travel to nicaragua & finding our way to matagalpa

In Transit – from D.C. to Miami to Managua

Tuesday, December 27, 2022: We left home at the ungodly hour of 3:15 a.m., taking an Uber to Reagan International Airport. Our flight on American Airlines took off at 6:30 a.m. and landed us three hours later in Miami, 924 miles. The only refreshment was a Lotus Biscoff, a cardboard-like gingerbread cookie. Mike had tomato juice, which I never think of ordering but looked refreshing. Alex slept almost the entire flight, which I envied. We had a period of some turbulence, surprising because we weren’t in clouds but under sunny skies. 🙂

There was a nasty body odor smell throughout the cabin that made for unpleasantness. A curly-headed toddler was screaming his head off across the aisle from us before takeoff. It was so obnoxious. The only way the parents could calm him down was to show him either a video or a video game on the phone. What a brat!

In Miami we walked a long way to Gate D7, then grabbed some lunch. I had a turkey and Swiss sandwich, Mike a tuna wrap, and Alex an egg, cheese and bacon empañada. I also got a Pure Green Cold Pressed Juice with apple, lemon and ginger (& kale, spinach, cucumber, celery, zucchini and romaine) that gave my stomach somersaults.

The plane loaded quickly in Miami but we took off an hour late because of seven planes ahead of us. The flight was 1,017 miles over 2:46 hours.

A guy behind us was talking about his female friend who got murdered and robbed of her purse and phone in Nicaragua. He was looking to adopt her 12-year-old daughter and had three children of his own.

I got stuck in the middle seat with Mike at the window and Alex in the aisle seat. Alex worked on Soduko and was reading Love & Math that he got for Christmas. Mike was chuckling over Nadine’s escapades in the book Happier Than a Billionaire.

Adam had been writing to say he was in Managua and planned to shop some before meeting us at the airport. I looked forward to seeing him after nearly three years.

Arrival in Nicaragua and onward to Matagalpa

We arrived in Managua at 12:35 p.m., but we had to pick up our luggage and go through customs; there, I had to stand in a separate line to have my carry-on bag searched. I had brought my Canon Power Shot, which I never use but carry only as a backup in case something happens to my phone; for some reason it showed on their scanner and they didn’t know what it was. Mike and Alex went ahead to get the rental car from Alamo, a Toyota Rush, and when I was finally released by customs, I gave Adam a big hug. I was so happy to see him! We thought he must have grown because he seemed super tall to us all.

Mike got the rental car and we piled all our luggage in the back and began our drive to Matagalpa. We were on the road, a decent 2-lane road shared with moto taxis and motorbikes. Mountains loomed before us.


Driving to Matagalpa

We stopped to use a bathroom and get some snacks. Adam wanted us to try Chicharrones con Sabor a limon. We also got a bag of Del Rancho Chicharrones. Both were different versions of fried pork skins. It has taken me a long time to get used to my once-vegan sons becoming fully carnivorous.

We drove ever so slowly behind lumbering overloaded trucks, moto taxis and horses pulling carts for 2 1/2 hours to Matagalpa.

Our hotel in Matagalpa, Hotel San José, had an interior courtyard with a colorful nativity scene. The back of the courtyard was bursting with tropical plants. We enjoyed cool beers in the hotel courtyard. It was wonderful to all be together again.

Matagalpa is one of Nicaragua’s largest cities, but it is fairly provincial and laid back. Soaring mountains circle the city’s central neighborhoods. Coffee, which accounts for the city’s historic wealth, is produced in the hillsides. The city serves as a good urban base to explore the surrounding countryside of primary forest, gushing waterfalls and coffee plantations.

We went to dinner at Casa Blanca, where I enjoyed shrimp with garlic sauce, and then we wandered through a magical park, Darío Park, lit with Christmas lights and the biggest nativity scene I had ever seen. We found a statue in the park of Rubén Darío (1867-1916), a Nicaraguan poet who had a great and lasting influence on 20th century Spanish-language literature and journalism. He has been praised as the “Prince of Castilian Letters” and undisputed father of the modernismo literary movement.

Across from the park, we saw the pink San José Church, relevant in the architecture and history of the city. Formerly called the Church of Laborío or Dolores, in 1881 it served as a barracks for rebellious Indians. It’s an elegant construction with a colonial façade to which a bell tower with a clock was added. Large swaths of the pink paint were peeled off so it seemed rather sad and derelict.

We were all exhausted from our long day of travel, so we exchanged Christmas gifts in our long narrow 4-bedded room and zonked out early. Sadly, the shoes we gave Adam for Christmas were too small but he thought they’d stretch. I could have kicked myself for not buying pairs in two sizes just in case one didn’t fit. 😦

Steps: 8,644; Miles: 3.64.

Reserva Natural Cerro Apante

Wednesday, December 28: Our breakfast at Hotel San José was served up at a private table; it was a meal we would eat frequently in both Nicaragua and Costa Rica: scrambled eggs with peppers and onions, fried plantain chips, a slice of soft cheese (like Feta), and rice and red beans.

