As you travel north and up out of the sultry Pacific lowlands, your introduction to the Segovias, Nicaragua’s hilly interior, begins with the Sébaco Valley, green with rice, carrot, and onion fields. Steaming hot sweet corn products will be abundant from here on out. The Pan-American Highway struggles upward to the pleasant city of Estelí, the “Diamond of the Segovias,” then continues through mountains and valleys dotted with rural villages whose inhabitants are proud to call themselves norteños.
Most folks here get along by subsistence farming and ranching, while cash crops like tobacco and coffee reign. A few communities boast talented artisans in pottery, leather, and stone. Underneath the north’s gentle exterior of pine trees and tended fields are minor ruins of ancient cities, deep pools and cascades, and rugged communities of farmers and cowboys.Underneath the north’s gentle exterior of pine trees and tended fields are minor ruins of ancient cities, deep pools and cascades, and rugged communities of farmers and cowboys.The north of Nicaragua is poorer than the rest, and suffers acutely from drought, poor soils, and deforestation: Nowhere else is the six-month dry season so intense. The challenging living conditions however make for a hardy and hardworking people, quick with a smile or a story. The curious and unrushed traveler will not regret breaking away from the highway and going deep into this northern countryside.
Planning Your Time
It takes 5-7 days to hit the highlights of this area. Spend a day at the gem of this region—the Somoto Canyon—then catch the last bus back to Estelí, Nicaragua’s capital of tobacco. With a second day, focus on nearby attractions like those at El Tisey and Miraflor reserves (the latter of which is worth a second day), or check out the highland border town of Ocotal and its surrounding pueblos (small villages). If you’re really curious, travel the long loops eastward toward Jalapa, and you’ll be rewarded with excellent camping opportunities, mysterious hot springs, and a glimpse into the region’s rich indigenous roots. This region is well connected by buses.
Spread across a flat valley 800 meters above sea level, Estelí is an unassuming city whose 110,000 merchants, ranchers, artists, and cigar rollers are prouder than most. In Nahuatl, Estelí means something like “river of blood,” an apt moniker for an area so saturated with Sandinista rebels in the days that led up to the 1979 revolution that Somoza carpet-bombed the city (ask locals where to find la bomba, a relic from the air strikes). But these days, most Estelíanos live a bucolic life of farming and commerce. People are attracted to Estelí for two main reasons: to learn about the city’s revolutionary legacy and to visit the nature reserves that surround it.
Located on the south side of the Pan-American Highway as it veers westward toward the Honduran border at El Espino, Somoto is an average-size city of 15,000 and capital of the department of Madriz. Tucked into the Cordillera de Somoto at 700 meters above sea level (the highest point of this range is Cerro Tépec-Xomotl at 1,730 meters), Somoto enjoys a fresh climate most of the year. Somoto is known for its donkeys, rosquillas (baked corn cookies), and blowout carnival each November. A tributary of the Río Coco traverses the city.
U.S. Marines built an airstrip here, three blocks south of the park (now lost forever under a modern development), to try out a military technique they’d just invented: the air strike. They used the base in Somoto to bomb Ocotal in the 1930s in a failed attempt to root out General Sandino. These days, the Ciudad de Burros (City of Donkeys) has not much more to offer than a quiet evening in its quaint and friendly park and a pleasant, village ambience.
Built on a thick bed of red sand and surrounded on all sides by mountains draped with green Ocote pines, Ocotal is the last major settlement before the Honduran border at Las Manos and the unbroken wilderness that stretches eastward to the Caribbean. In the early 1930s, General Sandino and his men were firmly entrenched in the mountains north of Ocotal, and the U.S. government, intent on capturing him, sent in the Marines. Based in Ocotal, they scoured the countryside around Cerro Guambuco and built the country’s first airstrip in Somoto, from which they launched strikes on the city of Ocotal, the first city in the history of the world to experience an air raid.
Since 2000, the city has seen a lot of development and the feeling of Ocotal is one of progress. For most travelers, Ocotal may be nothing more than a place to sleep before hitting the border, but for many coffee growers and subsistence farmers, it’s still “the big city” for supplies and business. Here you are indeed getting close to the frontier, however, and you only have to head a mile out of town in any direction before you are back to the rutted dirt roads, soporific cow towns, and sweeping valleys that make Nicaragua at once so charming and so challenging.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.