Buffalo Hunting in Contra Country
It was a good thing Bill and I arrived in Esteli on a Thursday night. In this Nicaraguan backwater — the cigar capital of the country — that means Tracksig, the disco, is open. What it really means is, unless the disco is open, there’s nothing else to do in Esteli… unless you count drinking warm rum in a tool shed as “something to do.” Well, it was Thursday night, we had made a fairly easy trip from New York’s JFK International to Esteli, Nicaragua, and Bill and I were ready for whatever “fun” was to be had in a town that has more cigars than people.
|In Esteli, Nicaragua with Nick
Perdomo Jr. and Tim Ozgener
Welcome to Esteli
By all accounts, Esteli is probably the least convenient place in Central America to make cigars. It’s dangerous (kidnapping is a concern for Americans, according to Travel Alert); it’s hot (Africa hot); and it’s the former hotbed of revolutionary Communi st fervor. It’s a nerve wracking two hour trip from Managua, best made during daylight, as most of the wheeled transportation is a few brakepads and headlights short, and the driver’s test merely involves a 50 cordoba “application” fee and a vehicle that can roll downhill. Yet, with the rich, loamy soil of Esteli, Jalapa, and Leon within striking distance, Esteli will always beckon to those with tobacco in their veins.
The only thing in my veins that night were the two scotches that got me through the bumpy prop flight between San Salvador and Managua (note to self: never fly TACA) and an apre-flight Victoria beer. But, at least we were here. Disembarking at Nick’s Ciga r factory, we quickly dropped our baggage and head to the local steak joint for another Victoria and some churrasco. Nick’s casa was full, so he had arranged to put Willy and I up at the Hotel Moderno, the nicest hotel in town (based on the fact that the insects are the smallest, no doubt).
Nick Perdomo Jr. held court at the table, which featured a weary looking bunch of cigar people that included: Willy Nash, Smoke and Smokeshop photographer; Tim Ozgener, eternally smiling underboss of CAO International; Jonathan Sann, perpetually reinvente d cigar man and bon vivant; and me. Nick liberally dispensed rum (the excellent Dominican Barcelo Anejo), Cokes, and Victoria beer. A few Perdomo Reserves were smoked, and plans were laid for the quick jaunt to Tracksig, Esteli’s all-purpose Studio 54 and Rotary Club.
|Don Kiki, the wheelman on the journey to Danli.|
The “disco” was hot and crowded with several hundred Esteli locals. Ricky Martin’s “La Vida Loca” seemed to be the only English single playing, and received heavy airplay — about every fifth song. Nick and Tim divided their time between skillful gyration s on the dance floor and deep cigar conversation revolving around leaf and ligas and the new Cigar Aficionado. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I spied Kiki, and saw the answer to our sleeping arrangements immediately.
Henry “Kiki” Berger is the Director of GRAFATAMSA (Gran Fabrica de Mundial, SA), better known as World Cigars, and the owner of the newly established Tabacalera Esteli (Cupido’s new home). Standing about 5’ 6” tall and weighing in at close to 300 pounds, Kiki is an awesome sight to behold, and ounce of his body contains an easygoing and friendly nature. More importantly, Kiki was my friend, and Kiki had one of the nicest houses in Esteli — our ticket out of Hotel Moderno hell. Kiki bearhugged me enthusia stically, invited me to stay at the aptly named “Cinco Vegas Mansion,” and joined Nick, Tom and me at the table.
Things were starting to come together.
Whenever Kiki is around, there is sure to be some interesting extracurricular activities at hand. I explained to him that Friday was reserved for the usual “inspection” tour of Esteli — visits to all of the factories, interviews, photos, and various publ ishing stuff. However, I had an intriguing weekend jaunt planned: buffalo hunting on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras.
“You’re going to shoot a buffalo?” Kiki asked incredulously.
“Well, I’m not. But somebody is, and you’re coming,” I told him.