We drove to the start of the hike at Reserva Natural Cerro Apante, a cloud forest reserve with a cool pleasant climate. The sign at the outset said:

  • Sendero El Roble
  • Distancia 3.2 kmts ± 3 horas
  • Dificultad: moderamente dificil
  • Parqueo C$ 30

The reserve has an area of 1,962 hectares. Its name means “hill of water” in Nahuatl, or “land of two waters.” It is named so for the numerous sources of water that originate here. The water is used by people in the urban and rural areas of Matagalpa.

It features a tropical cloud forest with 75 species of plants, including a mix of trees such as sweet gum and walnut which come from North America and whose southern limit of distribution is in Nicaragua. Several species of oak and pine also thrive here. In addition, eight registered orchid species are known. Giant tree ferns known as monkey’s tail are also abundant.

The route was very steep, rocky and root-tangled. We walked through tropical exuberance, around bamboo patches, and alongside streams. Alex and Adam sat in the branches of a fallen tree for a pose.

We found a waterfall where the guys swam. Adam jumped into a pool from a tall rock.

Then we continued climbing to the mirador overlooking the city of Matagalpa, La Cruz de Cerro Largo Viewpoint. We came up a long steep set of steps from behind a blue and white metallic cross. In front of the cross is the rather derelict mirador, where we could see the city of Matagalpa scattered across the valley. Cerro Apante is 1,442 meters above sea level. At its summit is the 33-meter-high La Cruz de la Paz (in memory of the years of Jesus Christ’s earthly life), the highest Catholic monument in Nicaragua. The statue is a carving of the Virgin Mary with a winged Christ child at her feet. It is part of the Montaña de la Paz project, meant to be a pilgrimage site where the Christian faithful can come to reflect, pray and make spiritual retreats.

The viewpoint and the huge statue were quite unusual, but we were happy to be rewarded with cacao bars Adam gave us as Christmas gifts, expansive views, and conversation in Spanish with some very friendly Nicaraguans.

The route back took us on a loop so we could experience different views and flora. Coming down on steep gravelly surfaces is always challenging to me, but I took my time and tried to be patient, not an easy thing for me! We found a horse grazing freely.  Our hike was exhausting but in the end, the views were worth all the effort.

Back in Matagalpa, we found a cute veterinarian office with a mural of cows, horses, pigs and oxen on the front. We dropped into a little restaurant in town, but the food was rather disappointing. I was okay with my cheese quesadilla, but the guys weren’t happy at all with the lack of meat in their dishes.

We enjoyed a beer in the hotel courtyard, showered and relaxed for a while. Alex seemed to be feeling a bit under the weather and he took a nap while we relaxed before dinner.

Adam had walked around earlier, while we were resting, and scoped out a Mexican restaurant, Rincón Azteca, with a taco special. As we walked to go out to dinner, we stumbled across a blue car with four little white fuzzy heads looking out at us. The owner of the pups came out and tried to hand one over to me. Then we stopped into a festively decorated church where we found yet another richly arranged nativity scene.

We enjoyed various taco dishes and a chalupa poblano. Adam, who loves his sweets, downed two horchatas and we sipped on something like non-alcoholic margaritas. The colorful drinks were served in jars with handles, overlooked by festive snowmen.

The decor in the restaurant was cute and colorful with striped blankets and patterned pillows on orange couches and sombreros to try on for photos.

Steps: 12,955; Miles: 5.49.

Selva Negra and a wander around Matagalpa

Thursday, December 29: Today we visited Selva Negra Mountain Resort and Coffee Estate, a historical coffee farm set up by German immigrants in 1891.

In the 1850s, when gold was discovered in California, many American and European passengers made their way to California crossing the Isthmus of Central America through Nicaragua. On one of these trips, a German couple, Ludwig Elster and Katharina Braun, from the region of Germany’s Black Forest (Selva Negra in Spanish), chose to stay in Nicaragua rather than continue to San Francisco. They were discouraged from their original intention of going to California for the gold rush because they were told it wasn’t a good environment for families and children. Instead of looking for gold, they planted the first coffee beans in this region. The coffee was of good quality, so many other Europeans and Americans chose to do the same. It was known then as “La Hammonia” Farm, strictly a coffee farm.

One hundred years later, Eddy Kühl and Mausi Hayn, descendants of the first settlers, decided to build a tourist resort, completed between 1975-1976.    They built 23 mountain bungalows, an additional building with 14 rooms, a youth hostel, bar and restaurant.

In addition to coffee production and the hotel, Selva Negra Ecolodge, alternative sources of production have been developed over the last 30 years, whether for in-house consumption or income generation. These include organic meat and milk products such as cheeses: Gouda, Manchego, Camembert, & Feta; vegetables and fruit crops; pork and sausages; laying hens and meat chickens, etc.

Activities are all eco-touristic: mountain hiking, horseback riding, bird watching, and coffee plantation tours.

We did the coffee plantation tour, where we were walked through the stages of the process. We were introduced to the machinery that sorts and washes the coffee beans. We tasted some of the defective coffee. Selva Negra sells coffee all over the world, mostly to the U.S. but also to Australia, Mexico and Czech Republic. One of their biggest customers is Whole Foods in the U.S.

