Banksy Schmanksy: Unexpected Street Art – Estelí, Nicaragua

We traveled to the tiny town of Estelí, Nicaragua to visit Drew Estate Cigar Co. to take the coolest cigar factory tour in the world. On our way we found some unexpected street art and graffiti that was as vivid, varied and vocal as any we’ve seen. Turns out, Estelí has a long history of using mural art to express political dissent and social commentary. Eat your heart out Banksy.  Graffiti Esteli, Nicaragua Political Art Esteli, Nicaragua Esteli, Nicaragua graffiti Street Art Esteli, Nicaragua Dog Squad Street Art - Esteli, Nicaragua Esteli, Nicaragua street art Graphic Street Art Esteli, Nicaragua Esteli, Nicaragua Street Art Esteli Dog Squad Graffiti Esteli, Nicaragua wall mural

Estelí Travel Tip

Estelí doesn’t see a lot of tourists and hotel options in town are a bit slim. We were hard pressed to find decent budget accommodation with parking. There’s a budget hostel but they don’t have parking, there’s an over-priced seen-better-days hotel with a parking lot that just felt like a rip off and then there’s Hotel Los Arcos. Rooms start at US$45 but they’re big, clean and include breakfast and there’s a secure parking lot.

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Not Your Grandpa’s Cigars: Drew Estate Factory Tour – Estelí, Nicaragua

Forget what you think you know about cigars. Drew Estate Cigar Co. is redefining the art of cigar making and marketing, as we found out when we traveled to the town of Estelí and took the hippest cigar factory tour in Nicaragua (and maybe the world) full of cool art, irreverent names and inventive, modern cigars for a new breed of aficionados.

Mural Drew Estate Cigar Co. - Esteli, Nicaragua

This 50 foot (15 meter) tall mural is just one of the many pieces of cool original art at the Drew Estate Cigar Co. factory in Estelí, Nicaragua.

The rebirth of cigars

That’s the slogan of Drew Estate Cigar Co. and the personal goal of its co-founder Johnathan Drew, a 43-year-old guy from New York City who was selling cigars in a tiny kiosk in the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan while dreaming of bigger things.

In 1998 he and his partners started Drew Estate Cigar Co. and began making some of the most unorthodox and successful cigars in the world from a massive factory in Estelí.

Blunts Mural Drew Estate Cigars - Esteli, Nicaragua

Cigars in the making at Drew Estate Cigar Co. in Estelí, Nicaragua.

Estelí is well known as a cigar producing region and there are many other cigar factories in town. As in other tobacco and cigar producing regions, Cubans brought tobacco seeds and know how to Nicaragua and the rest is history.

Inside the coolest cigar factory in Nicaragua

We’ve toured cigar factories before, including the Plasencia cigar factory and the Flor de Copán cigar factory, both in Honduras. That’s how we know Drew Estate is really doing something different. While the other cigar factories in Estelí and around the world are busy doing things the old-fashioned way, Drew Estate took a left turn at traditional and decided to go their own way.

Drew Estate Cigar Factory - Esteli, Nicaragua

One of the young workers at the Drew Estate Cigar Co. factory in Estelí, Nicaragua with a tray of finished cigars.

Rock music plays in the massive warehouse and factory facility. The staff is remarkably young. There’s cool art everywhere, a modern riff on traditional cigar box art inspired by tattoos and graffiti.

We spent hours gawking at the range of cigars (they even make square ones), learning about tobacco curing and cigar rolling and probably getting some sort of nicotine contact high in the process.

Drew-Estate-cigars-tobacco-storage

Part of our tour of the Drew Estate Cigar Co. facility in Estelí, Nicaragua included a peak into their massive tobacco warehouse where the best leaves from around the world are carefully stored before being turned into millions of cigars.

It’s not just the music and the art work that makes Drew Estate different. We learned that at Drew Estate they don’t call their cigars puros, as many other regional makers do, since they aren’t made with tobacco from a single source. Instead, Drew Estate blends tobacco from around the world, sort of like how a winemaker would blend grapes from different regions to come up with the desired flavor and aroma.

Also, unlike most other cigar makers, Drew Estate doesn’t rely on a machine to measure the “draw” of each cigar. That’s checked primarily by weight.

The only area we weren’t allowed to see during the Drew Estate factory tour was the on-site graphic art studio, called the Subculture Studio, where staff artists were busy cooking up new top secret marketing materials.

Drew Estate Cigars drying tobacco - Esteli, Nicaragua

Tobacco air-drying at the Drew Estate cigar factory in Estelí, Nicaragua.

