Welcome to Matagalpa, a place full of secret waterfalls, rafting adventures, and green hillsides dotted with coffee plantains. In a country that’s under the radar, we just love a place that’s even more off the beaten path.
Say "hi" to a country boasting untouched Caribbean islands, the chance to trek across volcanoes, and hidden mountain towns like Matagalpa. Nicaragua’s going to be the next big thing, I can feel it — and ILP volunteers are lucky, lucky because they get the chance to call this country home for a whole semester abroad, with plenty of time off to explore all the corners of this country.
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Matagalpa is one of those yet-to-be-discovered gems, a corner of the country that’s blanketed with thick jungles and farms, meaning you’ll probably be the only tourists around to check out the waterfalls, hiking, rafting, and other experiences here and nearby. It’s a quiet mountain town that hasn’t been hit by crowds, meaning it’s an easy escape for some relaxation. One ILP volunteer said "This city was one of my favorites to visit in Nicaragua" if that gives you an idea of what to expect.
We’ll start off with the highlights when it comes to things to do, then have an outline of other details that are all about planning your trip here — remember, Matagalpa is more local and rural than other spots in Nica, so it’s definitely a vacay for those willing to be adventurous.
- A Few Things To Do Around Town
- Go Rafting
- Finding Waterfalls
- Escape To Selva Negra
- Where To Stay + Eat (Plus Some Tips)
- Getting To Matagalpa
A Few Things To Do Around Town
There are a few activities to do in the center of Matagalpa, but it's typically used as a jumping-off point to nearby activities and locations like the lush mountains of Selva Negra or hunting down some waterfalls. I spent a few days up in this area exploring a few of those things, then spent about a day in Matagalpa and thought that was a good way to structure my trip (but that's up to you, of course). Here are some of the things I checked out on my trip, or didn't quite have time for but will be back to experience!
This Rooftop View
There’s a Roman Catholic Cathedral in the middle of the city of Matagalpa that boasts quite the sunset view ... The rooftop is the best place to watch the sky melt into pinks, oranges, and yellows. But the inside is worth seeing too, a big interior filled with a stark altar, sweeping archways with a domed ceiling, and rows of seats which are typically filled with a few people praying.
It’s an active church, so remember to dress modestly and act respectfully as you make your way through the 150+ year-old structure. When I visited, we had just timed our visit in the day to be there for a church service which was a peaceful and memorable experience, especially since it was around Holy Week, and we got to view one of the Christ processionals in the street after the service!
Address: W3HJ+FJ9, Matagalpa, Nicaragua
The Park Next Door
Right next to the church is the city's main square, a winding network of pathways that run between garden spaces and a statue in the center. Parque Morazán is a bustling place, filled with vendors selling fresh fruit, sweets, popcorn, hot dogs, giant stuffed animals and other things to catch your attention. There is often loud music and kids running around, too, making it hard to miss!
When I visited, the church was broadcasting the entire service so quite a few people were sitting on benches listening to the service instead of worshipping inside. If you're already visiting the church, I'd recommend snagging some fresh fruit or ice cream and sitting down in Parque Morazàn to soak in the sites of this city.
The Chocolate Castle
Coffee and cocoa plantations are big here, thanks to the cooler temperatures in rich soil, and touring these plantations are a big part of things to do in Matagalpa. We're big fans of visiting the Chocolate Castle where you get an idea of how to make chocolate and taste a couple of confections during your tour. Here, the cocoa is minimally roasted and processed and just sugar is added to create a rich chocolate bar.
Learn a bit more on their website (including some recipe suggestions).
+ A Bit About Coffee
Chocolate and coffee are both very important exports in this part of Nicaragua. You're likely to find coffee tours that start in Matagalpa (but we love checking this out in nearby Selva Negra — more on that below. However, if you want to see where it all started, you could visit the nearby town of San Ramon. It's about 15-minutes away by a taxi, where you can walk around the little town and visit the grave of Katharina Braun Elster — she was the first person to plant coffee in Central and Northern Nicaragua. There's a pretty adobe church, and live music on the weekends.
