Puro Sabor is back, and boy am I happy about it.

After an unfortunate political situation that made things unsafe to bring in a significant number of tourists for a cigar festival in 2019, the Nicaraguan Cigar Festival, also known as Puro Sabor, is back for 2020. So am I, and so is Charlie Minato.

I arrived at Augusto C. Sandino International Airport on Monday right around noon and was immediately greeted by staff who took me up to the VIP lounge while my customs paperwork was processed, an appreciated touch of hospitality. Whether or not it lives up to your expectations of VIP and lounge is debatable, but it’s not the worst place to enjoy my first Toña beer in almost two years.

Because of the realities of travel and airline schedules, as well as the fact that Charlie had to host The Consensus live show on Monday, I decided to get in a day early. After flying down from Miami with several members of the premium cigar industry, I rolled into the Crowne Plaza Managua which would be my home base for the first part of the trip.

Side note #1: it appeared that the Real Estelí basketball team was staying in the same hotel, as when I arrived there were a few players in the lobby. They were playing against Instituto, a team from Argentina. Unfortunately, Estelí lost that evening’s contest, but I found myself watching the game in the hotel bar with a number of the hotel’s staff–it was a slow night—and to be able to join in on their cheering, even for a few minutes, was truly special.

Side note #2: it appears that both teams are staying in the same hotel, as a bunch of tall, athletic-looking men came in and were all wearing Instituto apparel and in a very good mood.

Monday night saw more festival-goers arrive and get settled in, as the first official event would be Tuesday morning: a roughly 45-minute trip to the colonial town of Granada, Nicaragua to visit Claudio Sgroi and the team at Casa Favilli, home of Mombacho Cigars S.A., as well as explore some of Nicaragua’s natural treasures.

There is something special about driving into Granada, a true colonial town with narrow roadways and some wonderfully painted buildings, including the bright yellow Casa Favilli, which has been operating as a cigar factory for almost six years, while the building itself is near 95-years-old.

While it’s a smaller factory than others we will see, the basic flow of tobacco is largely the same. It gets received, sorted, sweated, stored and then brought out to be rolled into cigars, rested and then packaged so it can end up at a cigar shop in one of 15 countries, including Spain, to which the company just started distributing.

Having visited the factory a few times, it definitely felt like returning to a good friend’s house, and much of the flow felt familiar. That’s not to say new things can’t be learned, both about the cigar-making process and a specific factory’s techniques, and there were a few that stood out. The first one that stood out this time was an additional step before the cigars get banded, where they are wiped off with a liquid that is a mixture of 75 percent purified water and 25 percent organic banana vinegar.

A small sponge is used and each cigar gets just a gentle wipe with the solution, both to clean it and to remove anything that might cause mold or plume down the road. It’s one of those little touches that Claudio Sgroi says helps to truly make the factory “boutique,” much more so than simply the number of cigars they produce on a given day.

Beyond that, and this I knew about but continue to appreciate, is that the back of the primary bands are stamped with the month and year in which the cigars were rolled. While I like box dating, I find this revealed fact to be a pleasant surprise when it’s time to take the band off a Mombacho cigar.

After the tour it was up to the new rooftop lounge, an absolutely fantastic structure that must afford some of the best views in the entire city. Sgroi led the group through his blending workshop where attendees smoke the viso, seco and ligero in the Liga Maestro line as individual components before pairing them together to see how they work in combination, and finally smoking the final, rested cigar.

The group enjoyed lunch on an outdoor rooftop patio down from the lounge a few stairs, and once fed it was off to Lake Nicaragua for a boat tour of the 365 islands. It’s become a staple of Puro Sabor and other tours that stop in Granada, so I won’t go into too many details, but yes, the spider monkeys on one of the islands seem to be doing well.

From there it was off to Masaya, an active volcano not far from Granada. It was a repeat visit for me after the 2018 festival, but the awe-inspiring feeling of standing right next to a volcanic crater hasn’t diminished, and being able to see down into an active flow of lava is quite breathtaking.

The picture really does this place no justice, but the red you see is lava, and the smoke has a sulphur-rich aroma that delivers a distinct smell when the wind is blowing the right way. It has a long-standing cultural connection that includes human sacrifice. It last erupted just under 12 years ago in 2008, meaning it’s still active, so much so that the cars are required to be parked facing the exit.

With the nature portion of the day wrapped up, it was back to the hotel where more attendees had arrived and the patio where smoking is allowed was notably more populated, with attendees—including myself—making dinner plans as it was an on-your-own evening. A small group of us ended up at Los Ranchos, a wonderful steakhouse not far from the hotel.

Wednesday’s activities get started pretty early, with breakfast beginning at 6:30 a.m. before everyone is expected to be on the bus by 7:50 a.m. so we can head to Estelí for the main portion of the festival. There will be a stop at the Victor Calvo farm to see that growing operation before the group tours begin; I am slated to see the J.C. Newman PENSA factory, home to Brick House, Quorum, El Baton and Perla del Mar.

This year there are eight groups, with each group seeing five factories, tobacco processing facilities or other cigar-related businesses, such as Cigar Box Factory and Cigar Rings, which makes the bands for numerous cigars. We’ll be bringing you photos from the facilities we visit and some unique takes on what goes into making your favorite cigar. If you have questions or would like to see something specific, leave us a comment and we’ll do our best to make it happen.

Charlie Minato will be joining in the content posting as well after today; after some flight issues on Tuesday he arrived late on Tuesday evening. We’ll both be posting to Instagram throughout Puro Sabor 2020, so be sure you’re following @halfwheel, @charlieminato and @phxcigarguy.

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Patrick Lagreid

I strive to capture the essence of a cigar and the people behind them in my work – every cigar you light up is the culmination of the work of countless people and often represents generations of struggle and stories. For me, it’s about so much more than the cigar – it’s about the story behind it, the experience of enjoying the work of artisans and the way that a good cigar can bring people together. In addition to my work with halfwheel, I’m the public address announcer for the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks during spring training, as well as for the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League, the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and the Arizona Rattlers of the Indoor Football League. I also work in a number of roles for MLB.com, plus I'm a voice over artist. I previously covered the Phoenix and national cigar scene for Examiner.com, and was an editor for Cigar Snob magazine.