East of the Pan-American Highway is a rugged region of blue-green hillsides, thickly forested mountains, and small farming villages of adobe homes and clay-tile roofs. It is unlike anywhere else in the country.

Draped over the curves of rolling hills, Matagalpa is the more elegant of the region’s two big cities.As highlands go, Nicaragua’s center is not that high—barely 2,000 meters above sea level. But, coming from the torrid plains around Granada and Managua, the cool pine-scented air is a welcome surprise. Coffee’s preference for shade has encouraged the preservation of much of this region’s forests, and mornings resonate with birdcalls and the bellowing of howler monkeys.

View of the city of Matagalpa. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

View of the city of Matagalpa. Photo © Elizabeth Perkins.

Draped over the curves of rolling hills, Matagalpa is the more elegant of the region’s two big cities, with a gargantuan cathedral and several big, shady parks. Jinotega is smaller and snugly nestled among the northern mountains at a higher altitude. Emphasizing its sense of isolation are the green walls of the valley that cradles it; even the cathedral in the town’s center is dwarfed by the immensity of nature in its lush plaza. Jinotega remains a cowboy town and feels like the end of the road—the gateway to the thousands of remote kilometers that separate the Atlantic coast from the rest of Nicaragua.

Periods of tremendous violence and warfare have racked the mountainous north for over a century. In the early 1930s, Augusto César Sandino fought U.S. Marines here; 40 years later came the revolution. Far more devastating than either of those conflicts, however, was the Contra War, when travelers along the region’s few roads were frequently ambushed and soldiers raided villages as a matter of course. In the 1980s, farmers learned to tend their crops with rifles slung over their shoulders. The past decade of peace has transformed Matagalpa and Jinotega into an agricultural powerhouse. Gone are the thousands of cold, wet, and hungry guerrilla soldiers that muddily marched through these hills. Today’s norteños instead struggle against rural poverty, drought, and the whims of the world coffee market.

Planning Your Time

Two or three nights is sufficient for seeing Matagalpa and Jinotega, but allow an extra day or two if you plan to explore any of the surrounding countryside. Those looking for a peaceful mountain retreat often spend 2-3 nights at either Hotel de Montaña Selva Negra, La Fundadora, or with a homestay program run by a coffee cooperative. Combining such a trip with a night or two in the city can easily consume five or six days—more if you visit the more remote communities. Buses are easy to use in this region, though having your own vehicle is useful if you’re short on time. East of Matagalpa, 4WD is useful, and necessary in the rainy season.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.