Nicaragua was one of the most-highly anticipated countries we were to visit. It was recommended by many friends and fellow travelers, but of our own research, we knew little, besides that it was both one of the poorest countries in the Americas- yet also the one of the safest. Just looking at the map gave us a bit of information as to where we would begin. The Caribbean Coast seemed exceptionally intriguing, with its unique Costeño culture and isolated beach towns, yet there were hardly any roads that led to this sparsely populated region. The beaches on the Pacific side were very much the opposite, attracting an abundant flow of Nicaragua nationals for the Semana Santa holiday as well as foreign tourists and surfers. The central highlands are at such an elevation that over a quarter of the countries agriculture takes place here- a region dense with fincas producing coffee, cacao, tobacco and sugarcane. Since the rainy season had not yet begun, it was intolerably hot and dry on the coast. We welcomed an opportunity to escape the heat and learn about some of Nicaragua's world-famous exports. So, to the highlands it was!
Our first stop was a sustainable rural community called La Granacha, located south of Esteli, a small mountain town that seemed to be in an eternal state of autumn. The air was fresh and cool, and at night we put on socks, pants and long-sleeved shirts. When we first arrived, the entire main road was blocked off by a heated game of palm-ball, with two friendly competitors, and most of the children of this puebla gathered around as spectators. People were very welcoming and seemed to understand that we were there to camp, giving us directions on where to park, yet no one really appeared to be "in charge." The atmosphere felt very peaceful, or as they say in Español, "muy tranquilo."
The next day, we wandered around the town, admiring the simple architecture of the homes and visiting a little store filled with zopilote sculptures (made from a volcanic stone found only in northern Nicaragua), and had a nice chat with the artist. In addition to growing a lot of their own food and raising animals, the community was known for its cheese- both fresh goats milk and an aged alpine-style variety. They also had a vast medicinal herb garden and a respected female elder of the town who acted as the natural healer. We followed some hiking trails into the hills and had a nice walk to a mirador with views of Cerro Apaguajil. Then we had a lovely lunch prepared for us with local ingredients, and we watched a trio of toddler-aged girls chase each other around the comedor giggling and Joey smiled at them, enamored. Life here seemed so sweet and simple. We were not asked to pay anything for our two nights of camping, and in exchange, we bought raw local honey and few different types of their delicious cheese. It was a beautiful beginning to our time in Nicaragua.
We traversed the mountain summits on bumpy dirt roads and enjoyed the fantastic views. The leaves began to get greener, and we watched as the regions morphed into a more tropical setting of a high-elevation cloud forest. Jinotega is Nicaragua's finest coffee-growing region, and down the steep mountain slopes we began to see more and more coffee plants being cultivated in perfect, symmetrical rows. As the beans were being harvested and roasted, we could even smell the delicious earthy aroma of coffee. What bliss!
Next we were headed to a place called Reserva el Jaguar, located at about 4500 ft atop the Cordillera Isabelia. This incredible family-run reserve is a sustainable coffee finca, among other things, also having a richly biodiverse terrain of plants and animals, and a host to many ongoing research sites for birdlife. The humid subtropical climate gave us our very first taste of what it is like to camp in a torrential downpour-and the storms in this part of the world are truly a spectacular thing to experience! The echoing growls of the clouds, the disappearance of the sky in a dark tumbling vapor, and a curtain of rain too thick to even see through. It had been months since we had seen even a single raindrop, and within minutes it was like we were swimming underwater.
The birdlife was really our favorite part, and we would spend hours everyday on the mirador with our binoculars taking in all of the amazing sights and sounds produced by the hundreds of species of different birds. We saw hummingbirds of all colors and sizes, toucans, swallow-tailed kites, scarlet tanagers, different bluebirds, and the very large and noisey Montezuma Oropendola, pictured above with its yellow tail and red-tipped beak! Other birds we couldn't even name. It was a bird-lovers paradise!
We enjoyed our morning hikes though the jungle before the daily rains began. There were trails of varying lengths all over this massive property, most of which was still wildly unkept. Only a portion of the center was clear-cut, and this was where the thousands of coffee plants grew to be cultivated. We admired the flowers, the ferns, the unusual lily pads and leaves shaped like little umbrellas.
We explored the twisted tree trunks and swinging vines, the stepping stones and the rope bridges. Hiking thru the jungle is such a magical experience- everything is just so alive! We could get lost for hours without seeing a soul, only hearing the sound of the birds above and our own clumsy footsteps. We never did see a jaguar though- perhaps its better that we didn't :)
Matagalpa was next on our list of places to check out, a scenic city nestled within panoramic mountain peaks, this town is known as the eternal spring of Nicaragua. Surrounded by farmland and fincas, it is one of the most commercially-active places in the country, renowned for its coffee, fruits, vegetables, cheese, flowers, and my personal favorite, cacao. We made a special stop at the Castillo del Cacao, the largest national chocolate factory, to sample the goods.
It didn't take long for us to fall head over heels with this diverse new country. We loved how different and unique the landscapes were, even within the same region. We appreciated the low-key vibe, the ubiquitous opportunities for legitimate ecotourism, education and conservation, and the special value placed on the land. It was so refreshing to spend time in these places in such an informal way- completely without the feeling of commercial mass tourism. Instead of an immaculate staff getting paid by the hour to provide an "experience", what we experienced was real life- the planting and the harvest, the connection to the earth, the value of community- and we found ourselves being welcomed into small, wholesome family-run establishments to be a part of it all. It was so unassuming and authentic.
And yes, the coffee does taste better here, where it is picked, dried, roasted, ground and brewed all in the same place!