The northern interior of Nicaragua is best known for its cooler climate and seemingly endless coffee and tobacco fields, which spiral increasingly upwards as they approach the mountainous highlands that saddle the Honduran border.
Once a hotbed of fighting, this northernzone area has spent the last 16 years returning to it peaceful roots and developing a tourism industry, drawing visitors who come to relax at a growing number of hillside retreats.
The region is anchored by two of Nicaragua’s largest cites: Estelí and Matagalpa, each with its own unique history, charm and traditional political affiliation.
With more than a half million residents living between the neighboring departments, both cities were viewed as key to the political aspirations of Sandinista and Liberal candidates in this year’s tightly contested presidential race.
But now that the votes have been cast and counted, Estelí and Matagalpa will be returning to their relaxed pace of life, while offering tourists some surprisingly big-city charms.
Estelí: Revolution Remembered
About a two-hour drive northeast of the capital, Estelí is the last large urban encampment before entering the broad countryside of “The Segovias.”
Though home to more than 100,000 people, few shops or houses are built taller than two stories here, making it easy to mistake the city for just another roadside outpost along the
Estelí is most famous for two things: cigars and cowboys.
Most of Nicaragua’s renowned cigar manufacturers are located in or around town, including the maker of the world-famous El Padrón, which has won international accolades over the years.
Getting a tour of the cigar facilities can be tough, as many regard their carefully cured tobacco and production techniques a closely guarded secret. But a few cigar makers, such as Estelí Cigars and Joya de Nicaragua, will provide tours, if you’re lucky enough to catch them at the right time.
Visitors will have no trouble finding cowboy hats, boots and other quality handmade leather goods at the friendly tended stores that dot the two main roads through town.
In addition to its artisan abilities, Estelí is extremely proud of its revolutionary heritage, where the Sandinista insurrection started and ended.
Today, two small museums are dedicated to remembering “los muchachos,” as the rebels were formerly known. The Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs (713-3753), the larger of the two, occupies a former jail cell run by Somoza’s National Guard. The Museum of History and Archeology is located in the same building.
More impressive, at least for beer drinkers, is the revolutionary portraits and memorabilia that cover the walls of Rincón Legal, six blocks south of Central Park, perhaps the country’s most politically oriented bar.
There is live music on most weekends, which can be especially surreal if the band happens to cover American rock classics from the 1960s. A quieter, but no less Sandinista option is the Yoky Bar, where you can get free peanuts and copies of speeches by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.
Estelí’s revolutionaries and cowboys share their town with a couple of high-end places, including the Hotel Los Arcos (713-3830), one block north of the cathedral.
Along with pleasantly appointed rooms and an open courtyard, the café at Los Arcos’ Café Vuela Vuela is one of the few places in town to find true home-grown coffee.
Despite being surrounded by hills ripe with some of the best organic coffee beans in the country, many of Esteli’s restaurants serve only instant brew.
For good eating, the Cuban-run restaurant Rincón Pinareño, two blocks south of Central Park, started by Cuban families who brought the cigar industry to Estelí, serves traditional Cuban dishes and strong Nica Libres, similar to the Cuba Libre but with made with white rum instead of dark rum.
Matagalpa: Rural Bohemia
In contrast to Estelí’s laid-back nightlife and rural surroundings, the neighboring city of Matagalpa is more bohemian, with busy avenues and a livelier bar life.
Cut into a valley surrounded by steep hills, Matagalpa is somewhat reminiscent of San Francisco, California, complete with nearly impossible-to-climb streets that dart outwards into the countryside.
The centerpiece of town is the beautiful, tree-lined RubenDaríoPark. Across from the shady square are several pleasant bars, where Matagalpinos are happy to share their views on life and politics.
Although Sandinista sympathizers are easy to find here, the majority seems to identify as old-guard Liberals, who have a rather different view about the revolution than their neighbors in Estelí.
Disagreements, fortunately, are now usually settled with pats on the back and another round of drinks.
The house of famed Sandinista Front founder Carlos Fonseca has hit difficult times, but a tribute to the region’s rich coffee heritage is preserved at a special museum near the center of town.
Indeed, the area surrounding Matagalpa offers some of the country’s first coffee settlements, including the historic Selva Negra Chalets (772-3883), and the newer Finca Esperanza Verde Ecolodge (772-5003).
But visitors have plenty of options in downtown Matagalpa, too, including one of the best Italian restaurants in Nicaragua. La Vita e Bella (772-5476), tucked away in a dark alleyway, offers exceptional pasta and an impressive wine list.
A new Spanish restaurant, Las Palmeras, next to the Molaguina church, offers unique, cosmopolitan dining in the country’s still undeveloped northern interior. Tourists can enjoy authentic seafood paella on an outside terrace, while watching oxcarts lumber by.
The road into Matagalpa has two other high-end restaurants, La Hora del Taco and El Pullazo, as well as the area’s fanciest hotel option, the Hotel Lomas de San Thomas (772-3539).
For an inner-city location at a great price, Hotel Alvarado (772-2830), across from the park, is hard to beat. Ask for the top room and marvel at the view.