The Mirador Calvary Viewpoint
Up for another pretty view? The city of Matagalpa sits in a “bowl” between a few rolling hillsides, so hiking up to the crest of one of those hills reveals quite the 360° viewpoint spilling out below you. At the top of one of these hills sits the Mirador Calvary viewpoint: you're welcome to admire the view from the base, but we think you won't resist the chance to climb atop a pink-and-green tower to get to different levels where you can soak in even more of the view.
Below the "watermelon tower", there is a paved pathway where you can walk down and get a different view and look at the little desert plants growing there. There's also a quick cafe (Donna Elena) and a nicer sit-down restaurant up there if you'd like to stay for a meal.
Getting Here: Definitely take a taxi up to the viewpoint. It's a very steep, rocky dirt road that you won't want to walk up. From the center of town it's about a 15-20 minute drive (but Google will say it'll take less time ... that rocky road slows you down), plus the city has some traffic.
Cost: Tickets for foreigners are 20 cordobas each. There are some military personnel taking cash for your ticket once you get up there.
Hiking In The Hills
The Cerro Apante Natural Reserve is just 20-minutes from the city of Matagalpa and makes for a beautiful escape into nature if you'd like to do some hiking. Picture thick and dense jungles, with streams and waterfalls, complete with butterflies flitting about. The trails here meander through a handful of coffee plantations which just adds to the charm.
The main attraction in this nature reserve is a pathway that leads you past a waterfall, and up to the viewpoint (marked with a towering white cross that you can see if you look for it while at the Mirador Calvary Viewpoint). This is the La Montaña de la Paz hike, which takes about 1.5-2 hours of climbing through the gorgeous hilly jungle.
The views are stunning but it is an uphill climb to reach the top, which is pretty strenuous. The path can be muddy, so avoid hiking if the weather is wet. In any weather, you'll want sturdy shoes and plenty of water. Once you do make it, there's a towering cross and statue of the Virgin Mary waiting for you at the top. The statue and cross are constructed as a way to promote peace (the nickname of this hike is the "mountain of peace") with many people who make the hike as a pilgrimage, reflecting and praying once they reach the top.
There's a 30 cordoba fee to enter the area, that you'll pay to a ranger who can show you a map to help you get to the right place.
Start off your trip in Matagalpa with an adrenaline rush! Hop in a raft and spend a few hours navigating the grand Tuma River — it’s the most famous in the country, carving its way through the thick and lush jungles of Nicaragua before turning into the Rio Grande de Matagalpa and draining into the Caribbean sea. There are a handful of tour companies who’ll take you out for a 5-8 hour adventure on this river, where you’ll paddle through calmer sections (keep an eye out for monkeys in the dense jungles on either side of you), and hold on tight while you navigate through rocky sections where the river transforms into 2, 3, and even 4 level grades.
The rapids are rated on a numerical scale, 1-6. 5 is the highest grade of rapids that you can raft commercially, so you won’t run into any 6 rapids on your tour, but even then, the 4’s are something to be reckoned with. 1 rapids are calm, flat water while 2-3’s are full of splashes and bounces. Moving up to 4’s, and you’re looking at barreling over waterfalls and more-than-likely tip-overs. It’s an adrenaline rush, to be sure!
Who To Book With + Prices
Wondering who to raft with? Matagalpa Tours is the most well-known company in the area. Their websites details their tour, but in a nutshell, it’s an 8-hour stretch of rafting, starting from Matagalpa city.
Their trip includes transportation to and from Matagalpa, a bilingual guide, rafting gear and supplies, and a lunch/snack for the day. The price depends on how many people are booking and where you’ll be picked up, but starts as low as $55 for the whole trip if you have 8-11 in your group — it’s rafting at a fraction of the price than what you’ll pay in somewhere like Costa Rica.
