Friday, October 30, 2015

Matgalpa- Adventures in the Northern Highlands

Matagalpa! Matagalpa! Matagalpaaaaaa!!!! That's how easy it is to find which bus you're supposed to be on in Central America. The bus guy literally hangs out the door, holding to the side of the bus, whether its speeding along the road or not- yelling out the destination, loud and catchy. I always find myself mimicking their sing-songy ways for days: Matagalpa! Matagalpa! Matagalpaaaaaa!

Matagalpa was north, in the Nicaraguan Highlands- and that was the town's biggest draw for us. Take
us weak Canadians North! Well, it was the elevation, coffee farms, mountains and all the conveniences that come with being Nicaragua's fifth largest city, and the northern-ness. With a population of 89,100 it is a manageable size and at an elevation of 902m, we gained some elevation and lost at least 10 degrees and knocked a little but off the humidity. This was our intention, and luckily for us, the city had its perks! (haha! Perks! Coffee!)

Matagalpa is a working, living city with tourism holding only a minor roll. It is surrounded by spectacular mountains on all sides and as far as you can see. The city is slowly creeping up the mountains, urbanity mingling with nature in every direction.

We are staying at Hotel El Castillo, perched on a hill with a great view of the mountains and the cathedral, but only four blocks from the main square. It is a great location and a good price. ($22 USD per night including breakfast). The room is a little blah, but its clean and the staff are friendly (although they don't speak English).

Information is a little hard to come by in these parts and our lack of Spanish skills doesn't help the matter. As soon as you step away from the Central American Backpacker Super Highway, where, gasp, shuttles don't go- Nicaragua is a completely different experience. Getting off the superhighway is equally awesome and frustrating. Where as you rarely see another gringo, and the ones you do are less 20-something who's main travel goal is to see how many different countries that they can be drunk in, and more the intrepid, independent type. There is also very little information, of any kind. And almost none in English.

I feel like with a little tourist infrastructure, Matagalpa and its spectacular setting could make its way into many tourist's itineraries. But, as it stands now, everything that sounded super cool to do in the guidebook, was in reality- just out of reach. I'm sure on a guided tour, it would be possible but at around $35USD per person, per tour- it would add up very fast. But, even without venturing out into the enticing nature, Matagalpa has nice parks, good places to eat, yummy frozen fruit smoothies and being in the heart of coffee region, delightful cups of coffee.

One morning, in an attempt to explore the surrounding area we took a taxi out to El Castillo de Cacao. Taxi haggling in Spanish: check. Taxis here are taxis exactly like at home- with one difference- they pick up other people along the route. Share taxis! Its a little like getting a town tour- and since no one is ever in any rush to do anything it seems- this system works great and keep the price down!

No one who knows me will be surprised to learn that El Castillo de Cacao translates to The Chocolate Castle. The young woman there was very nice and explained in Spanish that they had no one on hand for an English tour. I got the impression that you could arrange a tour in English in advance, on their website, although I'm not sure if you would need a group, or if they would bring an English guide in for only two people. El Castillo de Cacao is a small chocolate factory in a tiny castle that uses cacao beans harvested locally. Made in a traditional way, with only cacao and sugar (and sometimes adding coffee beans or nuts) the chocolate tastes earthy: raw and unprocessed (and delicious of course). Where, as is usual in countries that produce cacao beans, the cacao is shipped away, processed and then returned to its home country to be consumed in a significantly lower quality than it left. El Castillo de Cacao's goal is to sell high quality chocolate that is locally produced, in the local market. We stocked up on the delightful chocolate, graciously accepted free samples and then the chocolatier let us take a quick peek into the castle for free. Usually a tour would be $6 USD but I think she felt bad because we wouldn't have understood anything that she said in Spanish. Which was absolutely true.

