North of Managua, the central highlands sweep up from sea level in a lush procession of mountainous hillsides, bright-green coffee plantations and cattle-flecked alpine pastures, stretching north to the Honduran border and east to the jungles and mines of the interior. The climate here is fairly temperate and the soil productive, with plenty of tobacco plantations and an economy based on coffee, grains, vegetables, fruit and dairy farming. The 150km journey north from Managua to Estelí, the northeast’s largest city, is one of the most inspiring in the country, as the Carretera Interamericana winds through the grassy Pacific plains, skirting the southern edge of Lago de Managua before climbing slowly into a ribbon of blue mountains. East of here is Matagalpa, a town of steep slopes and coffee shops, while around the two sit fincas and reserves that merit deeper exploration.
Top image: Coffee farm, Matagalpa © reisegraf.c/Shutterstock
Estelí is blessed with beautiful natural surroundings, some – like the appealing waterfall of El Salto de la Estanzuela – an easy day-trip. The gorgeous Miraflor reserve to the north is worth staying in for a night or more.
El Salto de la Estanzuela is one of the few waterfalls in Nicaragua easily accessible on foot from a major centre of population. Located in the Reserva Natural Tisey-Estanzuela, it’s reached on a lovely two-hour walk through green, rolling hills – although it’s also possible to drive right to the foot of the falls. The path begins just beyond the hospital at the southern edge of town – it’s a fairly dull forty-minute walk to get here, and you may want to get a bus (C$4) from the eastern end of the Parque Central. Turn right at the Kiosko Europeo and follow the path around to the left for 4km or so until you see a sign for “Comunidad Estanzuela”; go through the gate on the right-hand side and follow the path for another 1km (you can cut off early if you want to explore the lovely but litter-strewn stretch above). The falls themselves – 35m or so in height – are located at the bottom of a steep flight of steps and cascade spectacularly into a deep pool perfect for swimming in. Don’t go directly underneath the falling water as rocks do occasionally fall down, especially after heavy rainfall. Nearby is El Mirador, one of the most spectacular viewpoints in all Nicaragua; on a clear day it’s possible to see volcanoes as far away as El Salvador.
The wonderful Miraflor nature reserve, 28km northeast of Estelí, covers 206 square kilometres of forest, part of which is farmed by a group of agricultural co-ops – more than five thousand locals currently produce coffee, potatoes, milk, cheese and exotic flowers in and around the protected area. One of the project’s main aims is to find sustainable ways in which farming and environmental protection can coexist; the emphasis is firmly upon community-centred tourism.
The reserve itself comprises several different ecosystems, ranging from savanna to tropical dry forest and humid cloudforest. To best appreciate this diversity it’s advisable to stay for at least two or three days, either walking or horseriding between the zones and staying with different families each night – a very satisfying back-to-basics experience. Guides can take you to waterfalls, swimming spots, viewpoints, flower gardens and caves once inhabited by the ancient Yeluca and Cebollal mountain peoples. In terms of flora and fauna, Miraflor is one of the richest reserves in the country, with over three hundred species of bird including quetzal, guardabarranco (the national bird of Nicaragua) and urraca, a local type of magpie, as well as howler monkeys and reclusive mountain lions. There are also over two hundred species of orchid.
The largest town in the north, at first sight ESTELÍ can seem downtrodden. But this low-key city is an engaging place and a hotbed of political activity. Notorious for its staunchly leftist character, Estelí saw heavy fighting and serious bloodshed during the Revolution. Somoza bore a particular grudge against the town’s inhabitants, and waged brutal offensives on the city. The scars have not really healed, either on the bombed-out buildings that still dot the streets or in people’s minds, and the region remains a centre of Sandinista support.
Estelí’s relatively rural setting makes it a good base for trips. El Salto de la Estanzuela – a secluded waterfall within walking distance of the centre – makes for a great day out, while the wonderful Miraflor nature reserve is just under 30km away.
Although Estelí lacks the stunning mountain views of Matagalpa, the centre of town is a nice place to wander, and the climate is refreshingly cool. Much of the pleasure lies in soaking up the atmosphere, particularly along Avenida Central, whose southern end sees shops’ wares spill out onto the street, including cowboy boots and the local farmers’ favourite, Western-style hats.
