Nicaragua’s Don Pepin via Street Glide

Tobacco Road In the modern world of rapidly evaporating frontiers, epic journeys of adventure and exploration are as common as drinking your morning latte from Aladdin’s lamp. While discovering new lands may no longer be an option, for the intrepid traveler, exotic sojourns remain almost innumerable. I recently learned that V-twin magic carpets do exist, and my few days in Nicaragua aboard a Harley-Davidson Street Glide would prove there is still adventure to be had in the modern era. The intended purpose of this trek was to document the cigar production for which northern Nicaragua is well known. Upon arriving, however, I was almost immediately thrust headlong into a dizzying array of both cultural and industrial curiosities, all vying for the attention of my pen. Tobacco is a primary export of Nicaragua, specifically in the form of cigars. Joining up with a group from the Zarka Cigar Lounge in Temecula, Calif., I would be able to tour the cigar factories of Don Pepin. Emigrating from Cuba to Nicaragua in 2001, Don Pepin now owns a staggering amount of land in the form of tobacco fields and factories. While the group from Zarka had an agenda that stretched from Estelí to Managua, I would break free after a few days to climb aboard the Street Glide and set out on my own into the northern high country. Poring over maps and reviewing my notes in an attempt to prearrange the adventure as much as possible, eventually gave way to daydreams featuring the unmistakable sound of a thundering V-twin carving its way through a foreign landscape. Part of that landscape involves cities, and riding through Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, is a singular experience. With its nameless streets and “might makes right” rules of the road, the uninitiated are throwing both caution, and the chances of reaching their destination, to the wind. Curious features, such as traffic signals coupled with stop signs (a backup for the almost daily power outages) and the legality of running red lights at certain hours of the night, serve to confound the first-time visitor. Fungible traffic laws, open manhole covers, and road-going horse-drawn crop carts coming in from the nearby agricultural regions are all reminders that one is no longer commuting through Los Angeles. In spite of these infrastructure issues, Nicaragua maintains an intriguing charm. From an economic standpoint, Nicaragua is nearly the most depressed country in the western hemisphere, second only to Haiti. From a practical standpoint, however, I found it an extremely welcoming tourist destination. Managua is considered to be the safest capital city in Central America, and that rings true for the country as a whole. According to most of the current and former residents I spoke with, this is due in large part to the Revolution. War being such a recent and terrible memory, civil unrest remains an untenable consideration. The simple application of a few prudent travel practices transforms Nicaragua into an adventurer’s paradise. Traveling through the outlying areas of Managua in a shuttle revealed a mix of extreme poverty punctuated by relative affluence-case in point, the Harley-Davidson dealership. With an address reading, “Kilometer 9.5, on the road to Masaya,” this dealership is as modern and well equipped as nearly anything one would expect to find in the United States. The chief reason this truly unusual location exists is the relentless passion of its founder, Guillermo Teran. Formerly working as Director Comercial de Mercados de Distribucion managing accounts such as Gillette, Duracell, Kodak, and Canon for Nicaragua, Teran left his position one year ago to pursue full-time the dream of building up the first and only Harley-Davidson dealership in Nicaragua. Complete with connected bar and under-construction cigar lounge, this location serves as a hub of activity for the vibrant local riding community. It was here I climbed aboard the behemoth Street Glide, thumbed the starter, and pointed the wheel northward, roaring off into the mechanical cacophony of Managua’s roads. The principal destination for this trip was Estelí. With over a dozen makers in town, Estelí is among the most important cigar-producing cities in the world. Literally a stronghold during the Revolution, the city’s recent and turbulent past is evidenced by the bullet holes that remain in many of the buildings to this day. On the outskirts of town, just a few kilometers from the city square, stands Don Pepin’s factory. Entering the front doors, one is presented with a sea of humanity in the form of 500 workers, quietly and precisely producing up to 28,000 cigars a day. Like the mostly agrarian economy of the area, the production of cigars is an extremely organic, labor-intensive endeavor. From field to humidor, literally hundreds of hands are involved in the production of a single cigar, and all the while little or no machinery, chemicals, or synthetics enter the process. Watching the intense precision with which the practiced hands of the laborers perform the various tasks that turn leaves into finished cigars is a nod to a world before Eli Whitney. Automation has yet to find its way into this unique craft. Compared to the capital of Managua, Estelí is a relatively small city, and each evening I would find a hotel just a few minutes from the Don Pepin factory. With few exceptions, most everyone I spoke with discouraged travel at night. What security issues may exist will typically be more of a problem at night, plus the almost total absence of street lighting in many areas means the pervasive road hazards are impossible to see. As the last rays of the sun began to wane on an evening midway through my trip, I sought out one of the more interesting destinations I would encounter. Situated on the outskirts of town, at the end of a dirt road, lies the