The mountains of Nicaragua, which offers some of the best views of the country and is a bird watchers paradise, is also the least visited by tourists. Tourism has yet to reach this part of the country. We ended up traveling to this region because we knew someone who lived there. Before we left on our trip, a co-worker of mine told me that his sister lives and owns a business in Jinotega, a mountain village north of Matagalpa. For months, we communicated by email and she assisted us by giving us suggestions as to where to eat, sleep, and sites to visit. We planned to drive up to Jinotega and it was going to be nice to have our own personal tour guide.
After we got checked in to the Selva Negra Mountain Resort, I called her to let her know that we heading up to Jinotega. The Selva Negra is about halfway between Matagalpa and Jinotega. She told me that it was going to be too difficult to give me directions and since she didn’t have a vehicle, she would have to meet us in town. We planned to meet at 4pm at the first speed bump leading into town. She informed me that it wouldn’t be hard to notice her, since she was a red-head, and how many of those could there be in this small town. After forty-five minutes, I was beginning to think that we were getting stood up. Eventually, she pulled up in a taxi and apologized for being late. In Jinotega, time is more of a concept and when you agree to meet someone at a certain time, don’t be surprised if it is an hour later. Part of the problem was that most of the taxis in Jinotega are shared, which means that the driver will pick up more passengers on the way to your destination to make more money. On our first encounter, she didn’t have money to pay the taxi driver, so she asked if I had any to give him. I gave him US $1 and he looked as though he just won the lottery. I found out that the fare was only ten cents.
She took us back to her restaurant located in town. Her story is very interesting. She grew up in Indiana and decided to move to Nicaragua with her boyfriend. At some point they split up and she almost left Nicaragua because the heat was so unbearable in Managua. She ended up in Jinotega and fell in love with the town and the climate and decided to stay. She opened up a restaurant serving Italian food, which didn’t last long. It must have been the red sauce. She then started serving hamburgers and the money that she made allowed her to stay in Jinotega. She also supplements her income by teaching English in town.
The restaurant doubles as her residence. It was interesting to find out how she came to acquire all of the tables and chairs and silverware considering that she is a broke college student living abroad. The answer lies with Coca-Cola. They supply, on loan, everything you need to start your business, as long as you serve their product. If the restaurant goes out of business, Coca-Cola takes back everything. It is Coca-Cola’s way of cornering the market, so to speak.
While she was escorting us around town, her only employee was running the restaurant. There are no set hours and it is very common throughout Jinotega to lose power for hours at a time. That definitely makes it hard to sell hamburgers. Although she doesn’t make a lot of money selling them, she makes enough to pay her rent, buy her supplies, pay her employee $1 a day, and she has a few dollars left for herself. It seems like a hard way to live, but she enjoys the adventure and independence.
I noticed on her wall some unusual artwork. I told her that I was looking for something unique and handmade to take back with me. She took us to this little shack where she introduced us to a middle aged gentleman. Inside this little building was his workshop and his residence. Covering the walls were paintings of all different shapes and sizes. His artwork is unique in that all of his paintings are painted on a piece of wood. The tree’s trunk is cut into thin sections where he paints different images mostly of Jinotega and the surrounding mountains. He offered us some of his artwork at a cheap price since he considered us friends. It was nice to bring something back from Nicaragua that we knew was handmade and not some cheap knockoff.
The one thing that I wish we did, but didn’t because of our two year old, was to hike to the top of Pena de la Cruz. It is a hill with a cross on top which is clearly visible during the day and it is lit up at night. A hike to the top gives panoramic views of Jinotega and the surrounding mountains. History has it that the cross was placed there by Agustin Morel of Santa Cruz, a friar, who hoped that it would ward off the torrential rains and floods that plagued the city. The cross is as an important symbol of their religion just as the San Juan Cathedral. Every year on May 3 the town hikes to the top of the hill in a show of celebration of their religion and their community.
If I hadn’t known someone in Jinotega, we would have definitely bypassed this region and probably spent more time elsewhere. We thoroughly enjoyed our visit here and what this area lacks in historical sites; it more than makes it up for it with its small town charm and beautiful panoramic vistas.