“Okay…we’ll take the truck. But first we need some practice.”
|“Nick, Tim, and Henry “Kiki” Berger after riflery practice.|
The next morning we set out for Condega, where the Nicaraguan Army keeps a small training camp. Nick, Tim , Kiki, Willy and I were going to practice small arms training Luckily, it happened to be the Army’s anniversary celebration, so the day was reserved for a friendly civilian firearms competition. There would be a riflry contest featuring AK-47s and a pistol shooting contest with 9 millimeter handguns. Kiki brought his Glock, and Nick brought along his beautiful Sig Sauer. I felt a long way from New Yo rk, surveying the mix of alcohol, Nicaraguan army personnel, news media, and firearms.
|Nick’s practicing with his new and improved debt collection system: the Sig Sauer 9mm|
The AK-47 competition went poorly for the cigar contingent. Nick scarred the target a few times. Tim injured some tall grass, and I was reduced to lying about “nicking the target some.” As for an excuse, the targets were tiny and about three football fiel ds away. The guns were old and Russian. But, with the exception of Nick, we all had to face the fact that we basically sucked.
The handgun event was more eventful. Despite a faulty spring in the Sig’s clip, Nick managed to pockmark the center of the silhoutte target, Kiki handled his Glock expertly, and I managed to at least wing my target. Tim, however, came away disappointed ag ain. (Note to the street rabble of Nashville: you’re safe for the time being). We came away from the event elated, although a touch shellshocked, due to the loud and nerve-pounding rocket launcher demonstration. But we were ready for the buffalo — God help him.
|A map of Honduras greets us at the La Entrada border crossing.|
It’s pretty easy to get from Esteli, Nicaragua to Danli, Honduras. Usually. Unfortunately for Kiki, Willy and myself (Nick and Tim were unable to join us at the last minute, as they were rushing a L’Anniversaire torpedo order out) the routine three hour trip involved more than the usual pothole-strewn journey and $20 border bribes. Relying on a dubious “tip” from a cigar manufacturer whose name will remain thankfully anonymous, we were informed that the direct route, through the Los Manos border crossin g, was closed. No big deal. Just take the La Entrada crossing.
|US Marine-build bridges pave the way from Tegucigalpa to Danli.|
The ensuing journey turned a three hour trip into a nine hour debacle, which detoured us through Tegucigalpa, (the capital city two hours further north than our destination). The highlight of the trip was the purchase of a Whopper sandwich at Burger King, which was almost worth it, considering our three day stay in Esteli, Nicaragua — home of some of the world’s most dangerous food.
At two o’clock in the morning, when we finally arrived in Danli with tears of grateful joy in our eyes, cigar manufacturer Gabriel Lardizabal informed us the Los Manos border was open all along. (Note to self: Ask at least 10 Nicaraguans for directions be fore traveling, combine randomly, and then follow your own advice). Logging this vital travel suggestion for next time, we got ready to see what jewels lay underneath the dusty backwaters of this cigar country’s dubious gem, Danli.
Once on Danli proper, we dusted off our heels at a taco stand, where we found our friends: Gabriel Lardizabal (hunt-master and erstwhile head of Honduras-Cuban Tobaccos); Roger Ralphs, owner of Purofino Cigar Company and HCT client, and assorted guests. I t was about two in the morning and, since we were only six or seven hours late, the boys were somewhat eager to get this buffalo hunting expedition started.
Gabriel Lardizabal has a problem. Well, ten of them actually. Ten big, hairy, mean problems. Let me explain. Besides being the owner of Honduras-Cuban Tobaccos, Gabe has found himself in charge of several ranches along the Rio Coco river on the Honduras/N icaraguan border. On one of those ranches, at the end of the road in Arenal, roams about 125 head of black African Water buffalo. Ten of them, angry roan bulls, were messing with the herd, inbreeding with the prize black bulls, and fighting for dominance. They were going to be turned into tasty buffalo steaks.
|The entrance to Don Gabriel’s ranch in Aranales, Honduras.|
But here was the problem. The ranch was only accessible by 4-wheel drive, so you couldn’t drive a large truck in to cart them off. You could herd them to the main access road, and get them into a truck at that point. The problem with that plan was: a) get ting them into the truck, and b) keeping them in the truck. The first time Gabe and Danny got one into the back of a delivery truck was the last time. The 1,800 pound bull, tranquilized to the hilt, destroyed the entire back cab of a Mitsubishi. The real problem was the bull itself: the largest and thickest boned animal in its class, the African Water Buffalo gets pissed easily. They don’t like to be turned into tasty buffalo filets. They like to charge, and fight.
