In addition to the attractions listed, check out the Museo de Historia y Arqueología (tel. 505/2713-3753), which houses a small, mildly interesting collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. It is in the same building as the Casa de Cultura and is open 9am to noon on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.

Reserva Natural Miraflor

Miraflor means "flower view," and the 206-sq.-km (80-sq.-mile) patch of pristine nature that is Reserva Natural Miraflor certainly lives up to its name. It has one of the largest colonies of orchids in the world, with 300 species blooming amid begonias and moss-draped oak trees. Tall pine trees hide toucans and parakeets, while armadillos and skunks scurry across the forest floor. Howler monkeys jump from branch to branch, while sloths just do their thing and hang out. There are more than 200 bird species and numerous butterflies all sharing this diverse habitat of tropical savanna, jet-black marshy swamp, dry bush, and a cloud forest that peaks at 1,484m (4,869 ft.).

Five thousand people are also scattered across the reserve, some of whom offer homestays, where you can sit on a simple, rickety veranda and enjoy the view while sipping homegrown chamomile tea or coffee. You can trek or horseback ride to hilltop lookout points, ancient caves, prehistoric mounds, and pre-Columbian settlements. La Chorrera is one of the more ambitious hikes, the end destination being a spectacular 60m-high (197-ft.) waterfall.

The reserve is very much a local initiative, operated and preserved by the community that lives here with little or no government help. They are pioneers in sustainable farming, organic agriculture, fair-trade produce, and of course, ecotourism. The reserve's facilities are rustic and unassuming. There is little or no electricity, nor piped water. This is no five-star jungle hideaway, but nature in all its raw glory -- as such, it's perfect for birders, horseback riders, artists, and orchid lovers. It is possible to visit the reserve in 1 day, but to truly appreciate it, it's wise to stick around, stay with a family for a few days, and explore it further.

UCA, 2 blocks north and 1 block west of the Esso station in Estelí (tel. 505/2713-2971; www.miraflor.org), is one of the main cooperatives that oversee the reserve. They can help with excursions and homestays. The office is open Monday to Friday from 8am to 12:30pm and 2 to 5pm. Posada La Soñada (tel. 505/2713-6333) is a well-established lodge that's very basic but comfortable, with a large porch stuffed with hammocks and rocking chairs. The owner, Doña Corina, is famous for her vegetarian cooking. Finca Lindos Ojos (tel. 505/2713-4041; www.finca-lindos-ojos.com) has 14 comfortable rooms that start at $50 for a double. The lodge is an organic coffee farm with solar-powered lighting and is operated by a German couple. They also offer tours in the area.

Miraflor is a 45-minute, bone-shaking ride from Estelí in a colorful school bus. There are four buses a day; the earliest leaves from COTRAN Sur at 6am. The rest leave from COTRAN Norte at noon, 2:15pm, and 3:40pm. The UCA can also help arrange transportation.

Touring the Tobacco Factories

Tobacco will kill you. But in the meantime, why not take advantage of being in the cigar capital of Nicaragua and check out just how they make the world-famous Nicaraguan puro. You do not have to be a puffing tycoon to appreciate the rich history and skill that goes into a Churchill or a Cohiba. Estelí's plantations were founded by Cuban exiles in search of the perfect tobacco-growing spot, and their cigars now rival those from that Caribbean island. Cigar tours are still very much a novelty, and visits to the surrounding factories can be hit and miss. Make sure to make an appointment, or better yet, arrange a tour with the friendly staff at Hospedaje Luna.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.