Turicentro Estelimar Hotel. In addition to my room’s three beds, the accommodations offered three pools, an on-site science museum, computer labs, and an interpretive history walk displaying significant dates in Nicaragua’s development along its path. To my mind, the only notable fault in the hotel’s location was the access road itself; being quite rocky and rutted in spots, the Harley’s exceptionally low clearance made itself known once or twice, and it was possibly in this area that the sidestand spring was damaged, later to fall off completely. While Estelí is the focal point for the cigar industry in Nicaragua, tobacco factories and fields exist throughout this region of the country. What I was seeing in town were among the most prominent facilities, but a wide range of manufacturers exist. Setting out toward the tiny mountain town of Condega, I arrived to have locals direct me up a barely visible dirt road just off the main highway, through a small barrio to a tobacco factory at the end of the road. Nearly all of the workers in this factory lived within walking distance, many living virtually in the shadows of the large primary building. My presence at this location in particular was difficult, if not impossible, to overstate. The extremely out-of-the-way location showed no evidence of any current or former tourist presence. As the solitary camera-toting American, I became a spectacle. Rolling up astride one of the approximately 70 Harleys in the entire country ensured that I would be the center of attention for the duration of my stay, regardless of my intent. Hushed conversations and curious gazes followed me like a wave as I walked through the dimly lit rolling room, situated on a rickety loft above the stacks of tobacco drying below. Riding away from Condega towards the increasingly urban centers to the south, the innate contrasts of the journey began to unfold. Pride and desolation mingle, and the result is left entirely open to interpretation by the observer. The ramshackle dwelling, its dirt floor mindfully swept to within an inch of its life, to western eyes denotes unparalleled poverty. Yet, when offered a walking tour of the barrio, I had no hesitation leaving all of my camera equipment in the corner of the same unlocked structure. On the one hand, I realized that the hefty bag sliding from my back would quite possibly constitute a significant portion of this community’s yearly GDP. On the other hand, the mutual curiosity shared by the local residents and me as to why I was there seemed to erase the type of concerns I might have wandering around a similar barrio in a highly urbanized center. It is difficult to absorb in any real sense the nature of day-to-day existence in such an environment. Inherently, all references are by way of comparison. For the present-day western traveler there is little point of contact, and one must turn to history books or media to conjure up images of such a largely agrarian existence. Although the industrial age has not entirely avoided Nicaragua, the country has suppressed it to a degree, perhaps in large part due to the Revolution. This is evidenced in the 45 days of manual labor still required to produce a single cigar. The roads themselves also affirm (or betray) this truth. While the Pan-American Highway may resemble any other asphalt two-lane highway in the world, pulling off this main thoroughfare onto the smaller streets in the towns outside Managua reveals a network of hand-laid paving stone roadways. Commuting in and out of certain towns meant rolling over ironic streets far too expensive to construct in the United States, yet which pervade this drastically smaller economy. Further incongruity presents itself in that it is all but impossible to purchase a cigar in Estelí. Underscoring the local economic realities, this bastion of belvederes produces its wares exclusively for the export market. Perhaps in spite of this, there seems to be a profound appreciation and innate understanding of the importance of quality and craft on the part of the growers, and not merely by those in the tobacco industry. On my final day in Estelí, this focus on craft was further emphasized when I walked into the Hotel Los Arcos to see several banners, and an international collection of tasters, judges, and officials from the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE). By pure happenstance, my arrival coincided with the calibration of jurors for a competition that would begin the following week. Over 500 different samples from local producers would be cupped in competition by judges from Central America, Brazil, and the United States. Events such as these help to both elevate the status and price of the local growers’ products, as well as further refine their methods to produce better coffees. Compiling notes that evening at my keyboard in the hotel lobby was like trying to filter an ocean through a thimble. Thoughts battled so loudly for prominence I sank lower into my chair so as to not bother others with the din. Observing a cultural tapestry as dynamic as this in so short a time requires an almost calculated precision. However, such deliberate perception of something can also sterilize it. I chose the better path in walking out the door, keys in hand, and roaring the Harley to life in front of a large crowd of onlookers. As was typically the case when I fired up the bike, a few minutes of picture taking with whomever happened to be nearby elapsed before I finally retracted the sidestand and rumbled off into the distance. In less than a moment, the aforementioned mental clangor faded, eventually morphing into a sensation of simply being there. While I knew I was flying down the highway towards an airplane that would remove me from this place, for the time being I simply held the throttle open, allowing the warm foreign wind to press the experience deeper into my skin.