Our intentions of heading to the outskirts of town had been twofold. According to the guidebook,
there was also a gorgeous trail that led out into the landscape from behind the Castillo and looped back around to the road from which we could catch a bus back into town. This turned out not to be true. The chocolatier explained in hand signals and with a hand drawn map, that there was a trail maybe about a kilometer or so up the road, but there was not a single sign to indicate where said trail actually was, how long it was, or any useful information at all. Like I said, a little tourist infrastructure would go a long way. The walk along the road allowed us to see a bit more of the scenery, but, as you an imagine, walking along the twisty shoulder-less road alongside speeding trucks spewing out thick black exhaust- was not the hike I had in mind. The locals we passed were pretty entertained by the sight of a couple of gringos wandering down the side of the highway, so we'll chalk it up to a tourist-ambassador project and consider it a success.

We hiked back into town and stopped at our favourite little Batidos spot (Don Chacos) which served up tasty, frozen smoothies of every imaginable flavour- for $1. I got a pineapple coconut concoction and J stuck to the classic yet refreshing frozen lemonade. The (I'm assuming) son was super helpful and even spoke a bit of English. We probably got our most useful tourist information in all of Matagalpa from him! The only bad part was that Don Chaco's was closed the following day! Either way, it was a perfect break before we switched beverage gears for afternoon adventure- a local coffee festival!

We just happened to be in town for the Coffee Festival- what luck! The entire park was lined with stalls from local coffee growers handing out free samples! Lattes with fancy foam designs, straight up black coffee and frappes with whip cream drizzled with caramel! Oh my! We sampled coffee, learned a little about the local farms and munched on local treats. As we wandered the stalls we were followed by a chorus of "Jesus!" and "Christos!"  from fellow festival-ers. They were pointing and smiling at Jonathan. Yes. Apparently convinced that a Jesus lookalike was attending this years Coffee Festival was causing quite the stir here in Matagalpa!

Back in reality- live local music and dance ensued on the band stand. A brass band made their way around the park. Impromptu dance parties sprung up where ever the music was hopping. We sat on a bench to enjoy our lattes and a shoe shine guy tried to convince J that his running shoes needed a polish! haha. When we refused, he jumped up and starting salsa-ing to the beats (quite impressively), his 'Jesus Loves Me' t-shirt swaying around him. It was impossible not to smile. We couldn't help but be caught up in the festive atmosphere, lively music and caffeinated energy! An excellent way to spend the afternoon!

In the evening we sat on our patio and looked over the mountains. Parakeets squawked overhead and
the neighbour's car alarm was going off. In every way, nature and city were the intricate fabric of Matagalpa. When the sun fell behind the mountains a lighting storm replaced it. The sky was a constant flash of light and colour. The lightning lit up the city below it, the outlines of the buildings and cathedral popping in and out of sight. It was spectacular. We watched for a long while until Jo-Anne, a fellow Canadian living in Nicaragua, came by and asked if we wanted to go for a drink and some live music. We did. After a stop in at a delightful and popular Italian restaurant (La Vita y Bella) we found ourselves at a lively bar overlooking the square. An attractive Nicaraguan played the guitar and sang songs to us and a very appreciative audience.
Following the advice of our new friend, Jo-Anne, we ordered a half bottle of 7 year old Flor De Cana Rum to the table. Two interesting facts in that sentence. #1. Ron Flor de Cana has been produced in Nicaragua since 1890. It is THE liquor to drink in Central America and is a proud part of Nicaraguan heritage. And, as a result of the 1980s revolution, Flor de Cana has one of the largest aged rum reserves in the world! #2. We ordered a bottle of rum to our table. Everyone else was doing it. Being the high rollers that we are not, I kept thinking that there was a catch to this. Our half bottle, which I expected to arrive as literally a half of a bottle of rum, was in fact a full, sealed bottle, only half the size of a full bottle. Jo-Anne suggested we use Fresca (like limey 7-UP) as a mix. Our bottle arrived with three glasses, a bottle of Fresca and a bucket of ice. And so it was, for just over $10 the three of us enjoyed a half bottle of rum, a couple bottles of Fresca and hours of classy Nica music.

Dear Nicaraguan Highlands: I love you.

Don't miss: Eating at El Mexicano! Cheap, authentic, delicious Mexican food

1 comment:

Cathy Mooney said...

Oh my, how much bigger can Jonathan's head get! Kristen,I hope you talked him down from his pedestal!