I have not forgotten this essential lesson, and so when another student at my Spanish school asked if I was interested in taking a tour of the Flor de Cana rum factory in the nearby town of Chichigalpa, I wasted no time saying yes.
Flor de Cana is the Barcelo of Nicaraguan rums (10 points to you if you understand this reference. If you don’t… lo siento). It’s exported internationally and enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. Chichigalpa is about forty minutes northwest of Leon. Because of the timing of the buses, we ended up arriving for our tour about an hour and a half early. We thought we’d take the opportunity to explore the town a bit, but it didn’t take long before we realized that there wasn’t a whole lot to see. There were, however, quite a few mosquitos… so bring bug spray should you be heading in the direction of Chichigalpa and its sugar cane fields.
There are three ways for the average visitor to tour the Flor de Cana rum factory. Most tourists opt to take an all-inclusive tour through an operator in Leon. This will typically cost you $40-$50 USD, but transportation to and from Leon will be included as well as your entrance fee for the factory. You can also reserve a place in the tour online, and then make your way to the factory on your own – either by taxi or chicken bus. A taxi to Chichigalpa will run you around $10-$15 USD one-way. The chicken bus will cost 26 cordobas round-trip (about one US dollar). If you buy a ticket at the gate (and do not have a Nicaraguan ID), the tour will cost $20 USD.
Because $20 is pretty steep for my budget these days, my travel buddy and I decided to take the bus, hence our long layover.
Eventually the time came for the gates to open and our tour to begin.
We started the tour with a description of the rum-making process, including a sample of the molasses state in which all Flor de Cana rum begins.
Then we boarded a theme park-style shuttle and were whisked about the factory.
Our second stop was a lovely, air-conditioned room where we watched a film about the history of Flor de Cana and the current company initiatives towards sustainable production and socially responsible business. The movie was interesting, but the a/c was even better – this was the first building I had been inside with a/c since I’d come to Nicaragua! I half-joked to my travel companion that that alone was worth the twenty bucks.
Next, we were taken to the building called the Family Reserve. For many years this building was used solely for the private use of the Pellas family, who have owned Flor de Cana since its inception. Now the reserve is open to tours, though no photos are allowed inside. There we learned how to appropriately experience fine rums, and were given an 18-year aged sample to see, smell, touch (we actually washed our hands with it!), and of course, taste. It was very interesting and quite delicious.
Bleary-eyed from our time in the cellar, but quite happy, we made our way to the warehouses where the rum is stored. First we visited the open-air warehouse where the barrels are kept before being filled. Our guide explained that the barrels are imported from the US, and then lined with sugar cane stalk to reduce evaporation. Finally they are placed in this fine machine:
where they are sealed by pressure only.
Next, we visited the slow-aging warehouse, where again photos were not allowed. The room is vast and dark – unlit or air-conditioned for fear of fire. Our guide told us that this was the most flammable site at the factory, and while they kept their own fire station, they had yet to have a disaster due to their extensive precautionary measures. There are many warehouses like this at the site, and Flor de Cana makes a point of storing several ages of rum in a single warehouse – rather than all of a certain year together – just in case something does happen. In this way should disaster strike, they will not lose an entire reserve of a particular age. I thought this smart, but all the talk of catastrophe made me nervous. Not to worry, ensured our guide – should rum production at Flor de Cana stop today, there would be enough rum stored away at the moment to satisfy current demand for fifty years.
We finished our tour in a museum and gift shop (it wouldn’t be a good tour without a gift shop!), where we were given another sample of rum – this one chilled with ice and a splash of seltzer water. We enjoyed our drink in the air conditioning with views of the sugar cane fields and the San Cristobal volcano – the tallest in Nicaragua – in the distance.
Not a bad way to spend twenty bucks and an afternoon, huh?