Nicaragua’s ruggedly beautiful northern mountains and plains, cloud forests and pine forests are dotted with sleepy villages and blessed with a cool climate. Heading north from Managua, Route #1 (the Pan-American Highway) runs to historic Esteli, the country’s second-most important university town (after Leon). Esteli is also the cigar capital of Nicaragua, and tours are available to learn how the world-famous Nicaraguan habanos are made. The most interesting step is the final rolling of the cigars, traditionally done in male-female pairs.  In addition to cigars, leather items such as saddles and boots are good buys, as are pottery and wooden bowls. The liveliest commercial center of all is the Saturday market when farmers come in from the hills with fresh produce and livestock.

Not to be missed from Esteli is an excursion to the Reserva Natural Miraflor, a 45-minute drive to one of the largest orchid colonies in the world: 300 species. Toucans and parakeets (among more than 200 bird species) share this diverse habitat with howler monkeys, sloths and armadillos. The Reserve is protected and operated by the local community, also pioneers in sustainable farming and fair-trade produce.

A fork in the road from Managua to Esteli, takes you to the hilly laid back town of Matagalpa,

the best place to buy the regional black pottery, as well as woven products from the women’s cooperative El Chile. Matagalpa also makes a great base for traveling around the area, one that experienced the worst of the fighting in the 1980s. Today the remains of a graffiti-covered tank parked at the entrance of the Selva Negra Cloud Forest is a reminder of past battles between the Sandinistas and Somoza’s Guardia National.

Selva Negra is also the name of the 500-acre mountain resort that offers day trippers and guests a chance to go horseback riding and hiking along 14 well-marked trails that lead through orchid-filled habitats for toucans and quetzals (and some 175 other bird species), as well as armadillos, tapirs and sloths.  Selva Negra, along with Finca Esperanza Verde, are two of the best-known coffee farms, where visitors are welcome to learn the art of organic coffee production and coffee making.

Getting there: Estelí is 92 miles (148 km) from Managua; Matagalpa is 81 miles (130 km) from Managua