I woke up my first morning at the El Castillo hotel in Matagalpa to no running water. The hotel apologized, said the water came and went, that it was a Matagalpa issue, pointing to the 50 gallon barrel of purified water they kept on hand, and handed me a bucket of water. So it was back to douse and scrub.
I sat on the terrace drinking a complimentary cup of coffee and decided that the view was worth the lack of running water.
I’m pretty sure the coffee was just Nescafe instant though, strange to find in coffee growing country.
I could see a viewing tower across atop the mountain across the way, but was told that the trail up passed through some sketchy neighborhoods, it was better to take a cab for $6 roundtrip. But there was another Mirador a twenty minute walk outside of town, and that was safe. There was also a non-profit cafe that sold self-guided text directions for several 4-5 hour hikes that led from town up into the hills, villages and ranchlands surrounding Matagalpa.
I wanted to get a feel for the city in daylight. It was a Saturday, so the park was packed. People went around doing Saturday things. I found a bank, withdrew money from the ATM, then went inside to change some of the large notes into smaller ones. The only places so far that would accept the equivalent of a $20 bill were grocery stores. It’s a common issue through Central America. Hand someone that equivalent of a $20 for a $9 dinner or a $14 hotel room, and the look at you and ask nicely but firmly “Do you have change?” If you offer a credit card, even if the front door is emblazoned with the Visa logo, you’ll often be told the machine isn’t working that day.
I walked down the main road, which had every kind of shop selling anything kind of thing you would want.
I counted four grocery stores, which was a nice surprise, after having only one to choose from in Granada and Leon. And two of them sold Coke Zero.
With the help of the gps on my phone, I was able to find Cafe Girasol, a 20 minute walk away. I wanted to do every hike they offered, but I only had planned on two days here. I bought two maps for $1.20 each, plus an accurate hand-drawn map of Matalpa. I wandered more up and down the hilly side streets
before stopping at one of the grocery stores on my way home to pick up ham, cheese, tortillas, mustard and a couple of beers for lunch. As I ate, I studied my now tattered itinerary(tattered for literally and figurartively) looking for a day I could spare for Matagalpa. I had to be in Belize City on May 24, so any day I added here had to be subtracted from somewhere else. I’d already subtracted five days in Guatemala and spent that time in Costa Rica. I wasn’t bothered by that, as I’ve already been to Guatemala, so I’d just be retracing steps. I had three days in Honduras that I’d tentatively booked for Lago de Yojoa, but it was a seven hour, out of the way multibus trip on either side I wasn’t enthused for, so I decided to take a day from that, as Matagalpa had grown on me in the few hours I’d been there.
The hike was steep up to the trailhead for the Mirador. There were two trails, and as I tried to determine which was the right one, and man rode up on the bike and said “Mirador?” He told me it was thirty cordobas entry, and after I handed over the money, he enthusiastically drew a map in the dirt of the trail. It was a loop, and it was well marked and I found my way to the top in about 45 minutes.
After several attempts, I got a halfway decent selfie with my DSLR.
When I got back to my hotel, the water had come back on, and I was able to take a proper shower and refill the liter plastic water bottle I had been carrying with me since my second day in Costa Rica.
I spent the early part of the evening in Parque Morazan, in the shadow of the cathedral watching the citizens of Matagalpa enjoy Saturday night.
Teenagers gathered in one corner. A little boy stared at a blanket covered with neon glowing doodads and those little whirly things where you pull a cord and they shoot straight up in the air and float back to the ground. A mother in high heels kicked a soccer ball with her husband and son. The cathedral doors were open, and a service was going on. Live music came from the Monkey Restaurant.
I found another fritanga up one of the streets leading to my hotel. I ordered my usual overpiled banana leaf of food. When the woman quoted me 65 cordobas, I thought I misheard her. So I repeated the total to her as I handed her the money. It was correct. I had paid 115 cordobas for the same amount of good the night before. I walked away feeling like I had stolen something.
The next morning, the hotel upgraded me to an upstairs balcony room, which confirmed my decision to stay the extra day.
That day’s hike started at Parque Morazan. It was steeply up and out of Matagalpa, and soon I was on a dirt road walking through ranchland.
I passed two families, the men carrying machetes. I was a bit nervous, walking alone in the Nicaraguan countryside. But I reasoned that since this wasn’t a tourist trail, there was no incentive for robbers to lay in wait, as with the trail up to the viewing platform above the city. Views appeared around every bend.
It was hot, but there was a breeze, and often enough I passed beneath stands of trees shading the way. The written directions were exacting, and accurate. I passed through one village, then another. No one looked at me strangely, a gringo walking up in the mountains, but most were reserved, and I gave up greeting them with a “Buenas Dias” and just continued on my way.
I came to the point where there was a spur trail up to the top of Cerro Toro, the point of the hike. I followed the directions, but they failed me. Maybe I read them wrong, but I don’t think so. Probably someone had put up a new barb-wired fence where there wasn’t one before. Still, I found the faint but obvious trail to the peak. It was steep, and I went hand over hand for a bit before deciding it was too steep. One look back, and I realized if I went any higher, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get down. It’s one thing going up a steep trail, when you’re looking up. It’s an entirely different thing looking down, seeing where you could fall. I abandoned the high and scooted slowly, carefully down on my backside.
I arrived back at my hotel around 4pm, showered, and stood on my balcony, watching the changing late afternoon light.
On my last day, I had to decide whether to take a 50 minute bus ride to the private Selva Negra reserve and pay $5 to hike in a cloud forest, or follow the text directions for the other map I bought and hike for free. The hike up into the mountains followed the route that the citizens of Matagalpa had taken up into the mountains to flee the fighting in the civil war, when Matagalpa came under heavy fighting, and I had been to cloud forests before, so I chose the free hike.
Steep and up and out of Matagalpa again.
But not much more than an hour in, I ran into a locked, barbed-wire gate. This wasn’t on the directions. A smaller road ran around the fence to the right, so I followed that. After 50 meters, I came upon a locked wooden gate. I turned around, wondering if I could still get a bus to Selva Negra for a few hours of hiking. Lost in these thoughts, I didn’t notice the 5 foot long, brightly colored snake laying across the trail until I’d almost stepped on it. I jumped back. I ran back. The snake didn’t move, because it had no head. It certainly wasn’t there when I had passed on my way up, I couldn’t have missed it. Lucky for me, it had run into someone carrying a machete.
As I passed through the neighborhoods on my way back to down, I saw a group of young men standing on a corner, doing nothing. Instinct told me to give them a wide birth. When they noticed me, one asked me for a couple dollars to buy beer. I pretended I didn’t understand, told him I only spoke a little Spanish as I kept walking. He said “Two dollars. Beer.” in English, and when I declined, he put his hands over his heart in a pleading gesture. Nothing came of it as I quickened my pace, and got back into Matagalpa proper.
I didn’t want to be leaving Matagalpa tomorrow, but it was time to move along. The hotel had already informed me my room was reserved. And what I had read made Jinotega sound appealing. The thing with travel is you never know about a place until you get there. If you find a place you like, you want to stay, which means less time in the next place, which, how do you know you might not like more? You just have to enjoy the time that you have while you have it.
On to Jinotega