I really haven’t explored Nicaragua as much as I probably should’ve. Whenever I live somewhere, I tend to become comfortable with just staying in that city. “I have time,” I tell myself. When time starts to wind down, that’s when I realize I need to travel while I can. With just a month left in Nicaragua, I decided to take up a trip up to northern Nicaragua to get to know that part of the country a bit more.
A group of Couchsurfers from Managua set up an event last Saturday to spend the night at the Natural Reserve Tisey, just outside of Estelí. We met in Managua and then headed north with Claudia, a German woman, and her SUV. This was actually the first time I had been in a private car in Nicaragua. It’s easy to forget how quick it can actually be to travel in Nicaragua. Buses stop so often that a 10 mile trip can take an hour to arrive at the final destination.
Heading north, we made a few stops. One of the stops was in Sebaco, a small city located on the split of the highway, one way heading northeast to Matagalpa, and the other heading northwest to Estelí. Sebaco is known for its market, selling all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables. We stopped to try out the guirilas from a famous local restaurant called Tipico Daysi. A guirila is a tortilla made from young corn eaten with cuajada (a type of soft, white cheese) and crème. With locals coming in and out, it was easy to see that this local joint is a big hit. The guirila has a unique flavor, tasting more like corn than any other tortilla I’ve had. It was well worth the stop in Sebaco to try them out.
Our next stop was just south of Esteli at a very popular café called La Casita. Located just off the main highway, the café is truly unique in that its seating is all outdoors. The café is actually on a piece of land with the size of about 2-3 acres and is full of trees, flowers, benches, tables. It has a playground for kids and also another one for adults (it even says so on the sign). It even has a small river running through the land area, requiring clients to walk across a bridge. It serves specially made German style homemade bread and cheese, which is not easy to find in Nicaragua. The place is very popular with the young people in Estelí, as they find a place under a tree and hang out with friends for hours at a time. This is one of the best cafes that I’ve ever been to. It’s no wonder that it’s so popular with the locals!
From La Casita, we made up way up a rocky road. The strong rain made us cross several currents, some big enough to make us a bit worried even crossing in an SUV. We finally arrived in La Garnacha, a tiny farming village up in the mountains in the Natural Reserve. We arrived while it was still raining, but we found the owner of the local hospedaje. She also happened to be the owner of the restaurant and the shop selling local agriculture products. The cabins were simple and modest and pretty cheap. Paying just $5 per person for the night was a good price! Raining the rest of the night, we just ate dinner at the restaurant and hung out on the porch of a cabin eating the delicious local cheese and catching up.
We woke up to a chilly morning but luckily without any clouds. Just 10 minutes walking from our cabins was a mirador, a look-out point with incredible views of the surrounding mountains, several volcanos, and even the Pacific Ocean way off in the distance. In a spot like this, you realize the true natural beauty of Nicaragua.
After a hearty Nicaraguan breakfast consisting of gallo pinto, eggs, plantains, and coffee, we hiked a good hour and a half out to the middle of nowhere where a man named Alberto Gutierrez lives. Alberto lives in a tiny house right by home of his brothers and sisters. He is a very well-known artist and poet. He has become especially famous for exactly what we came to see, his rock carvings. On his land, there are a number of large rocks. About 35 years ago, he decided to start carving pictures into the rocks. Now, people like us come all the way out to his house for him to give a tour, showing off his work and explaining the reasons behind their creation. I would estimate that he has at least 100 carvings ranging from an elephant, to a picture of himself, to the World Trade Center towers. Being about 70 years old, he is even still expanding and creating new paths to access rocks. His work is incredible. Some of the sculptures were intricate. Others were large enough that it must’ve taken months to create.
Alberto is an interesting man. Very proud of his work yet humble. He’s definitely out there. The best part about him is that he doesn’t show people his work to earn money. He doesn’t charge an entrance fee. We gave him money as a tip, but he also gave gifts to people in our group. He gave one of my friends a silver ring, and he gave another guy a few cigars. He’s a very generous man and very proud of all the visitors he has had!
After lunch, the Couchsurfers headed back to Managua but dropped me off on the main road so that I could catch a bus to Estelí. This was on Sunday, and I had to be in Matagalpa on Wednesday for work. Being more or less close, I decided to make a trip out of the days in between. I decided to check out Estelí and Jinotega on these days.
