By the time I avoided my 900th pothole and was in the city limits of Matagalpa, Nicaragua’s 4th largest city a worn hand-painted sign welcoming me simply and scribbly stated that the national government was responsible for the condition of the road. Up till then the Nicaraguan roads had been perhaps the best I’d encountered in Central America. Nestled in the mountainous and forested northeastern highlands, Matagalpa may claim nearly a quarter-million residents, but riding through chasing down an ATM machine I found it to have an incredible small town feeel. Cobblestone streets, a colonial central square and overall clean and friendly.
When the scruffy faced man liften his ratty t-shirt to pull the handgun out of his pants and handed it to the armed guard, both men simply acted as this was as normal as pulling an ATM card from a wallet. But as these eyes quickly scanned the streets, I wondered how many others were concealing handguns in their pantalones.
As I continued to climb into the mountains it started raining. First softly. Then it poured. Young children holding shovels stood next to piles of dirt and rocks. Some of the potholes had been filled in. With heavy concentration avoiding the holes and nervously watching the muticolored streams of diesel oil mixed with rain run down the steep incline I barely noticed the boys stick their hands out. Looking for tips for doing their best to make the road better, most cards would slow to a crawl to get around the craters in the road. With the rain pelting harder on my faceshield and with a steady speed I was out of reach.
The road continued to wind and climb for several miles, Water filled the now infamous potholes. Some I couldn’t avoid. Bam. Ouch.
The turn off for Selva Negra is marked by a beat up old tank — a remnant left after Nicaraguan civil war and now a reminder and icon of hope for Nicaragua’s future. Dense, thick and dark forests make this area strikingly similar to the Black Forest in Germany so the German immigrants who settled her in the 1800’s named it Selva Negra. A referral from friends who’d traveled here earlier to attend a wedding of one of the owners’ daughters guided me up this mountain retreat set in a tropical cloud forest. I take the turn and wind down and up through tropical forest and coffee plants till I come to the guarded entrance.
Selva Negra is a sustainable and organic coffee plantation and mountain resort where one can experience the old growth forest on foot through hiking trails, horseback or take a tour of Selva Negra’s coffee farm by one of its passionate owners Mausi or Eddy Kohl, descendants of Germans who originally settled in the area around Matagalpa in 1891. How did German’s come to settle in a remote part of Nicaragua at the turn of the century? Well, in the late 1800’s the Nicaraguan government of Nicaragua offered plots of land, coffee plants, and financial incentives to Europeans who settle in the country to farm coffee. The idea was this would stimulate the economy while injecting the intellectual capital and physical labor needed to maintain it. Today, the Matagalpa region is home to more than four generations of Germans, however over the years the German population has dwindled for several reasons, First, during World War II Nicaragua declared war on Germany and confiscated many farms while the Germans fled back to Germany or elsewhere. Though many returned to Nicaragua in the late 1940s and early 1950s, another exodus of Germans was stimulated by the Contra-Sandinista war of the 1980s when more farms were claimed or destroyed by the Sandinistas “land redistribution efforts”. In fact, for ten years during the 80’s Selva Negra’s owners’ lived in the United States, returning in 1991 to rebuilt their farm.
Today Selva Negra is an amazing testament to organic and sustainable farming where 100% shade grown coffee produced here is perhaps the finest in Nicaragua. It’s likely you won’t find Nicaraguan coffee on the shelves of your local Starbucks or Peets because Nicaragua produces a minute amount of coffee in scope of the world markets.
How do they do it? First, nearly everything served in the resorts lakeside restaurant is grown or produced on the farm. The chickens and eggs, the beef and pork and even the organically grown Manchego and Gouda cheese. The furniture in the restaurant, guest rooms and cabañas are all made in the on-sight wood and metal shops. To run a farm requires manpower. Most of the farms nearly 200 full-time workers live in housing built by the Kohl’s on the farm. There is a school for the children and medical clinic with full-time nurse. Selva Negra will support and pay for those children who want to attend university.
But it’s Selva Negra’s farming methods that intrigued me most. For example, coffee beans harvested must be extracted from its shells and then further cleaned to remove a layer of gelatin like material around the bean. In most coffee plantations, this extraction processes damages the environment because contaminated water is drained to nearby rivers or streams. But at Selva Negra the contaminated water is piped to tanks of volcanic rocks where bacteria feeds off the contaminants. The resulting methane gas produced by this process is piped to the farm’s kitchens to be used for cooking and to run the farm’s coffee roaster. What’s more, manure from the farm’s livestock is liquefied, extracting gases also for cooking and roast and also provides thousands of liquid fertilizer for the farm.
Listening to Mausi Kohl while riding through the 1,500 acre farm is to feel the passion she and her husband have for innovation and trying new things. “We’ll try something and give it two years. If it’s not producing the results we like in two years, we move on.” And you can see projects in process throughout the farm. A non-denominational chapel sitting under tropical foliage was on the plans for years but its recent completion was stimulated by their daughter’s wedding. There’s a decent sized meeting/banquet room and the grounds are meticulous landscaped with ponds, gazebos, an orchid garden and more.
Staying here may be expensive for Nicaraguan standards, but for visitors it’s a bargain. Rooms start at $30 and several large cabins intended for families or large groups are available. A project underway will provide hostel-style dorm rooms for $10.