SAN JUAN -- Although Puerto Rico has lost some of its cachet as a source of fine cigars in the last three decades, the reality is that the island still produces some of the finest hand-rolled Puros found anywhere in the Caribbean.

The cigar market tends to be faddish and, at the moment, the Dominican Republic is grabbing all the headlines -- and economic rewards -- that come with high ratings from such oracles of the trade as Cigar Aficionado magazine.

But for true aficionados and weekend warriors alike, Puerto Rico offers several brands well worth seeking out.

In addition to their high quality, one advantage of buying cigars in Puerto Rico is that all tobacco products imported into the U.S. must be fumigated, which is widely believed to damage their flavor. This is not required of cigars brought in by travelers.

By far the best-known of the islands premium cigar makers is Don Collins Cigars, whose shop at 59 Cristo St. is a must-visit landmark in Old San Juan.

This is not just a store but a legendary tobacco company. In fact, owner Don Collins said that the firm that today bears his name is the oldest company of any kind in the hemisphere, tracing its roots directly to the Puerto Rico Tobacco Co., founded in 1503.

Likewise, Collins can rightly claim that his factories in Toa Lata, west of San Juan, and San Lorenzo, an hour south, are the oldest continuously operated factories in the Americas.

The hand-rolled premiums that his company makes today span the spectrum of types, sizes and blends.

Like other Puerto Rican makers, Don Collins features the legendary native tobacco known as Hoja Prieta, one of three native tobaccos developed on the island over the centuries. Many cigars employ Hoja Prieta for all three components -- filler, binder and wrapper.

Don Collins cigars are premium products, and they carry a premium price. A 25-cigar bundle of the companys Indios Puros sells for $299.75, or just under $12 each, while a bundle of the vanilla-cured Lonsdales sells for $224.75.

Not all premium Puerto Rican smokes are as expensive.

For example, Cigar PR, a small shop in the Isla Verde shopping mall, offers several Puerto Rican brands, including its own, along with premium brands from throughout the Caribbean.

Cigar PRs Flora de Cuba, available in Presidentes, Churchills and Lonsdales, sells for about $80 for a bundle of 25. A self-branded Cuban-seed Churchill sells for about the same price.

To contact editor Rob Fixmer, send e-mail to [email protected].

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