Ascending into the Tisey Nature Reserve, you will notice a change in landscape as the cool air fills your lungs and the aroma of pine reaches your nostrils. This is the southernmost point in the Western Hemisphere where you’ll find pine forest, and the huge moss-covered trees are lined with hundreds of species of orchids. This area is also home to some inspiring communities and cultural sites. There’s more to see than you’ll likely have time for, so plan a few days at least.

El Salto Estanzuela

Running along the ridge of the hillside are hundreds of stone carvings of jaguars, snakes, religious scenes, Nicaraguan historical figures, and even the twin towers.El Salto de Estanzuela (outside the city on the way to the Tisey Nature Reserve) is a gorgeous 15-meter cascade. Plunging into a cold, shady pool, beneath the waterfall, you can actually swim past the falls and perch on the rocks behind them. Unfortunately, this site can only be visited during the rainy season (Sept.-Jan.). The road to Estanzuela branches off the Pan-American just south of the new hospital and is sandwiched between two pulperías where you can stock up for the journey. You can hike to the waterfall from the highway or rent a bike and leave it with the caretakers at the entrance.

El Salto Estanzuela in Nicaragua. Photo © Carles-Amalaric Navarro Parcerisas/123rf.

El Salto Estanzuela in Nicaragua. Photo © Carles-Amalaric Navarro Parcerisas/123rf.

The five-kilometer walk should take 60-90 minutes each way. It’s an easy hike but has lots of ups-and-downs. Otherwise, hop a bus for the 20-minute ride (buses leave COTRAN Sur at 6:30am and 1:30pm). When you arrive you will see an arteseanía shop on the left and gated field to the right. Enter through the gate where the family who lives at the entrance will charge you $1.50 to hike down to the falls. There have been a few instances of robbery along here, so be alert. To be extra careful, go with a guide from one of the hostels. Head downward for 10 minutes until the track veers to the left. Follow the path down and you will see a set of stairs. You should now be able to hear the falls.

A bumpy 1.5 hours down the road from Estanzuela is Eco-Posada Tisey (tel. 505/2713-6213 or 505/8836-6021, $3 pp dorm, $10 d, $1.50 meals), which offers basic lodging. They will find you guides, rent you a horse, or show you around the organic farm that stocks most of Managua’s supermarkets with fresh veggies. One trail climbs to a lookout (1,300 meters) where you’ll enjoy the phenomenal view and the falls.

Don Alberto’s Galería Escultura en Piedras

Visiting Don Alberto Gutierrez and his mountainside stone carvings is a truly magical experience. Any time of day 76-year-old Don Alberto will greet you enthusiastically and lead you up the side of the mountain on his property to show you his collection of rock carvings, pointing out the breathtaking views and impressive variety of trees, orchids, and pineapple plants, while reciting poetry he has thought up on the spot and clearing weeds with a machete. Running along the ridge of the hillside are hundreds of stone carvings of jaguars, snakes, religious scenes, Nicaraguan historical figures, and even the twin towers. The inspiration for the carvings came to Alberto in a dream when he was 9 years old, but it wasn’t until he was 35 that he began to expose the rock at the top of the mountain on his property and carve.

All Don Alberto will ask of you is that you sign his welcome book (he has had over 35,000 visitors since 2004), but feel free to leave a voluntary donation.

Along the road to La Tejera from Estelí (briefly following the Tisey Eco-Posada, a 40-minute walk heading back towards Estelí from la Garnacha) look for the sign for Finca El Jalacate. You need to be in good physical shape and wear walking shoes. The descent from the path to his house is about a kilometer in length and gets a bit rocky. The terrain isn’t challenging, but the walk back up the hill is a steady incline. Passing through the gate on the side of the road, follow the grassy road past a house (and a few stunning views). The path will turn rocky and you’ll pass through a green gate and continue downward. You know you have reached Don Alberto’s when you see the sign welcoming you to the Galería Escultura en Piedras (rock sculpture gallery). Call out “Buenas!” until the dogs hear you and someone tells you to come on in. Usually, Don Alberto is in the back, so follow the path past the house and into the woods where you will see rocks with carvings and benches. Call out until Don Alberto comes to find you. It can get windy up at the top of the mountain, so you may want to bring a sweater.

La Garnacha

The small rural community of La Garnacha is one of Nicaragua’s greatest success stories of community tourism and cooperative development. It was founded as an agricultural cooperative in the 1980s when families displaced by the war moved here to farm communally. With the transition to a different economic model in the 1990s, each family took ownership of their land, but various families came together to form an association, which today runs most of the town’s eco-tourism projects.

The view from La Garnacha's mirador. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

The view from La Garnacha’s mirador. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

The association produces Swiss cheese, organic coffee, fertilizer, vegetables, and medicinal plants. Local artisans sell their goods in the shop. Profits go to their nonprofit association and, despite the fact that some areas make much higher profits than others, the people who work in the various areas all make the same salary.

In the soapstone carvings shop, observe the young men carving wood and soapstone mined within the community. Be sure to visit the natural medicine pharmacy for a consultation ($2, free with a tour). To figure out which herbs you need, the pharmacist will pass you different bags of plants and, as you push your finger and thumb together, will see how easily she can pry your fingers apart.

The association runs a tourism project and has a variety of wooden cabins ($20-35), an area with private rooms, and a restaurant, which serves their vegetables and handmade cheese ($3-5). It gets cool at night so bring a sweater and socks! Call Pablo (tel. 505/8658-1054) to make reservations. Hospedaje Familiar El Carrizo (tel. 505/8524-4764, $15/day, includes meals, plus a tour of their organic garden) is a lodging option. They have a tree-house room. They can also help set up homestays.

To get to La Garnacha, take a bus leaving Estelí (daily except Wed.) at 6:30am or 1:30pm. In a car (or as a more adventurous traveler), you can also go to the town of San Nicolás (along the Pan-American just south of Estelí, take any bus going south) and follow the road towards San Nicolás for nine kilometers until you see a sign for “Rancho Don Luis” towards community La Tejera. Turn right and, after following the road for 3.5 kilometers, turn left at the road junction to La Garnacha. After 1.5 kilometers, you will reach the community La Garnacha. This walk can be done in a few hours on foot or by looking for rides along the way.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.