Northern Nicaragua. Click this photo to zoom in!
Probably one of the most outstanding things about Estelí and area, are the people. Everyone is very friendly, almost overwhelmingly so... the likes of which we haven't seen since the Yucatan in Mexico. Some of its other endearing features include cheap accommodations ($6/night for private rooms), and a good bakery with low low prices (I have to feed my addiction).
In Estelí itself, there are world renowned cigar factories that you can tour, a fresh fruit market, decent street food, and the standard park/cathedral combination. Around Estelí, there's lots to do as well. If we had more time, I think I I could have easily spent a month or more roaming the lands between Estelí and Somoto, another awesome town just north of Estelí with a beautiful canyon (and its own story that Ashley will tell in a couple of days).
But, we didn't have the time, because the current plan of the hour is to pass through El Salvador, a small corner of Honduras (twice), and finally arrive in Antigua Guatamala for Semana Santa (holy week, AKA a really big week long party).
I better get back on track, or this post will never end... ah yes, I was talking about what there is to do around Estelí. There are two nature reserves, which are more of a community banded together to protect the lands and water, while carrying on organic farming, and promoting tourism than they are the traditional uninhabited natural park reserve that I'm used to in Canada. Of the two, we chose to go to the Reserva Natural Cerro Tisey-Estanzuela. We stayed at the Eco-Posada, a restaurant/farm/hotel for two nights. There was no kitchen, but their meals were some of the most delicious that we've had, and were reasonably priced. The country side is stunningly beautiful, and we spent the better part of two days just walking around. There is a Mirador (or lookout in English) right next door to the Eco lodge with a beautiful view of the countryside. We also visited the nearby village of La Garnacha, where we walked a couple of short interpretive nature trails, wandered through a gated park area filled with lookouts and stone carvings, ate at the local organic restaurant, and finally visited the cheese store.
There is a cheese factory in La Garnacha that offers tours (we didn't take the tour, but we did visit the factory briefly). They make cheeses from both goat milk and cow milk in the Swiss tradition and sell it for just over $4 per pound. I hope you pay attention to this next bit, their Swiss cheese is the best cheese I've had in Central America.
It was absolutely delicious. To be honest, the cheese alone could have been enough to make this place my favourite spot in Nicaragua.
Tasty Cheese Makers
La Garnacha also offers several tours, both walking and on horseback, ranging from $5-$40 each per person. There's a mountain that can be summited, bat caves to visit, a carved stone cliff, and more. They also offer workshops in cheese making! Everything can be arranged at the artisan office / cheese store.
There are some details that I should mention for anyone planning to visit. First, there's no English, so you will want to have at least basic Spanish. Everything was well signed, and there were a couple of English pamphlets that we found, but there was no spoken English
. Second, it was cold. Very cold. We both slept in our long underwear, and were more than glad to have them with us. Third, the buses were unreliable. They are supposed to run twice a day, once at about 8:30AM, again at 4:00pm. When the 4:00pm bus failed to arrive, we were forced to spend a second night at the Eco-Posada. After we missed the morning bus the next day (or is missed us?), we made inquiries, and discovered that there was another bus stop about 5km to the east where buses go by every two hours. We had a pleasant walk there, and managed to catch a bus at 11:30 AM. The walk was fine for us, but may not be ideal for everyone.
If we had more time, I would have taken part in the cheese making workshop for sure, and visited the other nature reserve, Miraflor, where they offer home stays, horse rentals, and volunteer projects to keep you occupied.
Time to move on
Have you ever passed through a place that you loved at first sight, knowing that you could easily stay a month, but had to move on because of pre-booked travel plans?
Estelí is located on the Pan American highway in the north of Nicaragua near the Honduras border. We skipped over this place the first time through on our way to Managua to meet up with Ashley's Mom and her boyfriend Terry. When we skipped past it and nearby Somoto the first time, we were about 80% sure that we would be headed back north to Utila and scuba diving, so we weren't too concerned. Our plans changed, as always, and we won't be headed back to Utila in the short term, but we are still headed north!
So, was Estelí worth the extra miles it took us to get back to it? Absolutely. In just a short while, Estelí became one of my favourite places in all of Nicaragua, not that we've seen the whole country, but still. It's a small city in the heart of a largely organic farming centre surrounded by mountains, farms, and nature reserves.