We watched the raking and drying of the coffee beans. Depending on the type and quality of the beans, drying can take days to months.

There is much integration on the farm: leftover food from the restaurant feeds the pigs, the pigs’ waste generates methane gas used to fuel the kitchen that cooks the sausages made from the pigs. They also use multiple methane gas processes from coffee wastewater, animal manure and human waste.

At Selva Negra, we took a 4WD down into the coffee plantation. We drove past the workers’ quarters. Deeper into the plantation, we saw giant lemons, which they let fall to the ground to make the soil more acidic. Cacao grows on the plantation as well. The coffee hacienda grows 100% organic shade coffee.

On the bumpy ride, there was only room inside the truck for Mike and me and two Nicaraguan women, one of whom wanted to set her daughter up with Adam. Adam and Alex had to sit in the truck bed, not comfortable because of a sudden smattering of rain and the bumpy ride.

We witnessed the lunchtime break for the workers on the coffee plantation. They work from 7-4 each day with a 10-minute lunch. The company brings the food down in a kind of chow-wagon (truck), and workers stand in line to get their food and gobble it down. They carry their bags of coffee beans down to lunch because they want to keep access to the beans they’ve picked; they’re paid by the box, about $2/box. Most workers pick 5-10 boxes/day. It’s very labor intensive and they’re not about to leave their bags behind during lunch.

After our tour, we drank the free coffee we got as part of the tour and ate some cheese we bought at a table in the dining area, which overlooks a small lake.

When we got back to the hotel, Alex wasn’t feeling good, so he took a nap while Mike, Adam and I wandered around Matagalpa. Mike and Adam did a little dance to some music bursting from a storefront.

We strolled over to the Coffee Museum. It tells the story of how in 1852, Luis Elster (1814-1916) and his wife Katharina Braun (1830-1887) arrived with their two-year-old boy, Wilhelm. While awaiting a ship to California in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, they found two North Americans returning to New York. They were told conditions were bad for children in California. They were told to go north, close to Matagalpa, where there were gold mines. They went north in a wagon pulled by oxen to Matagalpa and then to San Ramon, where they bought land from indigenous people and founded their farm Ludwigwalk, or “La Lima.” Luis dug for gold, but didn’t find big quantities. Instead they planted coffee seeds and were surprised when the bushes yielded cherries bigger and more aromatic than those on the Pacific. (I believe this is the same couple referred to above at Selva Negra, but the names and dates don’t match exactly).

The Elsters dried the beans in the sun and after dried, they exported them to Germany to be dehusked. There were many problems, mainly that transporting them was too bulky and the taste was affected. They thought of a way to remove the dried shells using wood cylinders.

We saw a map of the coffee trajectory. European and North American immigrants received land from the government with the condition that they had to plant coffee (in Matagalpa and Jinotega). We learned of different types of coffee and different roasts.

We wandered past street markets where Adam introduced us to Nicaraguan street food: buñelos (yucca cheese sugarballs); respado (a snow cone with sweetened condensed milk and fruit syrups; atol (milk & grain sweetened); and unripe mangoes with salt, lime and chili.

It was quite busy in the streets with all kinds of commerce and blaring music and loudspeakers announcing various bargains.

We found a statue in Morazan Park of Carlos Fonseca and Comandante Tomas Borge Martinez, both drivers of the revolution.

I wandered into the Matagalpa Cathedral, also known as Catedral de San Pedro, which still had a large nativity scene. It is the third largest cathedral in Nicaragua, built in 1874 as a parish church under the Jesuits. It reflects the opulence of Matagalpa in that age. It is built in a Baroque style with heavy bell towers set at both sides of an airy spacious interior. Dedicated to St. Peter the Apostle, it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Diocese in Matagalpa. It was finally completed and consecrated in 1897.

We also stopped at the Carlos Fonseca Museum, once the revolutionary leader’s childhood home. Carlos Fonseca Amador (23 June 1936 – 8 November 1976), was a Nicaraguan teacher, librarian and revolutionary who founded the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN – Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional). He was killed in the mountains of the Zelaya Department, Nicaragaua, three years before the FSLN took power.

The small and simple house, made of taquezal (mud and wood), holds two exhibition rooms, one small office and a salon-turned-library. Photo exhibits of Fonseca, showing images of different stages of his life, as well as important people in his life, line the walls. On display are also information about his childhood and family, his revolutionary activism in different countries, guerilla partners and more. There were many faded old news clippings, including one about his death in the war against the Guardia Nacional (Somoza’s army), as well as personal artifacts.

We returned to the hotel to find Alex well-rested, although he still didn’t feel good. We all went out to dinner for local Nica food at El Taquero, which made the guys happy but not me because too much meat was involved in every dish. Even the Chalupina I ordered because I thought it didn’t have meat, was full of fatty meat. 😦

Steps: 10,490; Miles: 4.45.

Below is a video of our time in Matagalpa.

The following day, Friday, we would be on our way to León, where we would stay to welcome in the New Year.