Taking the cigar world by storm

Though there were some lean years, today Drew Estate makes millions of dollars and millions of cigars with names like My Uzi Weighs a Ton (an uzi is an official measurement in the world of cigars). And then there’s Acid.

Named for the artist Scott “Acid” Chester (that’s him on the motorcycle in the Acid logo) this is one of Drew Estate’s top sellers. Cigar purists call Acid a “flavored” cigar but Drew prefers the term “infused” since the tobacco used in Acid cigars is steeped in a secret blend of flavors.

Drew Estate’s Liga cigar is not flavored or infused and even the purists love it. It was scored as high as 89 points by Cigar Aficionado magazine.

Drew Estate cigars - Acid, Liga Privada My Uzi Weighs A Ton

A selection of Drew Estate cigars with distinctive names including Acid, Liga Privada and My Uzi Weighs a Ton.

Here are some more of our favorite shots from the Drew Estate Cigar Co. factory in Estelí and don’t miss the aficionados-only info at the end of this post.

Drew Estate Cigars sorting tobacco - Esteli, Nicaragua

Sorting tobacco at the Drew Estate cigar factory in Estelí, Nicaragua.

Drew Estate Cigars rolling room - Esteli, Nicaragua

Unlike other cigar factories we’ve toured, the work rooms at Drew Estate were airy, well-lit and even had rock music piped in.

Rolling cigars Drew Estate Cigar Factory - Esteli, Nicaragua

Rollin’ and smokin’ at the Drew Estate cigar factory in Estelí, Nicaragua.

Cigars rolling Drew Estate  - Esteli, Nicaragua

Many believe that women make the best cigar rollers.

Cigars rolling Drew Estate cigars - Esteli, Nicaragua

This guy could probably do this in his sleep.

Drew Estate Cigars - Esteli, Nicaragua

Almost done…

Drew Estate Cigar Factory - Esteli, Nicaragua

This wooden box helps ensure every cigar is well-packed so it has a good “draw” when you smoke it. Unlike other cigar makers, Drew Estate does not use a machine to measure the draw of each cigar.

Drew Estate Cigars sorting - Esteli, Nicaragua

Finished cigars pass through manual quality control at the Drew Estate cigar factory.

Drew Estate Cigars quality control - Esteli, Nicaragua

More quality control at the Drew Estate cigar factory in Nicaragua.

Drew-Estate-cigars

Finished cigars in all shapes and sizes at the Drew Estate cigar factory in Nicaragua.

Drew Estate Cigar wrapper - Esteli, Nicaragua

Fancy labels and protective packaging are added before Drew Estate cigars are ready to be shipped around the world.

Drew-Estate-cigar-box

Fancy labels and packaging are added before Drew Estate cigars are ready to be shipped around the world.

Drew Estate - Buy More, Smoke More

The unique art of Drew Estate Cigar Co. is created by in-house artists who put a modern twist on traditional cigar box motifs.

Want to really get into the cool, cool world of Drew Estate cigars? Sign up for their four-day Cigar Safari guided tour of parts of Nicaragua and, of course, the factory which includes accommodation in the very hip and plush house next to the factory. There’s a swimming pool, decks with epic views, a poker table, full staff and, of course, all the cigars you can smoke. Just don’t hold your breath: the Drew Estate Cigar Safari is already sold out for 2014.

Estelí Travel Tip

Estelí doesn’t see a lot of tourists and hotel options in town are a bit slim. We were hard pressed to find decent budget accommodation with parking. There’s a budget hostel but they don’t have parking, there’s an over-priced seen-better-days hotel with a parking lot that just felt like a rip off and then there’s Hotel Los Arcos. Rooms start at US$45 but they’re big, clean and include breakfast and there’s a secure parking lot.

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From Narco Trafficker to Narco Tourism: Taking the Pablo Escobar Tour – Medellin, Colombia

Colombian narco trafficker Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was a terrorist and a mass murderer at the head of the Medellin Cartel, the largest and most devastating criminal empire in the world during the 1980s and 1990s. Escobar murdered thousands, made billions, attacked his own country with a flood of violence and attacked the United States with a flood of cocaine. Twenty years after his death Escobar’s grave is part of an increasingly popular narco tourism tour in his hometown of Medellin.On assignment for our first piece for a fantastic, smart, long(ish) form journalism site called Roads and Kingdoms, we signed up for an Escobar Tour of the city.

The Pablo Escobar Tour is born

Soon after Escobar died his ever enterprising body guards began leading curious Colombians to some of Escobar’s former haunts. That loose route slowly coalesced into what’s now known as the Escobar Tour of Medellin. Currently offered by at least 10 different local tour companies, the guided trips vary in quality and itinerary. They also stir strong emotions among Colombians who grapple with the pros and cons of selling Pablo.