As a heads up, you'll want to check water levels when booking (and before your actual rafting reservation) Water levels fluctuate, and this tour company has had situations where they've canceled tours last minutes because levels are too low. This happened once early in the Spring semester (in January) if that's helpful to know!
There are a spread of waterfalls hiding in this mountainous region of Nicaragua that are so fun to discover. Matagalpa is a great jumping off point to exploring several of these falls on a day trip, or longer excursion if you want to trek further in this part of the country.
We have more details about these waterfalls here, but get a little glimpse here.
Cascada Santa Emile
Sometimes called Santa Emilia, this is an easy half-day visit from Matagalpa. It's right off the side of the road, where you'll visit a little cafe and tiny gift shop, before paying an entry fee to pass through the gate that leads down a meandering pathway to the waterfall itself. This meandering paved path was adorned with several photo stops on my visit, which made for a fun stop every few feet. There is also a larger restaurant (connected to a hotel) where you can sit and look at the falls (highly recommend the ceviche!).
The falls are gorgeous, a stunning cave allows the thundering waterfall to cascade over a cliff's edge, but what's even more entrancing is the cave behind the waterfall. Once you reach the bottom of the path, you can walk the misty walkway behind the falls into a cave section complete with a swing. It makes for a very picturesque spot.
Cost: 100 Cordobas gets you access to the waterfall, plus bring more for lunch, and other activities (onsite massages, kayaking, etc).
Cascada De Luna
Another set of falls that's not too far away from Matagalpa, found in the hillside town of La Dalia (about an hour or so away). You'll find quite a bit more infrastructure at Santa Emilia, but I loved this particular waterfall because it felt so much more remote. You turn off the side of the road and drive down a dirt driveway in what looks like to be someone's backyard, then suddenly you're here ... you think? What you see is a little cafe and a stack of kayaks at what looks like a calm river that pools until you realize you're standing above the falls. You can peer below, or just make your way down to see the waterfall from the bottom (and hop in for a refreshing swim!)
This place seemed much less accustomed to tourists let alone foreigners but I loved having the whole place to ourselves. I'd recommend going in for a swim (there are restrooms by the little snack shop you can pay a few cordobas to use if you need to change into your swimming suit). Then, make your way down to the falls — behind the thundering water, there's a really beautiful cove that makes for some lovely pictures.
Cost: Free to view from the top, but hiking down is a small fee (60-50 cordobas). You can also kayak at the top for 30 cordobas.
As a heads, up the flow of the falls depends on the season. The first picture was taken in October, while the second picture was taken in March.
Escape To Selva Negra
A Bit About This Place
Selva Negra is found about 20 minutes outside of Matagalpa and has been a highlight for ILP volunteers who have visited — there's a lot to do in this quiet part of the country that makes it an ideal weekend getaway (or just a day trip if you can't spare the time ... but we're big fans of staying for the weekend!). Here's what one ILP volunteer had to say about their stay:
"We loved Selva Negra! It’s a type of place you definitely want to go back to because it feels magical. A part of the appeal was honestly the weather. It was a lot cooler, and less humid, which is a nice break from Granada and the rest of Nicaragua. I wore my 'airport' hoodie and actual pants! It was incredible.
"It’s a different feel from other vacations because of the European feel; it was settled by German immigrants. Which explains the name: Selva Negra translates to the Black Forest. It reminded me a bit of going on a skiing trip, which sounds kind of weird for Nicaragua. But we stayed in a cabin, it had a fireplace, it was cooler temperature-wise, there was horseback riding, and the food is heavily influenced by the location's history— there you have it, a European ski trip, minus the skis."
Things To Do In Selva Negra + Where To Stay
Again, here's the recap from an ILP group who'd recommend their experience:
"We stayed at the Selva Angers Ecolodge, which means everything we wanted to do was located on the grounds. We booked our cabin through their website, and if you look you can see that there are different sizes of cabins, as well as hotel-type rooms and hostel-type rooms. We decided to go all out and stayed at the Viejo Otto cabin which is the original lodge on the campus. Budget accommodations are available though for other traveling styles.
