At the end of January of this year, I took a little trip to the Nicaraguan cigar mecca, Esteli with my wife Dianne and also Brother of the Leaf, Melvin Bossman Robinson. Yep we were hanging out with Bossman for four days in a country where only my wife Dianne knew the language. We managed though, thanks to her, and our friends from Yayabo Cigars, that made sure we had a driver and guide for the time we were there. This is a series of articles I am writing on our visit there, you may have already seen the first one where we toured the Yayabo cigar factory and plantation.
The journey started from Miami International Airport (MIA) where we boarded a direct flight on Avianca Airlines to Managua.Nicaragua. I highly recommend this airline and the flight, as it leaves around 3 PM and arrives near 4:30 PM Nicaraguan time. There is ample leg room in the plane, with effortless boarding, and one free checked bag. Drinks are free even if you are sitting in coach and the food , well it was ok but it’s airplane food, certainly more than a little bag of nuts. So if you are planning a trip Esteli any time soon, check them out. —End of Selfish Plug—
The Road to Esteli
A short two and a half hour flight from Miami International Airport (MIA) will set down in Managua, Nicaragua, the country’s capital city. If you planned accordingly, you and your party will be met at the airport by a vehicle and personal driver that will drive the next two and a half hours along the Pan American highway through the mountains to the city of Esteli. I high recommend that you arrange for a vehicle and driver for the trek as it can be a harrowing experience.
The road to Esteli takes you up through the mountains from a low 272 feet in Managua to 2769 feet in Esteli. The road is paved but it is only a two lane road with vehicles attempting to pass slow-moving trucks and vehicles, sometimes 3 or more at a time. A beep of a horn and some rushing head lights you weave in and out of the traffic. Get behind a truck and you may be cruising at a mere 5 – 10 mph as they grind their way up the mountain. Of course the traffic is the least of the issues. Watch out for the orange cones in the road where you have to slow down and drive around them as the local Policia watch and may randomly pull you over to check your papers and all those in the vehicle. We were lucky enough not to be stopped but I have heard some fun stories of those that have. This is why you want a driver that knows the language, customs, and methods to make the drive.
There is but just a few small towns along the drive and not much else. The road will take you around the south-east edge of Lake Nicaragua but you wont see much. After about one and a half hours, if you are making good time, you will weave though the municipality of Sébaco, the first sign of civilization. With a population around 35,000 this is sizable community that offers shops and restaurants and is the junction point to the city of Mantagalpo which I understand is one of the biggest ex-pat areas of US citizens. It was dark when we drove through and we were excited to get to Esteli so we did not stop.
Continuing up the mountain you will next pass the town of San Isidro which is on the border of Esteli Department and Mantagalpo Department. In Nicaragua a department is akin to a county in a state in the US. Nicaragua is a unitary republic, divided for administrative purposes into fifteen departments. The capital of Esteli Department is the city of Esteli. There are also two autonomous regions on the north-east and south-east of the country. These regions are self-governed.
So now that you have entered Esteli Department you are getting close to your destination, but still have 45 min to an hour before you arrive. The next municipality you pass through is La Trinidad which has a decent population of around 20,000. The community is the home of Aurora Bakery, one of the largest baking industries in the country. If you are into some excitement and don’t want to travel to Spain, you can witness the Running of the Bulls on the 2nd and 3rd of February. Like most of us who travel to Esteli we are in the trek to cigar mecca so no stopping and we kept driving.
After passing through La Trinidad, the highway will curve west and then north again and you will start to see homes and ranches a few scattered restaurants and then the lights of Esteli will appear. It took us close to 3 hours to reach our hotel due to some slow-moving trucks but we made it.
The Mery 2 Hotel
We were not able to get into some of he nicer hotels in town, so the Yayabo Cigar Co, who sponsored our trip down there, got us room in the Mery 2 hotel which is located near the center of the city on the Pan American Highway. Now I will say I have stayed in many hotels around the world and this was not the worst, but it had some charm and it’s fair share of quirks. The room had no outside looking windows in it, but instead it had a window off one of the double beds that looked right out at the check in desk. They did have a dark blue curtain hanging over the window for privacy though.
The bathroom was a bit of a challenge but we did have hot and cold water in our room. I learned later that Bossman had no hot water and eventually had to move him into another room during the weekend. The toilet had some plumbing issues where we had to turn the water valve on to fill the tank and then off once it was filled or it would not shut off. Speaking of that, we did learn that even thought we turned the valve off one morning, when we got back to the hotel in the afternoon the toilet had overflowed and drained down through the shower drain. Now that would be a small issue, except the water supply comes from a tank on the roof of the hotel and that incident drained the water tank throughout the day, so there was no water in the hotel anywhere. Message to all, if you have any issue with a room, let the front desk know.
