuba shortly after World War II. Now with a factory in Panamá as well as Estelí , don Francisco provides Churchills, Figurados, Magnums, El Presidentes, and other brands to a global market.
Tobacos de Estanzuela/TESA (two blocks west of El Buen Sabor, tel. 505/2714-1800 or U.S. tel. 205/265-6703, tesa [at] munditel [dot] com [dot] ni) can offer a close up view of a small family-run operation which also specializes in carpentry. Kick back, spend some time, and hear the stories from Alan Arguello Kuper, the owner and designer of the furniture.
For an all-inclusive package where you can stay as close as possible to the production facilities, you may try contacting Drew Estate before you travel (U.S. tel. 786/581-1810, www.drewestate.com ). They have a small all-inclusive hotel and provide Cigar Safari tour packages. Drew Estate is known for producing more eclectic types of cigars with names such as Acid, Ambrosia, Chateau Real, and Isla del Sol.
Others in the area which may or may not be available for tour with a local guide and advanced notice are Plasencia and My Father Cigars.
As with a fine cigar, if you choose to take a tour, or venture out on your own, make sure not to rush. The process of producing a well-made cigar is as enjoyable as smoking one. Make sure to block out lots of time and head in with a “go with the flow” attitude. Most establishments have been making cigars for many generations and are very proud to share their stories for all truly interested.
There is history in that cigar you’re smoking — stories hidden among the tightly packed folds of tobacco and along the delicate veins of its wrapper leaf. As you light the puro in your hand and watch it turn into ash and smoke, take a sip of rum and ponder the unique legacy of the Estelí  cigar industry.
It all began with the 1959 Cuban revolution, when capitalist Cuban cigar lords found their businesses liquidated into the new socialism. These artisans of the finest cigars in the world quickly gathered illicit caches of the precious tobacco seeds their families had been cultivating for centuries and fled to Miami. From there, it was only a couple of years before they discovered Nicaragua.
One grower told Cigar Aficionado magazine that Cuba  and Nicaragua  “have the most fertile dirt in the world for tobacco. It’s almost like God said, ‘I’m going to pick these two countries and I’m going to use them for tobacco.’”
And so the core of the old Cuban cigar aristocracy moved to Estelí and, with their precious seeds from the homeland, began turning out world-renowned cigars once again. They endured another popular revolution in 1979, the ensuing civil war and land redistribution, and then survived the cigar boom and bust of the 1990s, followed by the waters of Hurricane Mitch that tore through their fields in 1998. But the business is sunk deep into the rich soil, and the handful of familial cigar dynasties that first came to Nicaragua 30 years ago are still here, and still rolling world-class cigars.
Most of the tobacco fields and giant wooden drying barns are found across the Estelí valley as it runs north away from the city, as well as in many upper reaches all the way to Jalapa . In Estelí there are about 10 serious cigar producers, a few of which will let travelers in their doors for an informal tour and perhaps a taste test. Most businesses are zona franca (free-trade zone), however, which prohibits them from selling their product within Nicaragua.
Don Orlando Padrón, head of Cubanica Cigars, keeps the doors to his Estelí factory shut for another reason: to protect the trade secrets that produce one of the most internationally acclaimed cigars in the world, El Padrón.
Some of the other heavy hitters are Latin Tobacco, Estelí Cigar, Tabacalera Perdomo (formerly Nick’s Cigars), Plasencia, and Nicaraguan American Tobacco (NATSA). Don Francisco’s Tabacalero Santiago is the newest company, one that grows and rolls organic tobacco.
The factories are scattered across Estelí, and unless you’ve got pretty good Spanish, bring a translator. Although the main tourist office will tell you all the factories in Estelí offer tours, hospitality varies widely. Don Francisco’s production manager can arrange a tour if arranged a day in advance, and Don Kiki, of Estelí Cigars, sometimes gives casual tours, maybe even a cup of Cuban coffee and a smoke.
Cigar making is a proud family tradition here and elsewhere in the world, and there’s no denying the craftsmanship of a fine cigar. But as the blunt you’re smoking burns lower, and the heat of the cherry seeps into the leaf between your fingers, consider the yang side.
Organic tobacco is grown in Nicaragua, but barely; most production employs massive quantities of chemicals, which invariably find their way into the earth, the water, or the lungs, hands, and feet of the workers. Tobacco handlers often absorb the toxic elements of the leaf, and although at least several of Estelí ’s factories have impressive, airy environments for their workers, conditions for the rollers are often no better than the worst sweatshops. And the history burns on.