The first thing I noticed was the air.
As the big yellow school bus that serves as public transportation chugged its way north, the dust cleared and the stinging in my nostrils stopped. I inhaled a lungful of fresh mountain air. That was when the love affair began.
A look out the window confirmed it, I was in the North. Long stretches of flat land, sprinkled with the occasional volcano peaking up from the horizon, became an endless green sea of rolling hills and mountains as we continued north.
Two and a half hours after leaving Managua’s Mayero bus station, we finally pulled in to Matagalpa. Out there on the outskirts of town, the dusty station was a hard blow to my heightened expectations. We dragged our bags to the street to hail a taxi, thankful to have escaped the heat of the south for the cool breezes of the north.
But, during the short ride into town, my faith was restored. The streets opened up as we rode through the surprisingly urban center of town. The sidewalks were noticeably less crowded than Leon or Granada, despite the population of more than 150,000. Where in the south colonial houses lined the streets, here brightly colored 2-story duplexes could be seen spreading high into the hills with front gardens filled with fuchsia bougainvilleas.
Rising above the houses in every direction were the green walls of the mountains that encircle the town. The contrast of bright pink flowers and brightly painted houses on such a vibrant green backdrop further enamored me with the city.
Matagalpa has an unmistakable aura of middle class-ness that was absent even in Granada. It is in the calm of the city, the modernity of the shops and even the temperature in the air. In Leon you feel the energy of the revolution, the art, the poetry and the liveliness of a college town; here, there is a refined dignity that pervades.
The Matagalpa department, the city and its surroundings, is home to many of the coffee and cocoa plantations in Nicaragua. Bordered by two mountain chains, the city of Matagalpa is surrounded by nature reserves, fair trade plantations and sustainable agricultural communities.
The shops and restaurants have a slightly more modern feel than in other parts of the country, with a wealth of great restaurants and coffee shops to enjoy. But, there is still no shortage of local comedores, street food and roadside produce stands.
And as the birthplace of famed poet Ruben Darío and a stronghold for the Sandinista revolution, the department of Matagalpa oozes a passion for art, socialist reform and its rich history.
The bright white steeples of the Cathedral de San Pedro in the center of town make a great point of reference as they jut above the rooftops to guide you to the Parque Central. The park is full of people both day and night, and the lights during the holiday season make every evening look like a street fair.
What attracts many to the region is the welcoming mountain climate that provides a break from the smoldering heat of central Nicaragua. The days are warm, but the nights are cool. Most nights I even brought my jacket.
Matagalpa is also safer than other cities in the country. While it is still advisable to take a taxi home at night, petty theft is much lower here.
The north is an ecotourism lover’s dream, and Matagalpa is the perfect base for exploration. Accommodation options are limited online, but there is no shortage once you arrive. Despite the tourism boom, Northern Nicaragua remains relatively off the beaten trail, so finding a room is no problem.
There are numerous nature reserves, like Cerro Apante, Las Peñas Blancas and La Selva Negra to name a few. The hiking trails are easily accessible from town and can be done on your own or with a guide. Matagalpa Tours and Nativos Tours are great options for guided hikes and coffee tours with a focus on community development and sustainability. But, if you want to go solo, any friendly face in town can give you advice on getting to the reserves on your own. The waiter at our favorite local eatery near the Mercado Campesino gave us detailed instructions on how to get to the cross in Cerro Apante and where to go once we got there. We still got lost, but that’s another story.
Café Girasol, part of an organization helping handicapped families, also sells maps for self-guided tours in the reserves. While you’re there, make sure to grab lunch or a fresh juice and visit the playground they built especially for handicapped children.
There is a large number of great restaurants offering varying cuisines aimed at the local population. This means that the price, and quality, of “western food” is much better than in more touristy parts of the country. You can enjoy Mexican, Italian, Californian or even Persian food, with gourmet ice cream for dessert.
It’s hard to put into words just what makes Matagalpa so special. But, I urge you to come and see for yourself. If you’re looking for parties and beaches, tourism toutes and cheap souvenirs, this is not the place for you. But, if you want beauty, warm days, cool nights, cloud forests, waterfalls, great coffee and 360-degree panoramas, then head north and fall in love just like I did.
Stay tuned for Green Nica’s Matagalpa Mini-Guide for information on where to stay, eat and play.