Another fun part of this particular hotel was trying to get in after a night n the town. We quickly learned the first night that the front door fo the hotel is locked after 10 PM and if you get back to the hotel after that time you have to ring a doorbell, knock, and yell upstairs for the family that runs the hotel to come down and open the door. Yea we were not the only ones but so be it.
Breakfast was nice every morning. It was full breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit, and cheese with orange juice and coffee served on the back deck that overlooked the rooftops of the adjacent buildings and had the mountain tops in the distance.
The coffee was instant coffee and the orange juice was “Orange Tang”, I think, but hey, it was fine and it got the day started.
The hotel was kind enough to open a large room in the front of the hotel that had a large balcony and comfy chairs on it so we could sit and smoke a cigar as we watched the passing traffic and hustle and bustle of the city. They did that on the 2nd day we were there and it added to our pleasure.
Walking the City of Esteli
Besides the tours of the Yayabo Cigar Factory and Plantation, we did venture out one morning to walk about the city of Esteli. The city itself has a Central America charm to it with a rustic look and brick roads. This is not a colonial style city like Granada or Leon, It is a commercial city that seems to be still evolving from the era of the Sandanistas that basically destroyed the city during the Nicaraguan Revolution and the Contra War. The city itself was settled in 1685 by a group of Spaniards fleeing Nueva Segovia which at that time suffered from pirate attacks. At the that time the settlement was called Villa Vieja. It was eventually replaced by a new settlement (San Antonio de Pavia) from where the city of Esteli has grown.
I am sure the resurgence of the cigar industry has helped to grow the city, as I am told it was one of the richest in the country now. Considering the low wages most residents make, there are still plenty of new cars and pickups trucks driving about. The center of the city has numerous shops and restaurants to keep you entertained and there is a central park where you can see families gathering, children playing and a weekend market where you can buy plenty of fresh produce.
Catedral Nuestra Señora del Santísimo Rosario
Every European influenced city has a church or cathedral in the center of town and Esteli has “Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary Cathedral”. Most locals call it the Estelí Cathedral. It is the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Estelí and is dedicated to the Marian devotion of Our Lady of the Rosary, patroness of the Diocese. The cathedral was consecrated as the seat of the diocese on December 17, 1962 by Pope John XXIII.
The design of the cathedral is a mix of neoclassic and modern style and is young when compared to other Latin American countries. It is a beautiful white structure that towers over all the other structures in the city. It is by far the major landmark in the city.
A Night on the Town
The first stop was the local casino – small place directly below the Hard Bar right across the Pan American from our hotel. It is always fun playing in a casino with the local currency. I cashed in $20 USD and got about 1800 Cordos (cordos are the Nicaraguan currency). Just one 500 bill gets you some extended play time on a slot machine.
The Jackpot Experience
So in went the bill and down went my money until the machine started to light up and ring bells and then freeze, asking me to call the attendant. It indicated I hit the jackpot. The Jackpot? I have never hit a jackpot on a slot machine in my life. So I waited for the attendant and when she came she had a clip board and had to take down my name and information so she could pay me out in cash. Wow, this is big! She counted out some cordos and after a quick calculation, I hit the machine for $48.00 USD. What excitement and a let down all at the same time. All that for 48 bucks…. Well I suppose that is a lot of money for people who make only 2 dollars a day, That is like a months worth of salary. Ok, I felt better.
The next stop was the Hard Bar upstairs. You have to pay a cover fee to walk in the establishment, but that equated to about 2 bucks. We got settled at the bar and I asked for a rum and coke. Should have been an easy translation right? Flor de Cana and Coke. But not so simple. I learned they only serve it as a bottle of rum and bottles of coke. Basically bottle service. I chose to take the small half liter bottle and I would say the cost was like 8 bucks. Wow I am liking this.
Melvin, Jorge, and I knocked down a few drinks, and decided to venture deeper into the town.
Jorge took us to a new establishment, Bliss Lounge. This was a nice place with a big dance floor, large bar, ample and comfortable seating, a DJ and lots of flashing lights. Drinks were value priced also and like all bars cigar smoking was allowed.