Viejo Otto is one of the larger cabins, and it fits up to 12 people so it was good for our group of 9. There were 2 full bathrooms, a master bedroom, and then 4 rooms with two single beds. The “kitchen” had a table with 4 chairs and a mini fridge. There was a fireplace but we didn’t need a fire, and the living room had seating for all of us to squish.
It was pricier for an ILP trip ($50-ish per person), but like I said, they have other options. I would 100% recommend it! If you can stomach the cost it is worth every penny. Our group legitimately traveled almost every weekend, we saw everything there is to see in Nicaragua. With everything we saw and did, I would go back to the Selva Negra Ecolodge to spend the money to stay in the cabins. It was worth it to me.
We brought our own bananas, bread, PB, and jam for breakfast to save a buck, but ended up getting too tempted by their breakfast options! Lunch and dinner are also served at the main building by the lake; which is a scene from a fairy tale!
Other attractions include: horseback riding, farm tour of their animals and grounds, hiking in the local forest (you pass the MOST BEAUTIFUL chapel on the way to the trails), a night tour with animals and insects pointed out, coffee tour, nature tour, birdwatching, and cacao tour. There were so many options we could only pick a few for the weekend stay we had there. All of it was amazing, the guides were great, we loved their philosophy, and it will always be one of my favorite weekends."
What About Meals?
We like the advice of that ILP group — "We brought our own bananas, bread, PB, and jam for breakfast to save a buck (they had a fridge), but ended up getting too tempted by their breakfast options! Lunch and dinner are also served at the main building by the lake; which is a scene from a fairy tale!"
Just know that in Selva Negra, the only restaurant is the ecolodge’s, and there aren’t any grocery stores, so make sure you prepare accordingly for your visit.
Where To Stay + Eat In Matagalpa
Again, we had one group visit the area and just stay in Selva Negra (about 20-minutes outside of Matagalpa). If you're wanting to stay in one spot, we'd highly recommend their ecolodge weekend.
Casa Brenes Hotel
However, another ILP group spent 3 days here in Matagalpa, at the Casa Brenes hotel and loved their experience — "Great hotel and the staff were super helpful. The owner spoke great English and offered assistance during our entire stay" which was a nice perk.
Another bonus? The owner's husband helps manage the giant cross on top of the mountain that looms above the city (in the Cerro Apante Reserve ... how cool!) . You may be able to ask if you can ride up and get full access to that site — the views are beautiful.
When I stayed, I did one night at Hotel Celebertti which had free breakfast and a nice location where you can walk around the city. The Matagalpa Tour office, the San Pedro Cathedral, etc. are all within walking distance.
Another perk? Not sure if this happens every night but we stayed on a Friday night and the owner's son had an amazing dinner out on the patio. It was an Asado grill set up, with yummy lemonades, and a huge platter of rice and beans, grilled meats, sausages, vegetables, and plantains served with an amazing chimichurri sauce. It served two people for about $30 which felt really spendy, especially in Nicaragua, but was one of the best meals I had in the country. Yum! Book here.
A Foodie Recommendation Or Two
There’s an influence of Mexican cuisine in this part of Nicaragua, which is a definite perk about visiting this sleepy mountain town. El Taquero is the place to eat in Matagalpa, with rave reviews when it comes to their menu. Order up Nica classics like rice and beans (with fried plantains), or street tacos crammed full of grilled chicken and pico de gallo. They also have their share of burritos, traditional soups, and a variation of nachos. Past volunteers recommend it.
- Address: 5 Av José Dolores Estrada, Matagalpa, Nicaragua
- Hours: 8:00 AM to 11:00 PM
Others recommend finding restaurants that serve these classic dishes, like Queso Frito (fried salty cheese), Carne Asada (grilled steak) , Nacatamal (like a big tamale), Baho (a mix of beef, plantains, and green plantains cooked in banana leaves), and Vigoron (boiled yuca is topped with crispy pork rinds and a crunchy cabbage slaw).