The only way off the ranch was via Remington 30.06, and Gabe’s client, Roger “Dr. Puro” Ralphs, was enlisted to do the dirty work. We were along to watch, and after four hours of off-roading through Honduran mountains, it remained to be seen if the trip w ould be worth it. Interestingly enough, Gabe had been in contact with the original Motor City Madman, Ted Nugent himself, recently. The “Nuge” wanted dibs on the next one, and he was going to shoot it with an arrow. Well, I figured, if the trip was good e nough for The Nuge, it was good enough for me.
|We spot the herd of African Water Buffalo.|
When we finally arrived in Arenal, day was breaking over the lush Honduran hills. We were on a ranch that was near former staging grounds for the US-supported Contras — a stone’s throw away from Nicaragua on the Rio Coco that divides the two countries. Kiki manhandled the Toyota Hilux pickup through the steep mud. Looking to my left, a precipitous 500 foot drop stared me in the face. Most of the eight mile ride into the ranch was similar, and only the total lack of sleep kept me from an underwear change .
When we finally got to the ranch proper, we were greeted with a sight so beautiful that rapidly melted my New York indifference. We were at Old MacDonald’s. There was definitely a oink-oink here and a moo-moo there. Here a duck, there a dog. I mean, this was a real farm, and every animal was represented. Arabian horses lounged in fenced off corrals. About 50 head of cattle were being milked. Pigpens bustled with small pink pork families. Chickens laying eggs. This was the real thing.
|The unwitting “special” at Casa Havana.|
It really sunk in when we met Gabe’s cousin Danny Lardizabal .A serious country gentlemen and ranchero supreme, Danny came up to the ranch on one of the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen. This guy was an actually cowboy. The only difference was this gu y smoked Purofinos instead of Marlboros. His job would be to keep the buffalo from mauling us and the pickup truck. Removing his chaps, Danny greeted us, and invited us into the ranch house. He had seen us coming over the hills, and had a quick breakfast of huevos, beans, and tortillas prepared on the wood-burning stove. We ate, and got ready for battle.
More Target Practice
It was immediately apparent that some riflery practice would be necessary. As Dr. Puro was not present for our Nicaraguan exercises, and he was the trigger man, he would need to work out with the Remington. Setting some bottles up on a fence about 50 yard s away, the Doctor plugged away, steeling himself for the mission to come. 50 yards, apparently, was about as close as you wanted to get to one of these bulls. The last time, Indian Tabac man Phil Zanghi plugged one and got chased back into his truck by a 2,000 pound bull, who promptly lifted the entire back end of the Toyota five feet into the air while Gabe and Phil stood terrified in the cab.
The goal was a clean, humane, shot — taken from a distance. The bull would go down, be field-dressed, and carted back to Tegucigalpa for butchering. There was no question of clemency. Gabe had already invited about 50 people to his private Casa Havana ci gar club for a Grand Buffalo Roast. It was advertised in the paper. His fate was sealed.
We expended about 25 more rounds of jacketed 30.06 slugs, killing several Port Royal bottles in the process, and got the truck prepared for the two mile journey into buffalo territory.
|“El Rojo” is culled from the herd.|
On of the most beautiful animals in the world happens to be the African Water Buffalo. Unfortunately for them, they also happen to be one of the most tasty. Standing nearly five feet tall at the withers, and about as wide as a Volkswagen Beetle, the buffa lo is a massive creature, adorned with wrap-around horns that sit beneath a proud head that, by itself, can weigh upwards of 100 pounds. Entering the grazing fields, we spied the herd — 125-odd head of these majestic looking creatures eating their way th rough a football-sized area of the ranch.
The rouge buffalo was immediately apparent by his roan coloring and attitude. Jostling with one of the prize black steers, the bull was a trifle smaller than our red friend, but infinitely fiestier. Danny separated him from the herd, driving him into an o pen area near the river, which would serve as the killing grounds. It struck me as sad that an animal so completely majestic would be killed in this unbelievable setting. It reminded me how far removed I was from the real world, where refrigerated T-bone steaks beckon beneath layers of sterile plastic wrap. If I was going to be a carnivore, I decided, I better get used to the fact that, before the steaks end up at Waldbaums, they’re walking around. My moment of conscience abruptly ended when my stomach ru mbled. I was hungry.
|Roger “Dr. Puro” Ralphs gets a bead.|
Well, the time had come for Dr. Puro to do what he had to do. About 50 hungry Hondurenos and assorted guests were depending on us to bring home the bacon (or, in this case, the steak), and Roger was the man going to make it happen. After nine hours on the road, four hours off the road, careful preparation, and two rolls of Tums (Reminder: white people shouldn’t eat huevos rancheros for three days in a row at breakfast) it all came down to this. One man and a buffalo. Roger fingered the loaded Remington n ervously as he took his place in the field. The lone buffalo was about 75 yards away, seemingly oblivious to his fate.
