East of Lake Cocibolca lie hundreds of thousands of hectares of rolling hillside in a broad ecological transition zone where undulated, scrubby pastureland gradually unfolds into the pine savannas and wetlands of the Caribbean coast. It’s less populated than the Pacific region—Chontales and Boaco residents are easily outnumbered by their cattle. It’s the cattle that make this area famous. Chontales ranches produce more than 60 percent of Nicaragua’s dairy products, including dozens of varieties of cheese and millions of gallons of milk.Chontales and Boaco residents are easily outnumbered by their cattle. It’s the cattle that make this area famous.The flavor of Chontales and Boaco play no small part in the flavor of Nicaragua as a whole, from the cowboys, to the wide open sky, to the pre-Columbian relics and the small-town lifestyle. This entire region is firmly off the beaten path, so expect to be the only tourist for miles in most of the towns and sights. Boaco is known for its exceptional dairy products and makes a reasonable base for treks or drives into the hills between Boaco and Matagalpa Departments. Juigalpa is a much bigger and more economically active urban center that remains an overgrown cowboy town. Here you’ll rub shoulders with cowboys and campesinos (country folk) sporting their cleanest boots on their twice-a-month trip to the city to pick up supplies, strike a few deals, and do their errands.
Juigalpa’s patron saint celebrations in mid-August are among the best in Nicaragua and draw a crowd from as far away as Managua to enjoy the elaborate bull-riding competitions, horsemanship contests, and traditional dances, all under the magnificent backdrop of the Amerrisque mountain range. Originally settled by the Chontal people, these mountains remain little explored, and the continual discovery of ancient statues and sculpture imply the grandeur of the mysteries this area still retains.
Planning Your Time in Chontales
Many travelers treat this region as an uninteresting and unavoidable expanse to be traveled through as quickly as possible en route to Nicaragua’s Río San Juan or the Atlantic coast. But travelers who tire of the Granada hype and the overwhelming presence of other foreigners will be amply rewarded with a trip to Chontales.
How much time you’ll need depends on your inclination for adventure and ability to forgo some creature comforts. You could easily spend a day and a night in one of many quiet agrarian towns like Boaco, Camoapa, and Cuapa. The attraction is simply a bucolic, rural lifestyle. Most towns in the area have some basic accommodation and small local sites of historical, cultural, or geologic interest. Add an additional day if the bouldering and hiking opportunities in Cuisaltepe or Cuapa whet your appetite, and another day on horseback in San José de los Remates (you can even continue on the little-traveled high road to Matagalpa).
Public buses connect most of the region. In some of the smaller towns there are only a few buses that run daily, and it’s best to ask around because they don’t always run on schedule. If there isn’t a bus at the time you want, you can get a ride or take a taxi out to the highway (empalme de Boaco for Boaco, empalme San Fransico for Camoapa), where buses pass constantly between San Carlos, Rama, Juigalpa, Boaco, and Managua.
Nestled snugly in a 379-meter-high notch in the Amerrisque mountains, Boaco is a departmental capital and an agriculture center whose soil struggles to support both cattle and corn. Modern Boaco (the city’s name is a combination of Aztec and Sumu words that mean “land of the sorcerers”) is the third incarnation of the city. In the 18th and 19th century, two previous Boacos were built and destroyed in the same place.
The modern city of Boaco began on a hilltop and crept down the hillside into a valley. It literally has two different levels, the elevated city center and lower commercial sector, which earned it the nickname The City of Two Floors. (The fact that, compared to the rest of Nicaragua, Boaco has an unusual number of houses that have two or more floors reinforces the moniker.)
During the Contra War, Boaco was spared from direct battles. But in the hillsides that surround, the city violence dislodged countless campesinos, all of whom eventually found their way to the city of Boaco seeking refuge. Many decided to stay, and Boaco has swelled over the past 20 years, faster than it can provide for its new inhabitants, most of whom occupy neighborhoods of small concrete homes around the outskirts of the city.
The last big settlement on the road southeast to El Rama (or south to San Carlos and the Río San Juan), Juigalpa is a prosperous city of 70,000 cattle ranchers and farmers. Juigalpa bears the traces of its indigenous roots in elaborate statuary and other archaeological pieces still being discovered in the mountains east of town. Juigalpa in Aztec means “great city” or “spawning grounds of the black snails.” Its first inhabitants were likely the Chontal, displaced from the Rivas area by the stronger Nicaraos. They resisted the Spanish occupation fiercely in the 16th century, rising up no fewer than 14 times to attack the installations of the colonial government.
Upon Nicaragua’s independence, the land that comprised Chontales and Boaco was controlled by Granada. In 1858, the Department of Chontales was formed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, travelers bound for the gold mines of Santo Domingo and La Libertad crossed Lake Cocibolca, landed in Puerto Díaz, and spent a night in Juigalpa before proceeding.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.