Make Sure It's What You're Expecting
It's been mentioned, but know that Matagalpa pretty rural and very mountainous. Besides hiking, rafting, coffee plantations, and a couple of other things to check out, you’re settling into a pretty relaxed weekend trip full of meandering walks on the hilly streets and people watching ... then some very fun day trips if you choose to take them! If that sounds like your ideal trip, you’ll love it here.
You won’t find many (or any) tourists around here, and the locals tend to stare. It’s pretty cultural in Nicaragua, so you’ll see this all over, but it’s particularly noticeable in Matagalpa where the neighborhoods aren’t too used to an influx of tourists.
While the site-seeing is beyond spectacular, there’s little tourist infrastructure here ... but you can still find some fantastic hiking (and help trail-finding if you know where to look).
Matagalpa Tours is your best resource here, leading rafting excursions and helping travelers hunt for waterfalls or trek over the lush hillsides. They have tours you can book, but some visitors mention that the staff has been helpful if you want to know about self-guided hikes as well.
- Address: Costado norte del Parque Darío 1 cuadra al este y 20 varas al norte
- Hours: 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM
- Here’s the web address for Matagalpa Tours
There are a few other tour agencies around who will take you around the area, starting in Matagalpa (there are several waterfalls to check out in the nearby region of Peñas Blancas. Here's a several-day tour that takes you to plunging waterfalls, local villages, thick and lush jungles, and other treasures hiding in this part of Nicaragua.
Getting To Matagalpa
The bus connections to this place (and in Nicaragua in general) are a little less than direct so you’ll probably need to head to a couple of different cities if you can’t find a direct route there. For example, there isn’t a straight shot from Granada to Matagalpa, so you have a couple of options to leave from.
First, A Bit To Know About The Buses
You'll need to be pretty flexible when taking the buses in Nica. If you'll be volunteering or vacationing here with ILP, you’ll pick it up quickly, but most of the buses you’ll be taking are Chicken buses, which are decommissioned school buses that have been repainted and refurbished to get locals all around Nicaragua. They are very inexpensive to take and don’t really have regular schedules; sometimes the drivers will let people off wherever they ask, which can make the schedule and timing a little unpredictable.
There typically isn’t much of a set bus schedule or station, you kind of just have to figure out where they pick people up and drop them off. The buses usually leave when full and leave by word of mouth, instead of following a schedule. Sometimes buses come every 15 minutes or sometimes once every hour but sometimes they don't come at all. We have more info about the buses in Nica here.
Take A Bus From Masaya
The nearby volcano-town of Masaya has a series of buses that’ll take you to Matagalpa. Once you reach Masaya, COTRAN has an “expreso” bus that’ll get you there in about 3 hours. Get more info about this bus route here.
Oh and don’t skip out on Masaya, this place is home to a volcano bubbling with lava and our favorite street markets.
Take A Bus From Leon
Another favorite weekend trip is Leon, and you can definitely find buses that can take you from there to Matagalpa. It’s about a 3-hour ride if you catch an “expreso” bus. You can look up times and schedules for this route here.
We love all the things to do in this city, by the way. Get the details on volcano boarding, our favorite restaurants, and all things Leon here.
Hiring A Car
One of the perks of being an ILP volunteer in this country means connections. ILP groups are in touch with their Local Coordinator who's from the area and can sometimes help you out with some logistics, like hiring a driver to get you to Matagalpa (or Selva Negra).
One ILP group went this route, and paid about $21 for the drive, per person. There were 9 people on this weekend trip to Selva Negra if that helps you figure out costs a bit more.
You + Nicaragua sounds like the start of a beautiful friendship
If you're anything like me, you're hunting around for destinations that are crammed full of adventure ... but realize that you probably can't see everything you want in a short trip. That's why I decided to volunteer and live abroad with ILP! They're a nonprofit organization that sends college-aged volunteers abroad for a whole semester of traveling, adventuring, and making a difference. I think you'll want to know all about the chance to make this happen for yourself.