Nicaragua’s Northern Highlands
Northern Highlands of Nicaragua
As you travel inland from the Pacific lowlands, Nicaragua’s northern landscape rapidly gains in elevation and color.
Tropical dry forests fade, giving way to low mountains, emerald pasturelands, and cool forests.
This territory sits at the convergence of three of Nicaragua’s departments: Estelí, Matagalpa, and Jinotega—each with its own eponymous capital.
Estelí rests one-half mile above sea level, in a flat valley, surrounded by fertile plantations, cattle ranches, and rare Ocote pines.
Founded in 1685, this quiet city spreads out from a sunny central plaza anchored by a baroque cathedral.
Surrounding shops offer custom cowboy boots and saddles, straw Jipi Japa sombreros, and expressive carvings in pine and marmolina soapstone.
Fine Nicaraguan Cigars
Estelí is world-renowned for its production of fine cigars.
Cuban tobacco barons fleeing Castro arrived here in the 1960’s, bringing with them smuggled heirloom seeds.
Over a dozen boutique factories hand roll puros of superb quality.
Although some of these facilities closely guard their trade secrets, others allow private tours and samplings.
Horseback Riding, Hiking, Caving, and More
Active travelers have plenty of options in Estelí: horseback riding, hiking, swimming, caving, and coffee plantation tours.
The Miraflor Nature Reserve, 19 miles northeast of the city, protects a cloud-forest habitat for:
- Howler Monkeys
- Over 300 Orchid Species
Miraflor also features forest trails leading to waterfalls, scenic viewpoints, and natural pools.
About an hour’s drive east of Estelí, the city of Matagalpa is encircled by green mountains near the Continental Divide.
The city’s two nicknames, Pearl of the North and Land of Eternal Spring, each reflect norteño pride in Matagalpa’s heritage, climate, and natural beauty.
This fertile valley supported Nahuatl communities, long before the Spanish arrived in 1528.
Nicaraguan Coffee Plantations
During the 1840s gold rush, immigrants from the eastern United States and Europe passed through Nicaragua en route to California.
One enterprising German couple, Ludwig Elster and Katherina Braun, recognized Matagalpa’s ideal climate and soil for coffee cultivation.
Planting roots, the couple went on to develop arabica plantations that ultimately brought great wealth to the city.
The huge Cathedral of San Pedro, completed in 1874, serves as evidence of Nicaragua’s coffee boom.
Matagalpa Eco Lodges
Matagalpa is still well-known for its artisanal coffee, much of which is shade grown organic.
Flowers, chocolate, and high-quality ice cream are produced here as well. Local artisans also craft finely woven textiles and distinctive black ceramics.
Visitors typically relax for two or three nights at one of the area’s mountain eco-lodges, surrounded by cloud forests, hiking trails, and waterfalls.
The cobblestoned city of Jinotega is nestled in the highlands 19 miles (35 minutes) northwest of Matagalpa.
The hyper-curvy road to Jinotega is often described as the most scenic in all of Nicaragua; travelers are rewarded with views of two volcanoes, brilliant valleys, and rainbow fields of ornamental flowers.
At 3,300 feet above sea level, Jinotega is surrounded by jade-colored mountains.
Nicaraguan Coffee Plantation Tours
Coffee thrives here; Jinotega produces 80% of Nicaragua’s coffee, selling most of their supply directly to premium vendors overseas.
Most visitors take at least one or two tours of the surrounding plantations, beneficios, and cupping rooms.
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