Nestled among the mountainous hillsides of the central highlands near the Honduran border, Estelí feels like an honest blue-collar city, a sports town with devoted fans, a place where locals worship and shop the huge Saturday produce market, where students learn and where expats can buy sunscreen and lattes alike. Dotted with language schools, tobacco plantations, cigar factories and having several nature reserves nearby tourists will find Estelí a pleasant, if not a favorite, stop on their Nicaraguan journey.
Out & About
The parts of the town center explored on foot from our home base, Hotel Los Arcos with (a well-deserved #1 rating on TripAdvisor), give the impression that this town is friendly place no matter who you are. We became regulars at Kiss Me Garage (you can find them on Facebook), the cutest ice-cream shop you’ve ever seen, right across the street. On the corner, as the name suggests, Artesanias La Esquina, sells good quality local handicrafts at a good price.
You can’t miss the cathedral, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, which seems to celebrate Roman Catholic mass, in Spanish of course, daily. Walking from the hotel towards the cathedral and the main town square there’s a good-sized grocery store selling just about anything you need as well as coffee shops and small restaurants.
It seems on almost every corner there are murals, many created by children through non-profit FUNARTE (Foundation in Support of Children ‘s Art Creator). Working in concert with a host of local community organizations and municipal governments, FUNARTE uses art as a strategy to teach children and adolescents to express their feelings. They aim to raise awareness on topics of social interest, advocacy and promote community involvement.
Estelí is home to one of the most successful and most popular football (i.e. soccer) clubs in the country, the Real Estelí nicknamed “El Tren del Norte” (The Train of the North). From the hotel the lights of the stadium are easily visible at night. One of our team mates noticed and checked the schedule, which is how we all ended up at a game. Pure luck and a terrific way to end the day.
The land around Estelí is perfect for growing tobacco. In fact, the town itself became a refuge for Cuban cigar makers after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. It’s now one of the most important cigar-producing cities in the world. Our mid-week work break for the build was a tour of one of the local factories, A.J. Fernandez. It is Fernandez’s grandfather, who started growing tobacco in pre-Castro Cuba, to whom he credits his knowledge and success.
For the record, I’m not a smoker, but I was excited to take this tour because it’s such an important part of the economy in Estelí and the culture of Nicaragua. One of the very best ways to enhance your understanding of any place is to explore what makes a place tick. It’s what I love most about traveling, the cultural immersion. Dive in we did!
And what an education we got – holy smokes! (Pun intended) If you thought making wine was complex, I dare say it doesn’t hold a match (I know, another pun) to the many steps and subtle nuances to cigar-making. We spent two hours touring the factory and walked away with a fresh perspective on a time honored tradition.
Interestingly enough, you can’t even buy a cigar there! So accustomed to the Disney trap of ending every ride in a gift shop, I fully expected to be able to take home a few stogies, but NO! No sales trap or smoke and mirrors here (I know…). The only souvenirs were these photos and our tour guide’s expression of pure passion for tobacco and a smoking tradition, said to date back to the 10th century Mayans, rooted in Latin America itself.
Follow the Music
Finally, if you stay at Hotel Los Arcos, they have a great little rooftop terrace. It’s the perfect spot to sit with a drink just before sunset and relax. There’s a wonderful almost 360 degree view of the town and surrounding mountains. One night we heard live music coming from a building on the street below. Curious, we went to check it out. It was band practice for the worship team at a local church. The only ones in the audience, we sat just listening to the rock-style music.
One of our team mates approached the band and the next thing we knew, a musician was handing over his electric guitar and our guy was up there jamming with the entire band playing along! Music, the universal language. That and love, they say. This was one of my favorite moments from the build – pure serendipity.
The next time you hear it, follow the music.