We decided we had given enough money to the hotel last night for our somewhat expensive ($20) seafood dinner, even though it was good. So we skipped breakfast, just getting a cup of good Honduran coffee to go from the kitchen just before we left. I must admit, even though I am not a big coffee connoisseur, this central American coffee is pretty good. We then headed down the road, through Danli, for the 35 km run to the border with Nicaragua at Las Manos, with the road winding through the hills and farming country, We had all our paperwork, multiple photocopies, expected exchange rate details etc all prepared by the time we got to the border, and passed all the many trucks parked beside the road for a km or two before the actual border.
Once again, this border was quite a pleasant experience, if a little slow, compared to the Mexico to Guatemala crossing where, I now realise, I did everything wrong and was done like a dog’s dinner ! I am also starting to think that by the time you get this far down through Central America, all the touts realise that you probably know all the tricks, so they just don’t try them on ! Getting out of Honduras was very pleasant, and didn’t cost us a penny. After that I used one lad to help me with the Nicaraguan paperwork, and he cost me $5. Otherwise, each Adouane or Migracion officer was most helpful in pointing out which window or office to go to next.
We also had to be fumigated (again), which entails them spraying the underneath of all vehicles with some insecticide. But this time they made us get out of the car, and they promptly got one of those enormous mosquito fogging guns, which they stuck in the passenger door for a few seconds – I wish I had been in photo taking mode because for several minutes while the smoke dispersed, it looked like Troopie was on fire !! But as I am never really in a photo taking mood at borders with all the Police and Armed personnel around, it will have to remain in our memories as a light hearted moment during the day !
Two other small instances helped to make the day a bit of fun. One was when a busload of about 20 or 30 Dutch tourists arrived on a coach maybe half an hour after we got to the border, with a fairly obnoxious Spanish speaking Dutch tour guide taking all their passports and getting into the passport section just ahead of me because I had to do the vehicle papers first. This Dutch guide took great delight in telling us that he came this way regularly and that it would take at least 3 hours to get through passport control, but that may well have been because he seemed to be being quite rude and abrupt to the officer processing all his people’s passports. Anyway, I was quite prepared to wait the 3 hours – No skin off my nose. But after about 30 minutes some American came along, pushed in and got his passport done in 5 minutes. So I politely (and jokingly) asked his gopher if he would please process mine for me !! Suddenly about 10 locals slid in behind the American as he left and thrust their passports into the window – So Cooper promptly spat the dummy (nicely of course) and told them all to back up and wait their turn – And something must have worked because a totally new officer came to another window, took my passport and processed it immediately !! Tee Hee.
The second funny one was when I was dealing with my Insurance for Nicaragua ($12 but not quite sure what it covers !) and a separate guy came up and said I also had to pay $10 municipal tax. So when I asked for a receipt, he handed me a preprinted one for $1. So I said no, I want a receipt for $10 if that is what the real charge is. So he handed me a second $1 receipt and said that was for the second person (ie Janet) – So I insisted for one for the remaining $8, and he gave me two more $1 receipts and said the car charge was $2. But he still wasn’t handing me any change from my $10 !! Anyway, I continued pushing for a receipt, and suddenly he handed me my outstanding $6 change !!! Unbelievable – He was just trying it on !! Then (while I was on a roll) the guy filling out the $12 insurance form took my $15 (I had no small change left by now !) and started to walk away – So I called him back for m change and he insisted the $3 was a propina – A tip ! So I nailed him down and told him it had taken him all of 2 minutes to fill out the form, and $3 was a ridiculous propina – That he could take the form he had filled out for me and I would fill in my own form and save $3.00 !! He did not know what to do !! But he was actually quite a nice lad so I eventually let him have $2. So it seems I am getting better at this “border crossing in Central America” lark – Maybe it is time to go back to that first Guatemala border crossing and do it properly !!
After that, inside two hours we were finished and set off down the road and into Nicaragua ! First impression ? No litter !!! Guatemala and Honduras (and Mexico) people seem to dump enormous amounts of rubbish beside the road – Not just the odd plastic bottle or wrapper – We have seen cars stop and people take enormous plastic bags out of their boots and just hurl them on to the side of the road. And smaller trucks are doing it all the time. But suddenly in Nicaragua, we have hardly seen any litter beside the road at all yet – Most impressed. Roads also much better than Honduras – They certainly aren’t perfect, but since we crossed the border I didn’t really have to dodge any enormous potholes at all.
