Population 109,000. 700 meters above sea level. 130 km from Managua.
Named for the Matagalpa Indians, the city of Matagalpa was founded by the Spanish in 1554, who stumbled upon the indigenous community during their quest for a route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Upon hearing of discovered gold, enterprising Europeans arrived to the area in the mid-19th century. German settlers then began to grow Matagalpaâ€™s now-famous coffee. Evidence of this European heritage is apparent in the lighter skin and green eyes of many locals. During the same period, Matagalpa became a safe haven for Nicaraguans seeking refuge from the invasion of American filibuster William Walker, who was later defeated by Jose Dolores Estrada, the hero for whom the main street is named. Estrada led a militia founded by Matagalpaâ€™s residents to victory against Walker.
Matagalpaâ€™s most famous citizen is without a doubt Carlos Fonseca, the founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). In 1967, an FSLN-run guerilla operation, in which men and women fought side by side, took place near Matagalpa. Although the operation was unsuccessful, it created widespread enthusiasm for the Sandinista movement.
Along with agriculture and cattle-raising, tourism is a burgeoning industry in Matagalpa. This is largely due to a successful partnership between the government-run tourism bureau (Intur) and a Luxembourg based development corporation, Lux-Development. Travelers will have no trouble finding food and lodgings here. Hotels in Matagalpa generally cluster around Parque Ruben Dario and are wallet friendly. Matagalpa also has a veritable dining scene, though not one that can sustain real foodies for very long.
Although it is of the largest cities in the northern highlands, Matagalpa is nonetheless too small for an illicit affair (stick around town for more than a day and faces will quickly become familiar). Thankfully, there are plenty of other activities to keep the intrepid traveler busy. Within the city limits there are a couple of interesting museums, including the ramshackle Museo de CafĂ© (bearing a distinct lack of info about coffee) and a museum honoring Carlos Fonseca. The gleaming white church flanking Parque Morazan is one of the largest and most impressive structures in all of Nicaragua, and the block party celebrating the cityâ€™s founding is one of the biggest celebrations to hit northern Nicaragua every year. The surrounding countryside also offers an abundance of activities for outdoorsy types, including excellent hiking and coffee tours (during the season). Within walking distance from the city is Cerro Apante, a peak easily climbed in a morning. Farther from the city is the Selva Negra Reserve and Coffee Estate, which offers hiking trails as well as agro-tours. Travelers can also visit the acclaimed Finca Esperanza Verde, an eco-lodge with extensive grounds, a butterfly breeding center and of course, coffee.
If Matagalpaâ€™s shady parks, relaxed atmosphere and temperate climate seduce you into staying awhile, there are plenty of volunteer opportunities to occupy your time. Of particular note are the profusion of womenâ€™s rights organizations and Casa Girasol, whose projects are of such broad scope as to include recycling, advocacy for the handicapped, and yogurt production.