After a short visit to Bliss Lounge, we headed over to another interesting establishment known as Zona 34. This was a fun place as there were more people there and the dance floor was moving and grooving with locals. Bossman and I fired up a couple of cigars and sat at the edge of the dance floor watching the locals as the DJ was spinning some excellent Latin music.
I have to say the people in Esteli are stunningly beautiful both in feature and heart and soul. Everyone was having a terrific time.
Shots Bar & Karaoke
It was late and our final stop was a place called Shots Bar & Karaoke. There did not seem to be any Karaoke going on that night but that did not stop Bossman, Jorge, and I from sitting down at rickety table and taking in the sites as we puffed away.
We were sitting on the outdoor patio of the bar and there was a lot of action with people dancing around the tables. I would not recommend using the toilet, at least the one connected to the patio, as it was scary to say the least. The night ended here and we headed back to our hotel for a rest before the start of the next day.
Salto de La Estanzuela Waterfall
One of the sites I wanted to see besides cigars was the Salto de La Estanzuela Waterfall located a short drive on the outskirts of the city further up the mountain. Now if you think the drive from Managua to Esteli was fun, take the road to the waterfall. The trip was supposed to start around 9 AM but due to vehicle issues and rivers we had to rely on our guide Jorge to secure us a rental vehicle and driver for the trek. After a few hours he shows up with (no disrespect) a Clown Car! You know, one of those little cars, not a truck, or a van. I mean seriously the tires on this thing had to be like 14 inches in diameter and it was low to the ground.
So around 11:30 AM we load ourselves into the vehicle, My wife is in the front with the seat pushed up so she practically has her face in the windshield, and the big guys, Bossman and I are sitting in the back with Jorge our guide in the middle. We had to have the windows rolled down just to get more room. We should have taken a picture of the scene because it was hilarious as the three gringos headed off to the mountain.
The first stop was to pay for the car. We had to drive up a one lane mountain road to where a restaurant where the rental guy was hosting a party. Half way up there is a pick-up truck driving down and our driver has to back down the mountain road to let him pass. Thank goodness we had a driver that knew how to drive. Finally we get to where we have to pay the guy. Cost of vehicle was $30.00 USD for 24 hours plus gas. Ok, small car, easy on gas and that was good because fuel ain’t cheap in Nicaragua.
Now we drive back down this mountain road and head up south on the Pan American Highway to where there is small sign that points the way to the waterfall. Now the real fun begins. We start the drive up the mountain on an unpaved dirt, rock, and gravel road that has huge boulders and ruts scattered about the way. The driver is magnificently navigating around all the obstacles for about 30 minutes as we hear the sound of rocks and gravel being tossed under the car. I would hate to see what the undercarriage of this vehicle looks like at this point.
We finally make it to the top of the mountain and open the doors of the car and roll out on the ground of the parking lot. Of course as we were driving up the mountain the driver speaks to Jorge in Spanish and my wife who understands just bursts out laughing as he said “why didn’t we take the shorter route.” The shorter route! What,there was a shorter path? Anyway we are here, and I suggested we take the shorter route when we leave.
Now, the next step is to hike down the mountain for about 15 minutes or so and we are rewarded with what we endured this trek for. It is truly a beautiful site and one of the hidden gems of Esteli. I kept thinking about the “Road to Hana” in Hawaii where you drive along the road in Maui and stop and hike into the mountains to see the amazing natural marvels. There has to be more of these sites throughout this beautiful country, but we decide this was enough for the day and just kick back on a the flat rocks strewn by the watering hole and fire up a stogie and take it all in.
After about 40 minutes of puffing and admiring the beauty we head back up the mountain which takes about 30 minutes as it all up hill.
We cram ourselves back into the Clown Car and take the drive down the mountain (the shorter route). It may have been shorter but it was not any less treacherous. It is a good thing it did not rain that day, or we would have never made it. There was even a spot where the road had a slide incline and the driver could not make it up, so after a few spins of the wheels, grinding of the transmission, and a strange smell of metal and oil, he backed down and then sped up and over the top – we made it.
El Rincon Pinareno
Once back to town we decided to grab an early dinner at the famed Esteli Cuban Restaurant El Rincon Pinareno. The food here is said to be the best Cuban food in town, unless you are eating at Diany Perez’ home where she can whip-up a swell cuban dish or two. After a few beers, and fine meal we headed back to our hotel for a little rest before Bossman and I headed over to see Diany, Alex, and Charlie from Yayabo Cigars and thank them for an interesting and fun trip.
My wife decided to stay in that night as she was fairly wiped out from the trip to the waterfall and we had to get ready to leave for the US in the morning.