We stopped beside the road for a quick bite to eat, and then drove into Esteli by about 2 pm. Janet really wanted to tour a cigar factory so we followed our noses to a tour place and they said that we would have to come back tomorrow to join a tour. So we said that was no good for us, and they ended up calling a cigar factory and arranging for us to go over there straight away for $5 per head, including a taxi to the factory ! We didn’t want to leave Troopie parked on the street in town, so we arranged for a motorbike to lead us to the factory instead of taking a taxi, and that would mean we could then park at the factory and leave when we were ready. After telling them that a 20-30 minute tour would be fine, we then spent the next 3 enthralling hours going through the factory, seeing all the processes, and chatting to not only the staff and our excellent tour guide Ernesto, but also at the end to the owner and his wife and daughter, and having coffee with them ! But there is a tale to this factory !! Tabacalera Santiago de Nicaragua S.A. gained fame with endorsements from Arnold Swarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Charlie Sheen – As well as a contract to supply the Playboy mansion. The current owner, Don Francisco Santiago, is a Cuban, and his family won their first cigar factory in a poker game in Cuba shortly after World War II. Now, with a factory in Panama as well as Esteli, Don Francisco provides Churchills, Figurados, Magnums, El Presidentes, and other brands, to a global market.
Anyway, once again the photos tell the story better, and we went right through from the initial storage of leaves in humidity controlled areas (too moist and they get mildew, too dry and the leaves won’t roll properly) for up to a year, with the leaves being continually repacked and roughly sorted by size and colour. Then they go into a drying area to get the moisture just right for manufacturing, and then through a process of finer sorting by colour and size, and also having the woody spine of the leaf removed manually. Then eventually into the production area, where they use cigar sized Rizla type rolling machines to roll them first in a coarse roll, then a fine skin leaf is rolled over the top, before they are put into wooden moulds and pressed in giant presses to give the their size and shape. Finally they are stored in another humidity controlled room before being moved to the packing area, where they are labelled according to type, put into cellophane tubes, and packed in boxes (which are made in-house). Quality control is continuous all along the production line, with many rejects being broken up and put back into the production line, or used in lower cost cigars. But after all the labelling and packaging into boxes, the final quality control entails the boxes all being unpacked again to make sure the labelling, cellophane, and also the colour of the cigars, is absolutely uniform.
To end our tour, we bought two boxes of cigars for two good friends of ours who are confirmed cigar smokers – But these are not ordinary boxes of cigars ! We were allowed to choose the boxes, and then choose a mix of the best cigars to put in each box, before they were individually labelled and wrapped and packed in the chosen boxes. So hopefully our friends will enjoy a mixture of some of the best cigars – After they have travelled down through S America !! And of course we also have photos of the boxes being chosen, filled, and packed for us, and these will accompany the cigars to our friends. Now, where on earth am I going to store 2 boxes of cigars for the next 6 months ???
Overall a fascinating afternoon, and again something that this morning we had no idea about - We had never even heard of Esteli before, but it turns out to be a global centre for the cigar industry after the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Final touch for the day was that we had read that there was a Country Club outside Esteli which had occasionally permitted camping, so we asked the staff of Tabacalera Santiago to check if this would be possible, and we are pretty sure that calling from this factory certainly helped, because for a nominal fee they have allowed us to park in their grounds for the night. The fact that there is a Tobacco Growers conference at the Club tonight probably didn’t hurt – But ironically it is now 9 pm and there is now an incredibly load band playing right beside us that we hope will shut down before too long or we will never sleep – Even with earplugs !!
Tomorrow we will continue south to the capital Managua, and the (apparently) prettier Granada. It seems that the city of Managua sits on no less than 11 seismic faults, and there are something like 17 volcanos in the immediate vicinity !! Woooooo !! Shaky ground, one might say !! Anyway, we are looking forward to seeing what new exciting adventures tomorrow brings.