Nicaragua’s northern highlands are a hidden gem, offering phenomenal scenery, adventure tours, homestays with local families, a unique hermit and his art, and more. This article explains sets out four of the best things to do whilst based in the town of Estelí, close to the Honduran border and the heart of the highlands.
Estelí is primarily worth visiting as a base for the activities in the surrounding region. The town itself has a pleasant central plaza and cathedral and a smattering of decent places to eat, but not a huge amount to offer.
Most things around Estelí require a guide. There are a couple of organisations which organise tours, but I recommend Treehuggers. Not only do they organise everything immaculately, but they are also a community tourism company, so you know all of your money is going to a good cause.
Be aware that although some English is spoken in Estelí itself, it’s not spoken much in the areas outside the city, so you’ll get a lot more out of your trip if you have someone in your group who speaks a bit of Spanish.
Estelí can be reached easily. From Managua, head over to the Mayoreo bus terminal, where buses depart around every hour. They take approximately 3 ½ hours to get there. If you are based in Granada, head over to Masaya and pick up the express bus. There are only a couple of these daily, but they also get you there in around 3 hours – ask locally for times. Regular buses link Estelí to Leon and Matagalpa.
As elsewhere in Nicaragua, buses are more frequent in the morning, with the last bus often early afternoon in order to arrive at its destination before dark.
So here they are – the top four reasons you should visit Nicaragua’s northern highlands:
Go Canyoning in Somoto Canyon
Somoto Canyon lies around an hour and a half north of Estelí itself, right on the Honduran border. Be aware that it’s so close to the border that immigration officials sometimes check that you have a valid visa, so do make sure you have a picture of your passport and the stamp in it on your phone.
A tour through Somoto starts early – the bus leaves Estelí at 7.30am, and will take up most of the day. But it’s fantastic fun.
Don a life jacket and hike, scramble, float and swim your way several kilometres down the gorgeous canyon. Some of the waters resemble the kind of thing you’d normally go down in a kayak, but here you simply lie flat with your feet out in front for protection, and let the current take you. Oh, and really do try and stay flat, because if you give in to the temptation to let your hips drop then you’ll start bumping over the rocks!
No trip through Somoto would be complete without a few jumps, and be warned – some are obligatory! Everyone has to jump from at least 3 metres into the water, and lots of people pluck up the courage to jump from 10 metres or higher. I managed 12 metres, which was sufficiently terrifying that I started to regret it halfway down! Once I hit the water and resurfaced safely though, I couldn’t wait to do it again.
The final stretch of your trip through Somoto is an idyllic float through gentle waters, with the steep canyon sides rising above you, populated with numerous birds, enormous blue butterflies and more.
Hike through Miraflor Nature Reserve
The Miraflor Nature Reserve is a huge area just to the easy of Estelí. There is one bus from Estelí to Miraflor each day – and it leaves at 5.30am. But it’s worth it! Miraflor encompasses a range of hills containing farms jungle, cloud forest and more. It is made up of three climactic zones, which all make for a good days hiking or horse riding:
The Zona Baja (low zone) is the warmest and most tropical. Here you can hike through jungles, discover (and climb!) hidden waterfalls, and sit on the banks of a slow flowing river.
The Zona Intermedio (as it sounds) is where the cloud forest begins. Here, lichen grows on the trees, and vines called ‘Old Men’s Beards’ drape from every tree branch. It gives the area a mystical, otherworldly feel that is quite magic.
The Zona Alta (high zone) is the coolest and most sparsely populated of the three zones. This is mostly farmland, criss-crossed with numerous muddy paths you can explore along and views down over the other zones. If you’re visiting the Zona Alta, horse riding is a good option.
Whichever zone you visit, you will need to be accompanied by a local guide. This is not just essential for finding your way through the many near-hidden paths and trails you will want to follow, but also for learning about the fascinating history of the land.
The Contra war of the 1980s had a huge effect on the people of Miraflor, and they still remember it well. Our guides told us numerous stories of what life was like then – of how it wasn’t safe for teachers to travel to the schools, so a generation of children were home taught; of how the caves we visited used to be a safe place to hide; of how a huge oak used to be a candlelit gathering point, and much more.
These days the farms of Miraflor all operate as co-operatives, and trade internationally under the Fairtrade label. Our guide showed us how they grow and process coffee (cleverly shaded by banana trees, creating a double income), and took us to the treatment plant – a small stone building hidden away in the depths of the forest.
Although it is possible to visit Miraflor in a single day, longer is needed if you want to see all of the zones. The best way to do this is to arrange to stay with local families on their farms, sharing their house at night and their table three times a day.
We did this for two nights, and stayed with two wonderful, welcoming families in the lower and intermediate zones. The housing is basic (expect outdoor toilets and a bucket shower), but it provides a real – and rare – opportunity to see how rural families in Nicaragua really live. The families we stayed with were always willing to explain how their farms worked, how to cook traditional food (we tried cooking tortillas on a traditional wood stove), and sharing their thoughts and concerns about the world.
Oh and those delicious meals? Every single ingredient was grown within Miraflor, by the co-operative the family were part of. That means we were able to drink coffee grown, harvested, processed and brewed within 50 metres of where we sat.
Visit Don Alberto Guttierez
Don Alberto is a truly unique individual. A hermit living on a plot of land on a hillside in the Tísey Nature Reserve, just south of Estelí, he has spent the last 40 years carving a giant mural into the hillside itself, and intricate patterns into the stones which litter the hillside.
A gentle, slightly strange man who is genuinely surprised and delighted to have visitors to show around, he will walk you through his life’s work in person, explaining what he has carved where and why. His sculptures are unique, and wonderful.
In addition to his artwork, Don Alberto’s land is full of fruit trees and bushes, and he continually reached out to pick an array of small tropical fruit, which he gifted us on our way around.
Sitting on a bench eating freshly picked fruit, watching a fascinating and kind man talking about is work beside a stunning backdrop of the nearby hills is an experience not to be missed.