After Leon, our next stop in northern Nicaragua was the Area Protegida Miraflor. Miraflor is a protected mountainous region of coffee farms in northern Nicaragua. The area spans three different climate and ecosystem zones, ranging from dry lowland to cloud forest. Miraflor is also home to an amazing tourism cooperative that arranges homestays, hikes, and daytrips for tourists looking to experience rural Nicaraguan life and the natural wonders of the area.
After a (brutal) 5 AM bus ride from Leon, Sabina and I arrived in the small city of Esteli, the home base for the tourism cooperative. After much discussion and debate, we arranged three nights of homestays in Miraflor: two nights in the middle zone and one night in the high zone.
The Ride to Miraflor
We hopped on a local chicken bus that would, apparently, let us off immediately in front of our host family’s house. The bus ride alone was an experience. This was my first bus ride in which I felt distinctly out of place. The locals, who all seemed to know each other, stared unabashedly at the gringos making the trek into their tiny villages. The ratty old school bus scaled hills that a 4×4 would shudder to consider climbing, crossing over unbridged rivers and making five point turns to achieve the tight switchbacks. All the while, the world outside of us changed at an alarming rate. The dirty city streets soon gave way to dry lowland shrubs, which gave way to rolling green farms, which gave way to forests draped in eerie gray moss.
After roughly an hour and a half, the (extremely intrigued) people around us on the bus excitedly told us that we had reached our destination. Sure enough, a smiling Nicaraguan man named Marvin was waiting to welcome us into his home. In slow, friendly Spanish he introduced us to his family and showed us their home, the Limonaria.
Marvin and the Limonaria
We were immediately in love. The Limonaria was extremely welcoming, exuding pure homeliness and comfort. The home was simple but beautiful, draped in flowers and mist and overlooking the hills of Miraflor. Behind the home was a small coffee farm, a small piece of the family’s livelihood. The abuela (or grandmother) was hard at work in the separate kitchen, crafting dinner over a wood stove.
We took a couple hours to explore the homestay and adjust our mindsets and wardrobes to the suddenly cool weather. At such a high altitude, chilly, misty Miraflor was a welcome but abrupt change from boiling-hot Leon. Afterwards, we sat down to dinner with Marvin and a group of U.S. college students who were spending their last night at the Limonaria.
We listened as Marvin gave extended final words of wisdom to the students, expounding the virtues of caring for one another and respecting the environment. This part of Nicaragua is famous for having resisted joining Somoza’s forces during the civil war, and as such the locals are still avid proponents of socialist ideals. It was a fascinating evening spent over incredible, farm-fresh food.
That First Cup of Joe
Our second day in Miraflor was, to put it simply, one of the best days I can remember. We awoke and ate breakfast with Marvin, an incredible feast including rice and beans, fried eggs, plantains, tortillas, and fried tortilla-tomato-onion wedges. We topped this off with our first (OMG) taste of (OMG) the coffee in Miraflor.
The people of Miraflor as a whole make almost all of their income from coffee exports, and not without good reason. They are located at the perfect altitude and climate to produce incredible organic coffee, and they sell to major organic/fair trade coffee roasters in the U.S.A. This means that the vast majority of the beans grown in Nicaragua are never actually roasted or ground in Nicaragua.
Still, these people – mountain and coffee people – know far more about coffee than you or I do. So they take small batches of their own crop and process it themselves for their own consumption.
If you ever visit a home in Miraflor, you are greeted first and foremost with a cup of coffee. It’s polite and it’s customary. At Limonaria, there was a piping hot thermos of coffee within arm’s reach during all waking hours.
I’m here to tell you that heaven is actually spelled M-I-R-A-F-L-O-R.
Exploring the Coffee Farms
After our feast and coffee, we set off on our first hike of the farms in the surrounding area. Our guide, Wilder, turned out to be Marvin’s son. As such, he was intimately acquainted with the ins and outs of El Sontule.
Wilder led us first to a coffee farm. We hiked down a steep hill, Wilder explaining the process of growing and harvesting coffee as we went. Towards the bottom of the hill, we encountered a group of people harvesting the very last coffee of the season. Wilder explained that the plot belonged to the neighborhood women’s cooperative, and that these people were all collecting the last of the women’s coffee for the year.
I asked a small group of women if I could take a picture, and they got into this formation without me asking any further. I love the procession of these two shots – one professional and striking, the other full of laughter and life.
Next Wilder led us to the wet coffee processing plant, where the farmers shell, sort, ferment, and wash the beans.
Haunted Caves and Old Man’s Beard
After we finished exploring the coffee farm, we hiked back to Limonaria and had (an unbelievably delicious) lunch. Afterwards, we set out on a hike uphill towards a viewpoint and some local caves. This time, Wilder’s adorable dog Clifford accompanied us.
The hike took us through a forest where the trees were dripping with the strange, mossy, gray plant that we had noticed on the bus ride. It floats eerily in the wind and gives the entire area the feeling of being a scene in a horror movie. Wilder explained that the plant is called “Barba Viejo”, or Old Man’s Beard.
Though the caves weren’t overly impressive, I loved this part of our hike. As we sat inside the shallow caves, Wilder told us local legends about dwarfs (or duendes) that lived in the caves and fell in love with local women.
In the evening, we sat on Limonaria’s porch and watched as several neighbors dropped by to chat and share a cup of coffee. We listened as these men talked, understanding perhaps thirty percent of the rapid Spanish.
Ladies and Gentlemen, let me paint you a picture: a handful of latino men, tanned, rugged, and fit from their physical lifestyles, lounging on a porch overlooking the mountains. They’re wearing interestingly practical combinations of clothes. T-shirts paired with a rope over their shoulder, jeans stained with mud and dirt, and sneakers adorned with spurs (because naturally they arrived on horseback).
Now take that picture, and imagine these men fervently discussing the finer points of roasting and serving coffee. The pros and cons of milk; the darkness of a roast and how it affects flavor and caffeine content; all the various points in the growing, processing, roasting, grinding, and preparing processes where quality can be compromised.
Needless to say, I went to bed a happy, caffeinated, and starry-eyed woman. Remember what I said before about heaven being spelled M-I-R-A-F-L-O-R?
Stay tuned for my next post about Miraflor, which will describe our experience milking cows, riding horses, and searching out a hidden waterfall!
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