From hiking up one of the country's active volcanoes to speeding down the same peaks on a homemade surfboard, when it comes to adventure tourism, Nicaragua has become a place that's known to deliver unique and adventurous rides. In addition to the volcanoes, there is also world class surfing, mountain biking, and kayaking.
But for thrill seekers looking for something new, there's an activity in the far North that's just beginning to draw attention -- exploring Nicaragua's largest and mostly untouched canyon.
The tiny Nicaraguan mountain town of Somoto, with a population of just over 40,000 is gearing up for a tourism influx. Located only 12 miles from the Honduran border, the town was formerly only know as a pit stop on the Pan American Highway, usually passed over for more well-known destinations like Esteli and Leon, the birthplace of volcano boarding. Things slowly started to change when two Czech scientists "discovered" a massive canyon. Soon, the government in Managua deemed it a National Park.
With the new classification came much needed protection, but more importantly, opportunities for tourism, as I would soon learn on my recent trip through the country.
After some brief research, I contacted Henry Soriano, local guide and head of Somoto Canyon Tours. Although it is possible to experience the canyon on your own, as a solo female traveler, I opted to take one of Henry's guided tours, which range in length from three to seven hours navigating through five miles of sheer canyon walls.
Sticking to my small budget, I caught the local bus from Esteli to Somoto in the morning. As promised, Henry met me and three others at the bus station, where we shared a taxi to his house. Unprepared in only flip-flops, Henry gave me the opportunity to choose from a variety of soggy tennis shoes to wear swimming in the canyon. I selected a pair of nearly sole-less black Nike low tops, promising to return them at the end of the trip.
Appropriate footwear secured, we began our four-hour tour, with a mile long hike down a small trail head to the start of Somoto Canyon. The warmth of the sun was the perfect juxtaposition to the cool waters flowing over the rock, and after our short hike, we were all eager to get wet. Cameras secured in dry bags, we spent the next two hours free-floating, swimming, and scrambling over rocks in the shadows of the sheer canyon walls rising 300 feet from the Rio Coco.
At times during the swim, the canyon narrows to a width of 15 feet, causing the swimmer to gaze upwards at the massive rock walls. The visual reward is a view of thousands of orchids growing wild at the canyon rim, as well as the occasional hive of wild honeybees, and a glimpse of one of the colonies of bats that inhabit the canyon's recessed caves.
The highlight and adrenaline rush of the tour comes about three hours in, with a mandatory fifteen foot jump from an impassable cliff into the deep green pool of the Rio Coco. Those with nerves of steel are free to try any of the higher jumps, maxing out at a pants-soiling 60 feet. Our guide, Roybin was only too happy to demonstrate his intestinal fortitude, making the insane jump twice, to the applause and congratulatory shouts of the group.
High on adrenaline, we made our way through a few more jumps, rock scrambles and long floats to the canyon exit and a hike back to the road.
Not only does this canyon provide excellent opportunities for hiking, swimming, and cliff jumping, but numerous rock walls ripe for the adventurous climber, with areas perfect for bouldering and even deep water soloing. Although rock climbing in the area is in its infancy, one ambitious company, Namancambre Tours, is introducing the sport to the area.
With so much to offer the adventurous tourist, it won't be long before Somoto Canyon becomes a mandatory stop on every Nicaragua itinerary.To access Somoto Canyon: On your own:
- Take a local bus from Esteli or Matagalpa north to Somoto. Ask a taxi driver to drop you at the Somoto Canyon entrance on the Pan-American highway.
- In Somoto: contact Henry Soriano of Somoto Canyon Tours, or visit the offices of Namancambre Tours, one block west of the Pali supermarket.
- In Esteli: Contact Cafe Luz one block from the cathedral in the town center.