I first went up to Estelí. I had always heard good things about the city, but I came away pretty disappointed. The city didn’t offer anything special or particularly interesting. The main cathedral is cool but nothing like the cathedrals in Granada. I went to the city museum, and that was somewhat interesting for about 30 minutes. Other than that, I just walked around and hung out at a local café.
After the one night in Estelí, I took the three hour bus ride through the northern hills to Jinotega. The area outside of Jinotega is very important agriculturally, especially with coffee. With the coffee production and packaging in the city, some parts of the city smell completely like coffee. I stayed for two nights in Jinotega, and both mornings I made the hike up to Cerro de la Cruz, a large cross built on top of the mountain just west of the city. The 45 minute hike ends at the top of the mountain with views of the city down below on one side with the Apanas Lake in the distance; the other side has fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, without a man-made structure in sight. What I really like about Jinotega is the fact that it’s completely tucked away in a valley. When in the city, you will see green mountains no matter which way you turn. And the mountains are all extremely close. The Cerro de la Cruz is a perfect way to get a full view of this. It’s just a gorgeous place.
The people of Jinotega seem to be very kind and gentle. I guess that this is true in most countries. The places where agriculture is more relevant seem to have nicer people. I don’t think many people would say that people in New York are nicer than people in Iowa. This seems to hold true in Nicaragua, as well; Granada is the New York and Jinotega is the Iowa.
After being in Jinotega, I realized that the people of Granada do not reflect the citizens of the entire country. People in Granada seem to be much more arrogant, standoffish, and generally more impolite. In Granada, people just stare at you as you walk by and look at you as if you are an alien. Guys are very macho and stare at every girl as if they had never seen a girl before. In general, it’s just not a welcoming place. Jinotega is filled with respectful people who treat you like a human being. The guys are gentlemen. It’s a complete 180 change from Granada. It was quite refreshing to be in a place like this. I am not sure if it’s just a difference in cultures or if it’s a cause from the amount of tourism in Granada. Either way, Jinotega was a nice change of pace!
Finally, I arrived in Matagalpa on Wednesday morning. This was my second time in the city, and this time I really grew to love the city. Same with Jinotega, the people are just friendly and more down to earth. It’s twice the size of Jinotega but has the natural beauty with being located in a valley and being surrounded by mountains.
For the next four days in Matagalpa, I had a pretty full schedule with work but was able to do a bit of hiking. I hiked up the mirador two times to get views of the city and surroundings. The second time was for the sunrise. Isabel, PHPG’s director, and I left at 5am to get up there by 5:30am and watched the sun rise from the mountains in the east. Afterwards, we took a bus about 10km north of Matagalpa to a place called the Selva Negra (The Black Forest), a large coffee plantation/ nature reserve featuring a hotel, a restaurant, and several hiking trails. The Selva Negra was started by Germans who came to Matagalpa in the late 1800s and were part of the group of people who started the coffee cultivation in Nicaragua. In 1975, they created the lodge which has helped turned the Selva Negra into an important tourist attraction.
We hiked the trails for about two and a half hours. The trails were some of the best I’ve seen in Nicaragua, constructed very well and well-marked. We hiked to the top where there are views of Matagalpa when there are no clouds. With my luck, it was cloudy and we saw no further than 100 yards into the distance!
With work, we made three loan distributions. Two of the distributions were to about fifteen people total, all who live in the city of Matagalpa. The third and most interesting distribution was to the community of Susuma, located just over the hill from Matagalpa. We had a meeting with 19 potential loan clients where we talked about PHPG, how the loans work, our rules, etc. We then told them that they need to put themselves into groups since we do not lend to individuals. One group especially stood out as being very impressive. One girl in her young twenties took charge, asking everyone to explain their businesses and ideas for their loans. They took a vote for each requirement including the group name, who will be the leader, how many months they will take to pay off the loan, and more. It was truly impressive to see this type of initiative and organization. It’s something I’d never seen before and very inspiring.
That brought an end to my trip to northern Nicaragua. It was definitely a fun eight days. Learning more about that culture, the people, and the geography in that part of the country was interesting and gratifying. There are still other parts of the country, like the east coast, that I would like to explore. Unfortunately, my time here is winding down and that area is not the most accessible. We’ll see if I can end up making it there!