Matagalpa is one of the larger cities of Nicaragua, the gateway to the country’s lush northern mountains. Matagalpa is situated at just over 3,300 feet and its cool climate deviates from the tropical heat of Nicaragua’s other cities. Matagalpa today is known for serving some of the world’s best coffees and for its reputed hospitality. Many visitors also flock to the city to enjoy great mountain scenery and mountain hiking while enjoying unforgettable stays at the eco-lodges, bungalows, and international-quality mountain resorts of Matagalpa.
The site of Matagalpa was first inhabited by indigenous Matagalpa Indians who had their own distinct language. The Spanish arrived in 1542 and founded the modern city. Because they initially did not find any gold in the area, Matagalpa was taken over soon afterwards by Dominican and Mercedarian missionaries. The mixing of the indigenous population with the new missionary settlements led to the gradual extinction of the Matagalpa Indians.
In the 1850s, gold was discovered around the area, which attracted the attention of the Spaniards, German, French, and British, who forced many of the indigenous farmers off their lands. The first coffee trees were planted at around this time, which in turn led to an even greater migration of foreigners. When the American, William Walker, began his conquest of Nicaragua in 1856, many more Nicaraguans fled to northern Matagalpa for refuge. It was at the Battle of San Jacinto in Matagalpa that Nicaraguans fought against Walker’s armies and won, helping to end Walker’s reign of terror.
Today, Matagalpa remains an important agricultural center of Nicaragua, its coffee representing a significant share of the country’s annual exports.
One of the major attractions of Matagalpa is its perfect setting for scenic mountain hiking. The hills near Matagalpa offer some of the most stunning views in Nicaragua. There are hiking trails that begin at the town and trek up to the top of El Calvario, some 600 feet. This particular summit has a small crucifixion shrine and a great view of the valley below. Besides hiking, the highlands around Matagalpa are great for bird-watching, horseback riding, and touring of the indigenous native villages.
The Bavarian-style Selva Negra Mountain Resort in Matgalpa is internationally-recognized and an attraction in and of itself. This resort is located on a coffee plantation founded by a German immigrant in 1891. The plantation’s coffees are world-famous and the hiking on the 1,500 acres surrounding the resort is an eco-dream; you’ll spot all kinds of wildlife including howler monkeys, sloths, ocelots, wild boars, cougars, minks, and several exotic birds and orchid varieties. Horses can be rented at the resort as well if you prefer riding the trails.
There are a few museums in Matagalpa including the Museo Case Comandante Carlos Fonseca. This museum is dedicated to the founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Carlos Fonseca, who was born in Matagalpa. The museum is popular among local Nicaraguans and recounts the story of Fonseca’s life from childhood to death and showcases the political history and struggles of the Sandinistas. The other museum in Matagalpa is the coffee museum, which educates and showcases various plantation items as well as an interesting steam locomotive which was used in the early 1900s to transport coffee from Matagalpa to the ports.
Matagalpa’s coffee is world-famous, especially the Matagalpa roast. Many of the hotels can arrange for coffee tours to visit the plantations around the highlands; you’ll get to sample the fresh-roasted varieties of brewed coffee at places like the Selva Negra Mountain Resort, Cecocafen, and other plantations.
Matagalpa is also known for its traditional Indian cuisine. While you’re in town, you should definitely sample the Gurilas, which are tasty tortillas made from smashed corn. The nacatamal are great as well – banana leave wraps filled with Indian corn dough, pork and chicken shreds, olives, tomatoes, and chili. The Platanitos con frijoles molidos are a must-try as well – fried banana slices with smashed refried beans – not to be outdone by the Pescado a la Tititapa, considered the food of the Gods. This dish features fried snapper fish served with tomato slices, rice, and corn tortillas.