The department of Matagalpa is the most mountainous in Nicaragua. Travelers prize the capital city of the same name as a welcome respite from the heat of the lowlands, plus a chance to sip the best coffee in the world while plotting forays deep into the mountains. North of Matagalpa you’ll find plenty of things to do in fantastic opportunities to explore the incredible landscape. For where to stay, take advantage of the area’s ecolodges and farming co-operatives to get to know and support the locals.
Santa Emilia and El Cebollál Waterfall
It’s an easy day trip to the farming community of Santa Emilia (marked by a left turn at about Km 145). A bit farther, you’ll find a 15-meter waterfall spilling impressively into a wide hole flanked by thick vegetation and a dark, alluring rock overhang. The falls are known alternately as Salto de Santa Emilia and Salto el Cebollál. With the new establishment Ecolodge Cascada Blanca (tel. 505/2772-3728 or 505/8966-2070, $30-50 d), it’s increasingly being referred to as La Cascada Blanca. During the dry season, white water gushes into the river below, creating a pleasant swimming hole. After heavy rains, however, water blasts wildly over the rocks, splashing visitors watching from the metal hanging bridge. Follow the trail into the caves behind the waterfall for a more intimate experience of its natural beauty. Entrance for day-trippers is $2.
The ecolodge has a restaurant (daily 9am-5pm, $3-6) serving local fare and vegetarian options. They also offer lodging options, including camping in the aforementioned caves ($4, bring your own tent). Access is just beyond the Puente Yasica, a bridge at about Km 149; look for a small house and parking area on the right, where a soft-drink sign reads Balneario El Salto de Santa Emilia. You’ll be asked to pay a $1 parking fee unless you’re just jumping off the Tuma-La Dalia bus.
El Tuma and La Dalia
Intimately connected to the Contra War of years past, El Tuma and La Dalia are local commercial centers serving the local farming region. Both host resettlement camps where Contras gave up their weapons in exchange for a piece of land to farm. La Sombra Eco-Lodge (tel. 505/8455-3732 or 505/8468-6281, email@example.com, $45-55 pp, or $15 for the day) is an ecotourist facility set in a private forest reserve on about 200 hectares of shade-grown coffee and hardwoods. Stay in their enormous, wooden lodge house, with spacious balconies overlooking the greenery, where the price includes three meals and coffee, tours of the butterfly and frog farms, hiking, and swimming in Cascada El Eden. They also lead guided trips on horseback.
About 10 kilometers (15 minutes) southwest of La Dalia in the Río Tuma, Piedra Luna is a rainy season-only swimming hole formed by the waters of the Río Tuma swirling around a several-ton rock sitting midstream. The swimming hole is easily seven meters deep, and local kids come from all over to dive off the rock into the pool. How did the rock get there? Ask the locals, who will relate the fantastic legend of the spirits that carried it there from someplace far away.
Find buses to Tuma-La Dalia at the Guanuca terminal in Matagalpa ($2). You can take a taxi from town to La Sombra ($5). From Managua, take a bus from El Mayoreo bound for Wasala, which passes by these towns.
The Río Tuma starts at the Apanás Lake outside of Jinotega and turns into the Río Grande before emptying into the Caribbean Sea. Along this waterway are class 3 rapids (sometimes 4) and miles of untouched forest. Matagalpa Tours (tel. 505/2772-0108 or 505/2647-4680, $130 or less depending on group size) is the only tour operator that offers white-water rafting in the country. They offer a five-hour paddle starting at El Tuma-La Dalia for up to 10 people. Cost includes transport from Matagalpa, lunch, and all necessary equipment.
El Macizo de Peñas Blancas
Located in the department of Jinotega on the road that leads between El Tuma-La Dalia and El Cuá, the cliffs of Peñas Blancas (1,445 meters) are several hundred meters high and carved out of the top of a massive hillside. This is unquestionably one of the most stunning natural sights in northern Nicaragua and the widely respected Gateway to Bosawás. At the top of the cliff is the Arcoiris (“rainbow”) waterfall, gorgeous and little known. The cliffs and waterfall are easily visible from the highway.
The hike is much easier in the dry season. You’ll pass through a series of humid forest ecosystems of orchids and mossy trees. Near the falls, the wind is full of spray. The hike up and down can be done in two hours but expect to get extremely muddy and wet during the rainy season. Guides (about $5) leave regularly with groups from the Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza (CEN). There’s a longer hike (4 hours) that leads to the top of the macizo (massif), where the waterfall splashes over the cliffs for some unforgettable views.
There are a few options for hikers that want to stay the night. GARBO-Cooperativa Guardianes del Bosque (tel. 505/8641-3638 or 505/7711-0623) is a cooperative of local coffee farmers who will be glad to give you a tour of their farms ($8-10). The co-op has a humble hospedaje (400 meters from Empalme la Manzana, $6 dorm, $12 private cabin, $3-4 meals). One member of the co-op, Don Chico (tel. 505/2770-1359) has basic rooms available in his home for similar prices. The family restaurant out front is a great spot for a home-cooked breakfast. The CEN (tel. 505/8852-6213, firstname.lastname@example.org, $100 d cabin, $70 d private room, $27 dorm) is an NGO and research center that works to preserve the surrounding nature. They have creatively-built cabins, as well as rooms and dorms, available for tourists with community dinners open to all ($4-7). Prices include meals and hikes.
Take the El Cuá-Bocay bus from Matagalpa (leaves Guanuca station five times daily 6am-1:30pm). Get off at Empalme La Manzana (about 14 kilometers before El Cuá) in the community of Peñas Blancas. Walk 500 meters along the road and you’ll come to a series of lodging options. A Matagalpa-bound bus passes the entrance to the reserve at 2pm.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.