More than a trip into Estelí ’s misty mountains, a visit to Miraflor is a trip backward in time. Perhaps this is what Costa Rica’s Monteverde  was like 40 years ago before it was populated with four-star resorts and laced with splinter-free wooden walkways.
Miraflor is unabashedly rustic, natural, and unpretentious. Declared a protected natural reserve in 1990, this rudimentary tourist infrastructure was developed by locals, with their own sweat and labor and in the absence of any external help.
Miraflor as an entity is a little vague. There’s no town, per se, or even a real center. Rather, the 5,000 Mirafloreños live dispersed throughout the 206 square kilometers of the reserve in a geographically dispersed but socially united community. The Miraflor Reserve is privately owned, cooperatively managed in many parts, and almost entirely self-funded by associations of small-scale producers.
Most notable among these is the UCA Miraflor (or in full, the Union de Cooperativas Agropecuarias Héroes y Mártires de Miraflor)—not to be confused with the University of Central America—an association of 14 small farmer cooperatives and 120 families living within the protected area.
UCA Miraflor is primarily an agricultural credit and loan institution, but it has also tackled issues and begun programs, such as community health and education, organic agriculture and diversification of crops, cooperative coffee production, gender and youth groups, and conflict resolution. Tourism, Miraflor’s greatest potential, was just an afterthought.
Miraflor has something for everyone—nature lovers, hikers, social justice workers, organic farmers, artists, horse lovers, orchid fanatics, birders, and entomologists—each of whom will find their own personal heaven here. You can certainly visit parts of Miraflor in a day trip from Estelí , but read on and consider experiencing the unique accommodations.
Every attraction in Miraflor is privately owned, often by poor campesinos. Your financial support leads to the continued preservation of these magnificent forests, because, “hey, this would be a great place to chop down the trees and plant some beans.”
The community of La Fortuna has a small museum that they are trying hard to improve which has indigenous relics from the area and articles from the war. It is a great place to get out of the weather in the rainy season.
If you enjoy inspired agriculture and alternative farming practices, the campesinos at Miraflor will gladly show you their cutting-edge lifestyle, including organic compost, natural pest management, watershed protection, live fences, crop diversification, soil management, reforestation, worm farming, and environmental education. In addition, Miraflor’s small-scale, fair trade, organic coffee cooperatives and cupping lab (in Cebollál) are among the nation’s finest.
The distinct bird species number 236, belonging to 46 different families which inhabit or fly through these mountains—that’s nearly 40 percent of all bird species in the country, including four species of the elusive quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), toucans, the ranchero (Procnias tricaruntulata), with its three dangling chins, and the Nicaraguan national bird, the guardabarranco. Miraflor is also one of your best chances to spot coyotes, sloths, deer, howler monkeys, or one of six different feline species, not to mention raccoons, skunks, armadillos, and exotic rodents.
Miraflor is one of the richest and most unexplored orchid-viewing regions anywhere. Among the more than 300 identified species is an enormous colony of Cattleya skinniri (the national flower of Costa Rica), not to mention scads of bromeliads and a museum of other orchids from throughout the reserve.
Short hikes are possible through any of the hundreds of pockets of forest, but ask your guide to take you on one of the more adventurous trips. Although difficult to access, the 60-meter waterfall at La Chorrera is one of the wildest spots in the reserve. The Caves of Apaguis were dug in pre-Columbian times by gem seekers and have been occupied ever since by duendes (dwarves), as any local will inform you.
The mature cloud forest of Bosque Los Volcancitos is Miraflor’s highest point at 1,484 meters and is known habitat for howler monkeys and quetzals. If the monkeys don’t snatch away your binoculars, expect fantastic views from El Tayacán, Cerro Yeluca, Cerro El Aguila, La Coyotera, and Ocote Calzado. Furthermore, the forests are replete with mysteries, such as the casa antigua, a 1,200-year-old foundation in the Tayacán area, surrounded by dozens of other unearthed montículos (mounds). Archaeologists haven’t even begun to investigate the rest of them.
The lagoon in Miraflor is a great place to pass time, maybe stop for a great lunch. If you are lucky, you will get a chance to see monkeys in the area, but don’t leave your food for long or it may become theirs.
Accommodations are all well kept, but primitive; some do not have electricity. Start with a call or visit to the UCA Miraflor office in Estelí (from the cathedral three blocks east, half a block north, tel. 505/2713-2971, miraflor [at] ibw [dot] com [dot] ni, www.miraflor.org , open 8 a.m.–12:30 p.m. and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.). They will present your options and help arrange lodging, taking care to distribute guests fairly among the various families who have agreed to host guests. Expect to pay $13–17 per person per night, with all meals included.
The UCA Miraflor–affiliated lodging is distributed between four main communities, and they’ll ask you to pick a zone: either the cloud forest with the communty of La Rampa, the middle zone (best for birders as it has more species diversity) with the communities of Sontule and El Cebollál, or the low, dry zone with the communities of Coyolito and La Pita.
Campesino Homes: This option features a network of families trained in the subtle art of entertaining picky travelers; their homes, while clean and well-maintained, are usually quite rustic. Lindos Ojos is affiliated with the UCA Miraflor, but handles its own business. Ask about package trips that include meals, guided hikes, and organic agriculture demonstrations.
Start with a call or visit to the UCA Miraflor office in Estelí (from the cathedral three blocks east, half a block north, tel. 505/2713-2971, miraflor [at] ibw [dot] com [dot] ni, www.miraflor.org , open 8 a.m.–12:30 p.m. and 2–5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.). They will present your options and help arrange lodging, tour guides, horse rental—taking care to distribute guests fairly among the various families who have agreed to host guests. Expect to pay $15–25 per service requested.
At 1,400 meters above sea level, Miraflor is remote, cloud-covered, and sometimes downright chilly. Be prepared for inclement weather (buy a sweatshirt at one of Estelí’s millions of used-clothing stores) and bring your own bottled water if you’re concerned. A flashlight or candles will be helpful on that midnight walk to the latrine.
Until the road from Estelí  is finally paved, expect bumps, dust, and mud on the slow ride into the hills. There are four buses a day from Estelí: two leave for La Pita from Pulpería Miraflor by the Texaco Starmart at the north end of town (6 a.m. and 1 p.m.). The buses to Sontule and La Perla leave from COTRAN Norte at 2 p.m. and 3:40 p.m. The UCA Miraflor office may also be able to arrange transport.
Returning to Estelí, buses depart La Pita at 8:10 a.m. and 3 p.m., from Sontule at 8 a.m., and from La Perla at 7:30 a.m. The bus from Yalí passes by La Rampla at 7 a.m., 11 a.m., and 4 p.m. Hitching in this remote area of the Estelí countryside is very difficult, as there are not many rides.