Being in Medellín for a few days recently got me thinking about the mountain towns in Nicaragua. Greater Medellín is a city of 4.5 million people, stretching 12 miles up and down the Aburrá Valley.
The two most popular mountain cities of Nicaragua in my mind, by contrast, have a population of 270,000 people. Combined. And neither stretches barely more than 3 miles from one end to the other.
But in many ways, they are similar. Not only in climate and temperament but also in spirit. Mountain towns have a character all their own. It’s not just the great weather that makes them special.
The two towns in Nicaragua that come to mind most often as quintessential highlands are Matagalpa and Estelí. Both sit at about 760 meters above sea level (2,500 feet), which means they have daytime temperatures in the 80s year round. The consistent warmth is perhaps the most appealing aspect of the tropical highlands for expat retirees and snowbirds from North America. Cool evenings in the high 60s and low 70s mean no need for heat or air conditioning—ever.
The tropical highlands are also famous for some world-class treats—coffee and cigars. Soil and climate can dictate which product grows best in which location, but more important is the tradition of the town. In Nicaragua, Matagalpa is the coffee town, while Estelí is the cigar town.
Let’s look at both in more detail along with some rental and ownership data for anyone looking to get up and away from the warm weather and crowds of Managua.
Matagalpa—Nicaragua’s Coffee Headquarters
When you drive into Matagalpa from Managua, you enter into a tight valley with steep mountains on both sides. The city straddles the Río Grande and is home to 150,000 people. Historically, the city and the immediate surroundings play host to the needs of the coffee industry, including everything from the coffee production itself, to the drying mills, and, finally, coffee cooperatives called beneficios.
The best coffee in the world is grown at elevations of between 1,200 and 1,800 meters above sea level in the tropics (4,000 to 6,000 feet). Most would argue that coffee beans (known as cherries in the trade) grown in a shaded area possess the richest flavors with the lowest acidity. The rich soils and abundant rainfall add their part too.
One farm that is particularly near and dear to my heart is Selva Negra owned by longtime friends Eddy and Mausi Kuhl. The property crowns the top of the mountain, a short 8-mile drive from Matagalpa. The farm also includes a wonderful alpine-themed resort sitting amidst the coffee plantation and hundreds of acres of virgin cloud forest teeming with toucans, howler monkeys, wild boar, and jaguars, to name a few of the exotic species you may encounter.
In the town of Matagalpa, you can find rental properties from US$160 to US$2,500 per month. A one-bedroom apartment will cost around US$180 in rent, and your utilities including cable, water, and electric will be less than US$80 per month.
Homes are selling in town from US$16,000 to US$290,000, and properties can be purchased for as little as US$2.04 per square meter. These inexpensive homes are almost always in need of an upgrade for electric and plumbing, so remember to factor in some renovation costs, as well.
Estelí—The Finest Cigars In The World Are Hand-Rolled In Nicaragua
Estelí is another mountain town that lies in a much wider valley. The soils are conducive to tobacco cultivation as well as ranching and horse breeding. Some of the best horses in the country hail from the Estelí region, especially the ones you’ll see throughout Nicaragua in hipicas, the local horse parades and festivals held during the year.
But Estelí is also famous for its tobacco and for producing some of the finest cigars in the world. Tourists are drawn here year round to see both artisanal rolling and large-scale, free-zone, production facilities. In fact, the Padrón cigar is only available outside Nicaragua because it’s produced in a free zone that’s exempt from local taxes. Of course, there are plenty of other locally produced cigars available that smokers rave about.
Real estate in Estelí runs a wider range than property in Matagalpa. Whereas Matagalpa is hemmed in by mountains, Estelí is a high, wide valley, and this means finding a spread of land is still possible.
In town, monthly rental rates range from US$190 to US$1,850 for apartments, while an older, 227-square-meter colonial home near the city center, with 4 bedrooms and 3 baths would start around US$245,000. But for folks looking for a farm, properties generally run about US$4,100 per acre depending on the lay of the land and what structures exist on the property.
The Pros And Cons Of Small-Town Living In Nicaragua
If you settle in either town, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, grocery stores, banks, and shops. However, they may not offer all the brands and types of products familiar to many North Americans. You always have the option to drive to Managua (or take a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride for about US$5), where most products are available at one of the larger grocery stores—either La Unión or La Colonia—or at Walmart or Costco. Visitors will also find SINSA, a huge hardware store modeled after Home Depot, with every kind of odd and end you might need for your home.
It is estimated that fewer than 1,000 North American expats live in Matagalpa and Estelí, so if you are looking to be immersed in the local culture, these are great places to enjoy that experience. The downside is that you will be living in a small city with a limited number of English-speaking expats and resources—an issue if you don’t speak at least a little Spanish. But it’s a great way to learn! In fact, total immersion in another culture is the best way to assimilate and learn their language.
Whether or not the mountain towns of Nicaragua are right for you, they certainly warrant a visit. Or maybe many visits, like my family and I have made to the area. Getting out of Managua perhaps once a month for 14 years to visit the mountains was always a welcome change.
As always, it’s best to rent before you buy a property to test drive your new lifestyle. Rents are reasonable and no matter what, the experience will be an adventure. Enjoy!
Featured Image Source: iStock/dimarik