South of Ocotal , just shy of Totogalpa is El Centro Solar (Km 212.5, tel. 505/8333-0197, www.grupofenix.org ), a sustainable energy workshop building and selling solar energy equipment designed for Nicaragua. Use of solar energy is more uncommon than you’d think, and the team is happy to show you around; soon they may even be able to cook you a meal in their solar kitchen, but they’ll accept your volunteer help right now.
An easy 60-minute walk from Ocotal, Mozonte, of largely indigenous descent, is notable for its workshops of potters who produce ceramics from a particularly fine clay. You can spend the better part of a morning (start walking early to avoid the heat) in Mozonte admiring the craftsmanship of these potters. Both the Centro de Artesanías and the Centro de Artesanía Ojos de Mujer exhibit a variety of ceramic pieces for sale.
Ciudad Antigua was the second Spanish attempt to settle Nueva Segovia (the remnants of the first settlement, built in 1543 at the bequest of then-governor Rodrigo de Contreras, are called Ciudad Vieja, and can still be seen near Quilalí at the junction of the Jícaro and Coco Rivers). The wooden church doors still bear the scorch marks of one attempted sacking of the city by pirates.
You can pore over some well-loved religious pieces and a few historic documents and other colonial structures that survived the onslaughts of the 19th century at the Museo Religioso de Ciudad Antigua (next to the Iglesia Señor de los Milagros, open 8 a.m.–4 p.m. Mon.–Fri.). Two buses a day depart from Ocotal  at 7 a.m. and noon.
If sitting in a completely undeveloped, natural hot spring appeals to you, grab a camión at the Shell station and settle in for the 90-minute ride for a day trip to Macuelizo Termales. Find a guide in town.
San Fernando is a notably picturesque village of thick adobe-walled homes set around the town park and Templo Parroquial. Its 7,000 inhabitants live on more than 200 individual coffee farms and produce an estimated 25,000 quintales of coffee annually. More famous than its coffee, however, are its inhabitants, who since the colonial days have been a little lighter-skinned and a little more Spanish-looking. Many have blue or light brown eyes. How do they do it? Well, just don’t ask about those last name combinations: Herrera-Herrera, Urbina-Urbina, and Ortez-Ortez, though many attribute the blue eyes to the town’s occupation by the U.S. Marines 1927–1931. Life revolves around coffee in San Fernando, and many homes double as coffee-processing mills (beneficios).
You can stage a hike to Pico Mogotón, Nicaragua’s highest point (2,106 meters) from San Fernando, but even from there, Mogotón is 20 kilometers away. A better hike is to the Salto San José, where water rushing off the Dipilto mountain range cascades into a small pool. Take a bus to the community of Santa Clara and get off across from the ball field, turn left (north), and walk the 6–8 kilometers to the river. To be sure of the trail, hire a local kid for some food and a couple córdobas to take you. They all know the way and might even jump in for a swim with you.
The Honduran border is 24 kilometers north of Ocotal , and open 24 hours. You will be charged $2 to leave Nicaragua and $7 to enter (or $4 exit, $9 entry after normal business hours or on weekends). There are several small eating booths, two places to change money, and not much else. Fill out the immigration form at the little grey building and walk 100 meters farther down the road to the immigration building to pay and get your exit stamp. Honduran buses to Danlí stop running after 4:30 p.m.
To get to the border from Ocotal, buses leave 5 a.m.–4 p.m. ($0.50), or take a cab (around $4–6, depending on how hard you bargain). You should not need another visa for Honduras thanks to Nicaragua’s participation in the CA-4 Border Control Agreement of 2006.
Tucked back in one of Nicaragua’s farthest populated corners, Jalapa enjoys a cool, moist microclimate suitable for the production of tobacco and vegetables which its drought-stricken neighbors could only hope for. Only four kilometers from the border, it is surrounded on three sides by Honduras  and only surpassed in its remoteness by nearby border outpost Teotecacinte.
That isolation made Jalapa prime stalking ground for Contra incursions from three nearby bases in Honduran territory—Pino-I, Ariel, and Yamales. The city of Jalapa was flooded with refugees from farming communities farther afield in response to Contra attacks like that of November 16, 1982, when a Contra unit kidnapped 60 campesinos at Río Arriba.
Muddy and isolated, Jalapa is a peaceful and laid-back place these days, most concerned with good tobacco and coffee harvests and the repair of the road that connects it to Ocotal . The whole town comes to life every year at the end of September for the Festival de Maíz (Corn Festival).
Look for local artesanía of baskets made of coiled and lashed pine needles. Grupo Pinar del Norte has lots of fine examples of this unique craft.
Starting in the 1930s when Sandino dug into the area of El Chipote and held off the U.S. Marines, Quilalí has been bloodied by decades of battle. But the town remains steadfastly anti-Sandinista to this day and is home to both El Chacál (José Angel Talavera) and El Chacalín (Alex Talavera), the leaders of the Resistance Party (made up of ex-Contras).
Upon entering town, you’ll notice Quilalí is surprisingly well developed, courtesy of international aid money destined to support the Sandinista government’s opponents. Look for U.S. Army tin cups, knives, and mosquito nets in town, relics from the intense military training given to local Contras in the 1980s. The area is also well known for its marijuana production. A recommended read if you travel this area is White Man’s Burden by William Easterly, who uses the town of Quilalí as a case study for the effectiveness of development assistance.
The road to Colina La Gloría offers beautiful views of surrounding mountains and passes at least two swimming holes, one each in the Río Jícaro and Río Coco. Hospedaje Tere (on the main street) costs $4 a night and is the cleanest place in town. Several informal, family establishments, including Comedor Jackson and Sholla, serve typical food for about $3 a plate. Quilalí has a very good hospital supported by Médicos sin Fronteras, and standard services like ENITEL and Correos.
Four buses a day leave Ocotal  via Santa Clara. The first one is at 5 a.m. From Estelí , five buses depart (5:45 a.m.–1:40 p.m.) for a five-hour bone-cruncher through San Juan del Río Coco and onward to Wiwilí.