Our guide, John Echeverry, had only been leading the Escobar Tour for Medellin City Tours (US$45 per person, booked through Viator) for a few months and he admitted that he had to think long and hard before agreeing to do it. He feared it “wasn’t good to talk about those things” but now believes the tour is a good thing because foreigners learn about some of the pain Escobar caused and it encourages Colombians to discuss their dark citizen too instead of trying to pretend he never existed.

Pablo Escobar's grave in Medellin, Colombia

The surprisingly restrained grave of Pablo Escobar, one of the world’s most violent criminals, is in a peaceful, verdant cemetery on the south side of Medellin, Colombia. It’s a highlight of every Escobar Tour of the city.

Graves and ghosts on the Escobar Tour

During the course of our tour, which took about three hours, John drove us around Medellin in a brand new van and showed us Escobar’s grave, the building where he was shot, the huge fortress-like residence which was bombed by the Cali Cartel and a few other grisly landmarks. These places were certainly full of history and tension.

When we arrived at the house where Escobar died, for example, a woman on  the sidewalk out front, perhaps the owner, scowled at us as if she’d had it up to here with gawking tourists. When we arrived at the Monaco building, which was briefly used as offices by the Medellin police force post-Escobar, John told us even the cops say the now abandoned building is haunted.

House where Pablo Escobar was hiding and was killed

Escobar’s reign of terror finally ended right here when local police, US DEA agents and members of the Colombian military finally caught up with the king of cocaine. Escobar died on the roof from gunshot wounds in this quiet suburb of Medellin.

Personal memories of Pablo Escobar

It wasn’t the sites themselves or even the ghost stories that were most compelling. What made the tour worthwhile from our point of view was our guide. In perfect English and with perfect sincerity and honesty John generously shared his own memories and experiences from the Escobar era. He talked about the fear of random violence and car bombs that made him and his friends too afraid to go out. That fear was reinforced when the father of one of John’s friends was shot and killed at random while the family was having dinner in a restaurant.

He explained that part of the reason Medellin has so many shopping malls (there are a LOT) is because the malls were one of the few places where people felt safe so they flourished during Escobar’s time. Major construction projects are also a favored way of laundering large amounts of ill-gotten gain. John also recounted the time when his entire class in grade school was invited to Escobar’s ranch and hacienda for the weekend because his classmate was the son of Escobar’s cousin, business manager and right hand man (full details are in our story on Roads and Kingdoms).

Throughout the entire tour John never once used Pablo’s name, referring to him instead as “that man” as if it was still too painful to say his name out loud.

Officials at the Medellin Convention and Visitors Bureau distance themselves from Escobar Tours which they say are “not something that we promote” and locals, like John, have a complicated relationship with the tours. Everyone acknowledges that the recent increase in tourism to Medellin is a good thing but we’ve certainly gotten the impression that Colombians wish visitors would stop focusing on Escobar.

Camilo Uribe, owner of Medellin City Tours is well aware of the delicate nature of the Escobar Tour that he’s offered since 2008 but tourists can’t seem to get enough. Camilo told us that back in 2008 he was getting 3 to 4 bookings a month for his Escobar Tour but he’s now up to 3 to 4 bookings per day, 90% of them foreigners. Camilo only assigns this tour to his older guides who, like John, have personal Escobar connections and memories to share.

Monaco building - Pablo Escobar's residence in Poblado

Pablo Escobar turned this entire building, called Monaco, into a home for his family and for his car collection and art collection which included works by Dali, Chagall and Colombia’s own Fernando Botero. The rival Cali Cartel exploded a car bomb in front of the building in a failed attempt to kill Escobar. It’s empty now and some say it’s now haunted.

Bingeing on Pablo Escobar

Also as part of our reporting we’ve also been bingeing on back-to-back episodes of a Colombian-produced series called Pablo Escobar: Patron del Mal (Boss of Evil).  The chilling 74 part biopic has swept the ratings (one quarter of the entire population of Colombia watched the debut episode) but many Colombians have been unwilling or unable to relive the past in their living rooms each night.

There are also fears that the series has introduced Escobar to a whole new generation of Colombians who did not live through his carnage and who may now view Patron del  Mal as an instructional video for fast-tracking out of the slums. This risk is especially high in Medellin which the United Nations just ranked as having the most pronounced wealth inequity of any city in Latin America. You can watch subtitled episodes of Patron del Mal on the website for Telemundo which broadcast the series in the US.