The Casa de Cultura (2713 3021), a cultural venue a block south of Parque Central, hosts local art exhibitions, dancing and music events. Across the street, the Artesanía Nicaragüense has a reasonable selection of crafts, pottery and cigars.
Just south of the Parque Central is the tiny Galería de Héroes y Mártires, a simple yet moving museum devoted to the Revolution and to the many residents of Estelí who died fighting in it. The women who work at the Galería are, for the most part, mothers and widows of soldiers who were killed.
The town’s Parque Central isn’t as nice as some others in the country, but is nonetheless busy from dawn until dusk. The cathedral on the eastern side of the Parque has a rather austere facade but an interesting interior, with bright windows and lots of artwork. The south side of the Parque is dominated by the Centro Recreativo Las Segovias, which puts on regular music and sporting events, particularly basketball games.
Known as “La Perla del Septentrión” – “Pearl of the North” – MATAGALPA is spoken well of by most Nicaraguans, principally, perhaps, because of its relatively cool climate: at about 21–25°C, it’s considered tierra fría in this land of 30°C-plus temperatures. Located 130km northeast of the capital, this small, quiet town is a gateway to the blue-green mountains and coffee plantations that surround it, whether you fancy a short hike into the hills or a longer trip to fincas like the famous Selva Negra to the north.
Matagalpa’s services, hotels and restaurants are spread out between the seven blocks that divide the town’s two principal squares: Parque Morazán to the north and the smaller Parque Darío seven blocks to the south. The town’s main thoroughfares, Avenida José Benito Escobar and Avenida Central, link the two.
The Casa Museo Comandante Carlos Fonseca, 100m southeast of the Parque Darío, documents the life of martyred local hero Carlos Fonseca (co-founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front), who was gunned down by Somoza’s National Guard in 1976.
Matagalpa is not a city of intoxicating beauty, but several day-hikes take you out into the inspiring scenery that surrounds it. The most accessible explores Cerro Apante. From Parque Darío head south up the hill for thirty minutes, following the road into the reserve itself. Turn left at the rangers’ cottage, where you’ll probably have to pay the entry fee, and climb the (at times steep) path through pleasant woodland to a mirador offering cracking views of the town and the crown of mountains that surrounds it. You can continue along the ridge, but the summit proper is private property – signs warn you off the final climb up some wooden stairs. The walk should take less than three hours in total. Guides are available, but need to be arranged in advance (Arcenio Brenes, 8651 3727).
One and a half blocks south of the Parque Morazán, the Museo del Café houses some old photos of Matagalpa life and explanations of the coffee-growing process. The museum sells quality coffee and is also behind Matagalpa’s new Feria Nacional del Café (held in November), a festival celebrating the town’s coffee expertise with talks and traditional music and dance.
At the northern end of town, sunny Parque Morazán fronts the Catedral de San Pedro, dating from 1874. Unusually, the cathedral was constructed side-on, with its bell towers and entrance facing away from the Parque. A large Sandinista monument, consisting of three men firing guns, stands on one corner of the eastern side, with a monument to Matagalpino Tomás Borge, one of the founders of the Sandinista party, on the opposite corner.
North of Matagalpa, the SELVA NEGRA is a stretch of dark blue, pine-clad mountains named by the area’s German immigrants in the nineteenth century after their homeland’s Black Forest, thanks to the physical resemblance and its spring-like climate. An amazing variety of wildlife flourishes in these pristine tropical forests, including more than eighty varieties of orchid, many birds, sloths, ocelots, margay, deer, snakes, mountain lions and howler monkeys.
The trails range from short strolls around the central lake to the thigh-burning La Mosquitia, which ascends to 1570m. It’s perfectly feasible to come up from Matagalpa early in the morning and pack most of them into a day’s hiking.
The owners of the Selva Negra hotel have grown coffee here since 1891, and the finca still produces some of the best export-grade coffee in the country; the estate employs 250 workers, most of whom live nearby. Various tours of the operation run daily, including horseback treks (US$10/hr), and there’s a small museum too.