A Trip To The Mountains of Nueva Segovia

By Pat Werner     

Sometimes bad luck makes us change our plans.  In my case, a cold front hitting the Segovias changed what I could do on one of my favorite rivers running off the highest point in Nicaragua, the Cordillera de Dipilto.  When we got ready to do a little dredging, it was so cold we could see our breaths, so the dredging was scrubbed.  The temperature was in the middle to high 50s, and to do the dredging we had to get into the river.  Instead we took some samples of sands that I will pan later today. The sands of course contained yellow mica, but also enough pyrite to make the sand glitter to the naked eye.  It should be interesting.  The granite gorge where we were working has been a favorite swimming hole of mine for years.  I plan on going back when it gets a little warmer. For years I took my Nicaraguan History students there, to see the mountains, old silver and gold mines, and swim in the natural granite swimming pool.  I never got any complaints.

The other attraction is the biosphere.  The Cordillera is steep and still has a lot of intact cloud forest, with all of its magnificence.  In these areas, over 1700 meters in elevation, the best coffee in Nicaragua is grown.  While Matagalpa and Jinotega produce more coffee, they simply do not have the high elevations nor acidic soils that are  needed to produce the best coffee.  That is the reason, year after year, the best coffees, as determined by a national tasting contest, come from the Cordillera de Dipilto.   The forests themselves hold many tropical gems.  Before you hit the full blown cloud forest you find extensive pine oak forests, that smell like forests in the northern United States.  The sub-strate by those many oak  and pine trees produce, in a few pockets, that I found by accident, some mushrooms that are exquisite.  A friend, who knew his mushrooms, bought one type years ago in the market in Chimaltenango in Guatemala, and I picked them in the oak and pine forests of upper Michigan.  I also picked them in the alpine forests around Craig, Colorado while hunting elk, and around the southeastern border of Yellowstone Park. Over an open campfire in the Cordillera, fried in bacon fat,   they  are  unexcelled. 

The cloud forest also contain some of the most beautiful orchids in the world, and some not often seen.  The most common high altitude orchid genus is probably theMaxillaria, which has at least 50 species already found in Nicaragua.  But it also has the Stanhopea confusa, which has a fragrance like hot chocolate, and was identified by Rudy Gerlach, main botanist at the Botanical Gardens of Munich, Germany.  And I observed a very interesting saphrophitic orchid in bloom, one that has no chlorophyll and no leaves.  I found it years ago on the southern slope of the Volcan Viejo, and I found it close by the Volcan this time. And I observed some orchids that I know, but in plant sizes completely out of the ordinary, the Encyclia brassavolae as a giant, and a Guarianthe, maybe skinnerii, that is a pygmy.  And there are the birds. In the past I have seen the American swallow   tailed kite lazily flying over me while laying down on a mountain peak next to Mogoton, the highest mountain in Nicaragua.  At night time we  heard calling the Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, the same as it calls at night here  outside of in Diriamba.  And old student, and ecotourism guide, Raymundo Solórzano, spotted in the cloud forest on top of the Cordillera,   about 6,000 ft in elevation, a female Quetzal. The coffee pickers, who live in those mountains and are part mountain goat, are pretty specific on sightings of quetzals, which to them is no big deal. They make a living in those mountains caring for the coffee plantations and now picking the coffee, and  almost no one ever asks them about the quetzals, and Trogons, and Bell birds. Maybe that will change.

The northern mountains also have their rich folklore.  Old Don Germán told me he did not believe in any of this babosada, but his neighbors did, including the ever present lone, black horse, with red incandescent eyes that visits isolated huts at night.  And looking for gold in those mountains is an old tradition. Within five years of Gil Gonzalez´s first entrada in to southern Nicaragua in 1522, intrepid Spaniards were in these same mountains, killing Indians and being killed by them, and finding gold. Juan de Grijalva, with a big river named for him in Mexico, or at least his bones, are still up in those mountains. And Roberto Compignon, who informed Pedrarias of the alliance of Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba with Hernán Cortés in 1525, went mining in these mountains, maybe found gold, and was killed by Indians. His bones are somewhere in the mountains also. Two Spaniards in the 1520s, wrote about several gold bearing streams riding from west to east, and three centuries later, American ambassador Ephraim Squier, wrote about those same streams, which are flowing as strong as ever. Sometimes spending time in a library reading old documents is helpful in understanding the countryside.

If you go into those mountains, you will have to camp or find a hut, of which there are very few, to rent.  I don´t like backpacker´s freeze dried mush,  so  I took my maid who is a good cook, to provide the food, real food, cooked over a mountain stove, on firewood.  We had great chili con carne, made by neighbor Ted Rodgers who brought his family and went with us into the mountains, and also a slow roasted turkey breast, and two roasted chickens, all done over a slow wood fire.  I took enough sleeping bags, as  three o´clock in the morning with an east wind,  is cold.

Choosing who goes with you into the mountains is an important decision.  My neighbor, Ted Rodgers is a very good cook and strong and highly useful and great company. His wife Kelly came along to see the country, so different than the rest of Nicaragua, as did their son Teddy, who wanted to see old  Spanish gold mines and high mountains.  There is one mine shaft  above the mountain hut we rented, that I found a couple of decades ago.  Maybe we will go in on the next trip.  I also went with Raymundo.  He was  my first tree climber for orchids on a trip to Puerto Cabezas in 1992. He learned the orchids, and also the birds of Nicaragua, and can navigate in any terrain. He also spent a couple of years in Las Minas gold mining so he  knows mining.  I do not know many people of specific things of  Nicaraguaiana as knowledgeable as Raymundo.  And he has good sense and is very strong, a great raconteur, and has a great eye for shape of leaves and splashes of color in the forest, i.e. birds and flowers. We have spent enough time together in the unpopulated areas of Nicaragua to be can to tell a tale or two.

Perhaps the most important people on this trip were my cook Margine and my gardener-packer-handyman, Luis, who goes everywhere with me to do the heavy lifting.  He knows his knots and can equally pack a pickup truck or  a pack saddle, or aparejo,  on a horse.  He is myarriero.  And I took along my wife Chilo. After 29 years of marriage I thought it was time she saw the northern mountains, and so she went along.  It was a good trip. 

Regarding gear, the items of distinction were my two old Coleman kerosene lanterns.  I grew up in Michigan pumping them up with my brother to dip for smelt at the mouth of the Au Gres River on Lake Huron, and spearing suckers and pike when the ice went out on the Great Lakes.  They added a nice touch to the campfire at night and also served to warm the hands on a cold night.  Just like in Michigan

The picture is of the swimming pool and granite waterslide Raymundo is checking on the sands for sparkles.  The panorama is of the high sierra, with the mountain on the right the Volcan de Somoto, very high.  They are now growing strawberries in its crater at about 1800 meters in elevation. 
Pat Werner can be reached at [email protected]