So, is “selling Pablo” a good thing or a bad thing for Colombia? That’s the issue we tackled in our first piece for Roads and Kingdoms which was also published on Slate.com. In the piece we take a long look at Escobar Tours, the theme park that now operates on one of Escobar  Hacienda Napoles hideout, his son’s attempts to sell you $195 jeans with Escobar’s name on them and more. Escobar’s sister weighs in, as does famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero.

We’ve admired Roads and Kingdoms for a while. It’s one of the few well-edited outlets interested in lengthy nuanced, deeply reported takes on travel and we’re honored to be part of the site. Please check out our story and let us know what you think about Selling Pablo. Would you take an Escobar Tour?

Pablo Escobar story on Slate Magazine/Roads & Kingdoms

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The King of Cactus – Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Cactus experts tell us there are between 1,500 and 2,000 different species of cactus but in Arizona there’s just one king of cactus: the saguaro. The bloom of this tree-like cactus is the Arizona state  flower. Saguaros are only found in the Sonoran Desert and Arizona is lousy with the things.  At this point, it should surprise no one that a whole national park was created to protect this prickly prize. Saguaro National Park was founded on October 14, 1994 and it celebrates its 19th anniversary this year.

Entrance Saguaro National Park, Arizona

We love the graphic cactus on this sign at an entrance to Saguaro National park in Arizona.

Saguaro National Park is divided into the two districts, both easily reached from Tuscon. As you can imagine, it’s dry and hot in this desert landscape so try to visit early or late in the day so you can enjoy some of the short trails within the park without getting scorched.

Cactus close up - Saguaro National Park

A cactus closeup in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park.

The Saguaro is the quintessential cactus. If someone told you to sit down and draw a cactus, this is what you’d draw. They’re also a classic symbol of the Wild West right up there with tumbleweeds, ten gallon hats and hitching posts.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Despite its prickly spines, saguaros make nice homes for critters including the Gila woodpecker, as the holes in this one attest.

Every species of cactus is built like a sponge but the saguaro is particularly thirsty. It can hold up to 200 gallons (757 liters) of water for up to a year. The saguaro can shrink or swell by up to 25 percent depending on how saturated it is.

Giant Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Eric dwarfed by a saguaro cactus in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. They can grow to up to 40 feet (12 meters) tall and can weigh more than a ton.

In the United States, Saguaros are only found in the wild in Arizona and, rarely, in southeast California. Saguaros have also become a popular landscaping plant but many of the saguaros you see in front yards were illegally harvested.

Saguaro Cactus Forest - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros as far as the eye can see in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park. In the US, this cactus is only found in the wild in Arizona and a few parts of southeastern California.

Saguaros can grow to up to 60 feet (18 meters) tall, however, they may take their sweet time getting there. In dry conditions it can take years for a saguaro to grow just a few inches. In wet years a saguaro may shoot up five feet (1.5 meters).

Cactus - Saguaro National Park

Not every cactus in the park is a saguaro. Here’s a rebel.

Fully grown and fully saturated, saguaros can weigh up to a ton making them the largest cactus in the United States. Saguaros typically live between 100 and 200 years though experts admit some giants may be even older than that.

Golden Eagle landing on a Saguaro Cactus

We have no idea how birds like this Harris hawk can land on something as thorny as a saguaro but they do it all the time.

The “arms” branching out of a central trunk, which we associate with saguaros, don’t develop until the cactus is many decades old. Some saguaros eventually sprout more than 50 arms. A saguaro without any arms is called a spear.

Saguaro Cactus - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

Saguaros in the afternoon sun in Saguaro National Park in Arizona. The saguaros pictured above without any arms are called spears.

Cactus jungle - Saguaro National Park, Arizona

It’s a cactus jungle in Saguaro National Park.

Cactus Arizona desert

You’ll be in a forest of saguaros in Saguaro National Park but don’t forget to look for other species, like this one, too.

Cactus Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A cactus cluster in Saguaro National Park in Arizona.

Bonus: the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Two miles (3 km) from the Saguaro National Park visitor center you’ll find the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and we highly recommend it. Yes, there’s no shortage of cactus in the park but this living museum presents a huge variety of species and lots of cactus-loving critters in a great setting. A two mile (3 km) stroll takes you through a meticulously curated zoo and botanical garden celebrating the best the Sonoran Desert has to offer including 40,000 types of cactus and other desert plants, many of them rare or endangered, and desert animals ranging from cougars to butterflies.

Cactus flowering - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

Flowering Cactus - Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

A flowering cactus at the excellent Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum near Saguaro National Park.

One last prickly issue

You will notice that we have worked really hard to avoid using the plural of cactus in this post. That’s because we couldn’t decide which one to use. According to that know-it-all Merriam-Webster, cacti, cactuses and cactus are all correct.

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