Bringing the Remington up to his shoulder, Dr. Puro awaited his instructions.
“Well, he’s in the clear, Doc. Let’s get this done,” intoned Gabriel. Roger was somewhat flustered at the prospect of being personally responsible for the buff, and clearly concerned that the rest of the hunting contingent had retreated about 50 yards aft , huddled near the Toyota. I was limbered up, and ready to hop into the backseat of the pickup the minute trouble started. We didn’t have to wait that long.
Crack! The first shot hit the buffalo in the neck. The buffalo took the round with indifference, stood stock still, and snorted loudly.
“Hit it again,” instructed Don Gabriel.
|Before the stampede, a carefully placed shot.|
Blam! The round when high and, all of a sudden, we had a charging buff on our hands. We watched, mesmerized, as 1800 pounds of prime, lean buffalo came charging towards Dr. Puro. Recalling Gabe’s earlier tale of pickup-demolishing terror, I positioned mys elf behind the Toyota Hilux and entrusted my fate to 3,000 pounds of Japanese steel. Luckily, the buffalo was headed in the opposite direction — towards Roger. Moving as rapidly as his bespeckled, 160 pound frame would allow, Dr. Puro managed to avert th e wounded buffalo’s charge, and watched it speed through a standing pond of water towards the trees. Now we were screwed. We had a wounded buffalo in the jungle. If he died, getting him into an area where we could load him on the truck would take hours, a nd three to four skilled caballeros. Plus, we were on a time limit. Buffalo meat only last so long in the tropical heat.
Danny took the lead. Charging at the rampaging red buffalo, he managed to corral it away from the tree stand it was in, smacking his head on a rather large tree branch in the process, and half-swallowing a lit Purofino. Eventually Danny coaxed the disgrun tled prey out of the woods. Roger awaited with his second round in the chamber, ready to put our Tuesday-night menu on the table.
A thundering sound rose out of the treeline. Danny had managed to scare the buff out of his hiding spot and into the open. Danny, no doubt savoring the burnt flavor of a choice Purofino ash in his mouth, erupted behind the sprinting animal.
“For Christ’s Sake, Doc, shoot!” he commanded while galloping behind the animal.
|Dr. Puro with El Rojo|
Roger loosed another round at the raging animal. A falling branch 100 yards behind the buffalo indicated a miss, and the buffalo began to slow down as it approached the treeline. Finally exhausted from his flight, the buffalo stood stock-still in the high grass bordering another tree stand. The perfect shot presented itself.
“You better finish him off,” said Roger, handing me the Remington. He was panting hard from running after — and from — the animal, and in no condition to keep a steady bead on a target. It was now or never. The buffalo was in the perfect spot to be tran sported, and was presenting his flank towards us. A precise shot (under the arm, through the heart) was necessary if we were going to keep him there. I took aim and fired. The buffalo reared up and raised his head in the air. Then he fell.
He was a damn fine buffalo.
Willy and I stayed around to watch the buffalo get field dressed and take a few photos of the poor guy before he was transported up to Tegucigalpa for the barbecue. “Maybe you guys should come to the truck,” warned Gabe, adding, “I don’t want you to lose your appetite.”
The field dressing spectacle was indeed gruesome, highlighted by the moment when the bull’s “huevos” (testicles) were removed, and nearly eaten raw by one of the rancher’s sons — a local custom, apparently. We ate the huevos back at the ranch, and the re st at Casa Havana on Tuesday night in Tegucigalpa.
| Left: Don Gabriel in his exclusive Casa Havana in Tegucigalpa, the Capital.
Center: Tasty buffalo filets and flank steaks, expertly grilled.
Right: The doctor, Don Kiki, and Don Gabriel pose under “El Gordo”, the official mascot of Casa Habana, and a former hunt victim.