Hiking to the Cruz de Apante, the giant cross overlooking Matagalpa, in the Cerro Apante Reserve on the outskirts of town is a must-do. The views of the city and surrounding mountains are one-of-a-kind, and the flora and fauna on the way up make for a spectacular 2-3 hour hike.
You can book a guided tour, but the hike is easily done on your own. The simple way is to walk or take a taxi to Finca San Luis, a steep 20-minute walk south of the Ruben Darío Park. After that, you will find the Marena, the Ministery of the Environment and Natural Resources, stand and pay the 50 cordoba entry fee. From there, head up. There is one intersection where the path splits and you should stay to the right to hike past the waterfall and along the riverbed until you reach the lookout point.
There is a little shelter there where you can sit and take in the birdseye view of the city below. After snapping the obligatory 1000 photos, head to the right to reach the Cruz de Apante for an even better view.
This is the easy way. This is not what we did. We are probably the only people in history to manage to get lost on our way to the cross. But, we had a great time doing it!
The Misadventure Begins
The first night we arrived in Matagalpa, while walking into town for dinner, Mikko grabbed me by the shoulder and pointed to the sky. “ I want to go up there.” I followed his gaze, and saw a giant cross lit up at the top of the highest peak outside of town. I sighed, thinking of both the beautiful view it would make and the excruciating pain in my knees the hike would cause. “Ok,” I said. And that was that.
A few days later, we were in the little comedor near the Mercado Campesino, when I ran into our favorite waiter. The first day we were there, he gave us a rundown of the best hikes in town and the best tour companies. He said if we ever had any questions to come down and see him. So, when I saw him that day, I explained that we wanted to make it to the cross later and asked the best way to get there. He told me to walk or get a cab and tell them to go to the entrance of the park. There would be a fee, and then once on the path we should stay to the right to go past the waterfall on the way up.
It was one of the hotter days, so we decided to take a taxi. For 60 cordobas (about 2 dollars), he took us up into the hills outside of Matagalpa to where the road dead ended. He pointed and said the entrance was up there. We thanked him and after a 5-minute walk came to a little shack with a guard. We asked him the way to the Cross and the waterfall. He looked a little confused about the waterfall (the first unrecognized red flag), but said just follow the path to the cross. There were large cement crosses marking the way up, he said, so just follow them.
We asked how much, and he just smiled and said that there was no fee (second red flag). Hmmm. Well, the waiter must have been mistaken. We passed another couple and asked them about the waterfall. They said they had just been to the cross, but never saw any waterfall.
All of this should have made us realize that we might be in the wrong place, but how many entrances to the cross can there be? More than one is the answer, but we found that out much later.
We followed a fairly well-trodden road up the mountain following the crosses like we were told. I had mentioned to Mikko that the waiter said to stay right to get to the waterfall. But, since no one seemed to know anything about any waterfall, Mikko decided that there must be some lesser-known path to take to get there.
I had to dissuade him from taking several tiny dirt trails into oblivion, as he thought every right turn would be the secret path to the waterfall. Eventually though, we came to a fork in the road. There was a sign with the cross and an arrow pointing to the left and a small dirt trail veering toward the right. Mikko was SO sure that this was the right right, that we abandoned the road – and ALL reason – and headed down the path. The path went deeper into the woods than the main route and the trees provided a nice shade from the midday sun. We winded up along the path with steep drop-offs and beautiful views on our side until we finally came to a beaten-up shack. THE LOOKOUT! Or so we thought. There were great views of the city, but the shack was a little more run down than we had expected. We could see the cross only a few minutes’ walk above us and still no waterfall in sight.
Mikko thought we might have missed it and should have taken a path that went wider around the mountain. The climb up had been steep and difficult, so I put my foot down and refused to backtrack. We climbed the last few meters up and reached our goal: The Cruz de Apante. This giant cross has an elaborate statue of Mary at the foot and an angel holding her on his wings. The view was spectacular.
We noticed a little shack selling food, and wondered if THAT was where we supposed to pay. But, the shopkeeper was enjoying a peaceful afternoon nap, and I couldn’t bear to wake him.
It was pretty obvious that the way we came up was not the right path, and this was confirmed when we saw a group of girls coming up from the back side of the cross. They asked where we had come from, and we explained our mission. They seemed intrigued, but told us that they just came from the REAL lookout and passed the waterfall on the way.
I shot an angry glance at Mikko for risking my life and dragging me through the Nicaraguan forest, so sure he was on the right path.
Now the easy part, or so we thought…
The girls told us something about going left on the way down and that then we would find the waterfall and view point. We thanked them and headed down the steps they had just come up. At the bottom there was a small gate to the right and an open path to the left. The word “left” was stuck in our brains – though it would end up treating us no better than our obsession with going right – so we headed off down the path.
After a short while, we came to a small village. It didn’t seem right at all, but we decided to go in and ask for directions. We met an old man who said there was a waterfall just down the road from the little village past the tiny bridge near a large pole. We thought it was weird that no one had mentioned this farm but thought, what the heck, and followed the path.
We saw a tiny bridge and a pole, but the bridge led to a field in the wrong direction. Mikko saw a tiny path…to the right…and thought maybe that was it. The path was more a trail wide enough to put one foot in front of the other. I was getting a little jumpy about wandering so far on what was becoming more and more obviously not the tourist trail. Matagalpa was safe, but I didn’t want to push my luck.
I convinced Mikko to abandon the expedition and head back up to the fork in the road at the bottom of the steps. We were clearly meant to pass through the gate there.
A short walk after the gate we saw a guard with a Marena vest and a night stick. He asked where we had come from and what way we had taken. He smiled when we explained and pointed left down the path that would lead to the view point. He said the fee was 50 cordobas.
Finally things were starting to make sense.
We asked him about the waterfall, and he said that he would take us to the viewpoint and show us the path to the waterfall. We came to the viewpoint, and it was much more like I what I had expected: a small, raised platform with a little covered bench. The view was great, though this was now our third viewpoint, and it had lost its original wow-factor.
After snapping a few more pictures, we headed down the path that he told us would lead to the waterfall and eventually back to town.
The path down was steep but beautiful. It took us into the heart of the forest and we followed the small creek as it winded through the rocky riverbed. After about half an hour, we came to our waterfall. It was even better than we had hoped. The river cascaded down several levels before continuing its journey through the rest of the forest.
The rest of the hike down was hard on the knees, but easy on the eyes.
Almost towards the end, we saw a path going up to the right, and it all became clear. If we had come to the right entrance, that path would be on our left and we were supposed to stay right up the path we just came down to get to the waterfall. It all would have been so simple.
Mikko blamed the taxi driver. I blamed Mikko.
When we came to the exit/entrance of the park a very confused young man asked us where we were coming from and how we got there. We told him our story and assured him that we had paid the fee and were sent on our way. We walked down the dusty road into town. My knees were on fire at this point, and I thanked my luck stars when we saw a microbus pull up that was headed back into the city center.
A 10 cordoba ride later, and we were sipping deliciously refreshing smoothies a few blocks from our hotel.
Our hike took a little over 3 hours, and we explored way more of the Cerro Apante than we had planned.
But the views were spectacular, and I highly suggest that you make the hike up to see them for yourself. Though maybe take the easy road.