Colonialism, Crafts and Coffee: Granada to Matagalpa

Since we took the dawn ferry from Ometepe to the mainland, we were able to arrive in Granada when it was still early on a Sunday morning.  Our bus trundled into the mad crush of the market and left us there to find our own way to the colonial heart of the city.  We tailed a few other backpacker types and found ourselves in the brightly painted, wrought iron festooned streets of Old Town.  After finding our hostel, which boasted a big open air courtyard filled with hammocks, we set out to revisit some of the pretty old churches we had passed earlier.  Just around the corner, we found Iglesia de la Merced, which boasts the best view in the whole city from its bell tower.  After a few weeks of travels in small towns and natural settings, it was almost magical to climb up the steep spiral staircase and look down on the endless roofs as Granada stretched out all around us.

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Using the free map that the hostel gave us and the view we had from La Merced as a guide, we spent the rest of our morning traipsing slowly around the neighborhood and searching for a supermarket.  We passed the crowded main square, the half-abandoned lakefront, quiet back streets, and a hundred beautiful doors and windows that afforded tiny peeks into cool courtyards and rooms full of Old World grandeur.  After a long siesta, the evening was spent by walking out of the tourist area to the local park and old train station, and catching the end of a Catholic mass in the iconic Cathedral of Granada.

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The next day, we spent taking more relaxed walks around the Old Town and exploring in the market so that we could cook fabulous feasts in the tiny hostel kitchen, experimenting with unfamiliar fruits and vegetables.  Sangbyeong also found a tiny stall in the market that sold cheese that was so fabulous he raved on for days.  On our third morning, we woke early and hopped a bus to the nearby town of Masaya, where a huge artisan market goes on daily.  We got a bit turned around and ended up walking around half the town, finding a doctor who had studied at University of Wisconsin, of all places.  Eventually, we found our way back into the market and into the main artisan area that is considered one of the cheapest and best places to buy local crafts for the savvy traveler.  This was good news for me, because my poor black tunic, that had survived kindergarten teaching and 11 months of hard use while traveling, had finally had enough.  So I hunted down a pretty purple dress embroidered with simple flowers to take over for my beloved black dress.

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We made our way back to Granada in the afternoon and spent our last evening there walking the now-familiar streets in the golden sunset.  The light seemed to gild all the colorful houses and graceful old building, making them look like they almost glowed from within.  It was a good image to leave the city with.  The next morning, we had a bit of a public transportation adventure.  Wanting to avoid the capitol of Managua if at all possible, we hopped a bus to Masaya again…where we jumped on another bus to the adorably named town of Tipitapa.  Where we spent about 20 minutes fantastically lost until a very kind woman helped us to hail a bicycle taxi, which took us to the OTHER bus stop, along the highway.  The timing ended up being perfect for us to catch the 30 second stopover of the bus that goes along that highway from the capitol to our destination of Matagalpa.  We crammed ourselves into the back of the chicken bus and made our way to the foothills of Nicaragua’s mountains and into the beating heart of its coffee country.

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German immigrants started planting coffee in the 1800s when they didn’t succeed at striking it rich from the gold that had been found in the area.  That was the first coffee brought to the area, and it remains the most important form of income for the region today.  Like a magnet, within our first ten minutes in the city, before we even thought of finding accommodations, we stumbled upon the best coffee in town at Coffee Center.  Alejandro (Alex), the proprietor, is half-Nicaraguan and half-Costa Rican, educated at a British School, and 110% dedicated to finding, roasting, and brewing the perfect cup of Nica coffee.  Striking up conversations with him, his wife, local and expat regulars, and other coffee tourists like ourselves in their comfortable chairs, we learned a lot about history and politics of the area.  Our discussions ranged from philosophy to education to farming practices to revolution and back again…all while sipping different roasts and blends, cups of tea made from dried coffee cherries, and their recipe of hot chocolate made with local cacao and cinnamon.

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After finding a wee hostel down a backstreet (after discovering ALL of the listed ones were full!), we set about exploring the rest of the city tucked into the folds of mountains.  Of course, we visited the white-washed church in the center of town and the Coffee Museum, which focused just as much on the economic and social history of the plant in town, including a large display on the famine in the early 2000s when the price of coffee crashed.  The suffering and death toll here were severe…and I had never heard of this coffee famine, while those were the years of my highest consumption!  It created a successful protest movement that still holds sway in the area today.  Speaking of famous revolutionaries, Matagalpa is also the birthplace of Carlos Fonesca, the creator of the Sandinista Movement.  There is a small, but thorough museum in his childhood home in the middle of town.

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On our last full day in the area, we rode the local bus to the nearby town of Jinotega, which runs along a very scenic highway that winds along the top of a mountain range that provides views that extend up to 140km at the highest points.  It is also an area where one can see many tiny villages, coffee plantations, and flower sellers along the thin ribbon of pavement that threads through the jungle and mountaintops.  Jinotega itself had a bustling market, a lush green main square, and a few stray windmills for decoration, which hint at the European immigrants who started the coffee business years ago.

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We rode back to Matagalpa in the afternoon, had another session at Coffee Center, and prepared to leave our cool, mountainous coffee haven for the hot lowlands and colonial Leon the next morning.

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