La Aventura Continua

By Joseph O’Haver

DB – I hope Joe doesn’t mind but he had written up his travels to NW Nicaragua so I compiled them into one story. Beautiful country, great photos.

La Aventura Continua: Matagalpa, Jinotega and Esteli

We recently made a road trip with friends, Rob and Jill, to the communities of Matagalpa, Jinotega and Esteli–communities in the northwestern part of Nicaragua.

Matagalpa is 100 miles north of Granada—a 2 ½ hour drive on surprisingly good roads. At an elevation of about 2500’ it is a bit higher and cooler than where we live. We stayed at the Monte Brisa Hotel/B&B which we’d recommend. They have lovely grounds and genuinely helpful and pleasant staff people. Oh, and they serve your coffee in French presses.

Matagalpa is known for its good coffee—though it is an increasingly popular site for ecotourism. Matagalpa is less touristy and, perhaps because of that, more “industrious” feeling than Granada. We had a very pleasant evening listening to live music and having great cocktails at “Monkeys”, an area bar and night spot. There is a pleasant central park with lots of associated evening activity. Tomas Borge and Carlos Fonseca are celebrated as area heroes for their roles in ending the reign of the Somoza family (see photo).


La Aventura Continua: Jinotega

From Matagalpa, it’s a short drive to Jinotega. On the steep winding drive there, we saw a man “delivering” firewood using a board with what appeared to be metal skate wheels (like the ones we used as kids) careening down the highway for several miles at 20-25mph, steering and braking with his feet. After the delivery of firewood, he tows the board back up the mountain to repeat the process for as long as his tennies hold up I suppose (see picture).

Jinotega is an Indian city that existed before the Spanish arrived at the end of the 16th century. Jinotega and the surrounding area is perhaps the most war-torn region in Nicaragua’s history. Its remote location and proximity to the border with Honduras made it a haven for rebel forces throughout the last seven decades. The most intense battles took place between 1927 and 1934 under Augusto C. Sandino and his troops (largely an army of peasants, known as “los bandoleros”) against American occupation troops in the form of U.S. Marines. Sandino and his troops ultimately succeeded in driving out the marines. In 1934, Sandino was “rewarded” for his efforts in negotiating a peace treaty by being assassinated by the then ruling Somoza.

Later, at the end of the 1970s, Jinotega was enmeshed in a bitter war between the troops of Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the civilian rebel population. Somoza was defeated on July 19, 1979. After a short period of peace, civil war began again between government troops of the new Sandinista regime and the Contra rebels who felt betrayed by the Sandinistas. The Contras were, in large measure, funded, armed, and trained by the United States. For those unfamiliar, it’s worth taking the time to read a bit about the U.S. role in this part of the world.

In Jinotega, we stayed at the Hotel Café. The Hotel itself was pleasant enough—pretty garden area, secure parking, clean and neat. We ended up eating most of our meals at the hotel as it was a good choice among limited choices. The staff people and service were among the best we’ve experienced in Nicaragua. They were genuinely invested in making sure that we had a good experience. If you’re planning an overnight in Jinotega, this is a good spot. The city itself offered less exploring than did Matagalpa.


La Aventura: Yali

From Jinotega, we took a dirt road up and across the mountains to Esteli, by way of Yali. Yali is about 50 miles NNW of Matagalpa. Much of the trip was at an elevation of 3000-3400’. This “side trip” was well worth it—the country side is beautifully rural and remote, forested with giant oak, almond, and mahogany trees. Coffee and cattle are the principal sources of income for folks in this area.

We stopped along the way for a mid-morning rum at an out-of-the-way bar/nightclub/restaurant/animal preserve. (As we say here, “Hey, it’s 11:00 SOMEWHERE!”) The animal preserve included a hawk, guinea pigs, rabbits, a deer, and sheep. The hawk was apparently free to come and go and none of the animals were for consumption. The drive across from Jinotega, especially the first half of the route, was incredibly pretty.

La Aventura Continua: Esteli

Estelí, is the third largest city in Nicaragua. It is about 90 miles north of Managua. Estelí is a fast-growing and, based on road projects and substantial high end housing, seemingly prosperous city of about 119,000 people. It enjoys a pleasant climate throughout most of the year with a mean elevation of approximately 3000’. The city is surrounded by forested mountains of pines, oaks, and walnuts. Much of the surrounding area is protected in the form of nature reserves.

The land around Estelí is apparently perfectly suited for growing tobacco for use in cigars. The town became a refuge for Cuban cigar makers after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Award winning cigars have made Estelí one of the most important cigar-producing cities in the world. Huge amounts of real estate are cultivated for tobacco. The success of tobacco is reflected in the general prosperity of the area.

Estelí was the scene of heavy fighting in the civil war against the Somoza government from 1978 to 1979. Somoza’s National Guard bombed the city and its residents—with support, arms and training from the U.S.—resulting in casualties estimated at 15,000. Large numbers of young people were killed on suspicion of being part of the insurrection. (To put this in perspective, 15,000 deaths in Nicaragua at this time would equate to 1.2 million casualties if this conflict were to have occurred on U.S. soil). It’s hard to imagine that this was less than 40 years ago. Ortega and the FSLN are held in particularly high regard in this area.

Estelí starts humming early in the morning—not long after sunrise—with the central park as the hub of activity. People are off to work, hailing cabs, careening around traffic on scooters and motorcycles, getting a cup of coffee and a plastic baggie of cut up tropical fruit to start their mornings. I spent an early morning walking around the area, drinking incredibly strong and incredibly sweet coffee; think triple shot espresso with 2 tablespoons of sugar (7 cordobas, or about 25 cents U.S.—or as our friends say, $12 Canadian). There is a lovely cathedral. The people of Estelí are friendly and outgoing—which was our experience across the entire Matagalpa/Jinotega/ Estelí region.


La Aventura: Sebaco

On the return to Granada, we stopped for lunch and to explore a roadside fruit and vegetable stand at Sebaco—about 30 miles north of Managua. We had a great, meat-laden lunch at a restaurant catering to carnivores. They don’t sell beer but didn’t mind us bringing our own. While in Sebaco, we also got to witness an accident between a bicycle-based moto-taxi and car—gratefully a low speed interaction.


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