Nicaragua Off the Beaten Path: Somoto Canyon

5 hours northeast of Leon, Nicaragua resides a town by the name of Estelí. Population 119,000. It’s location in the highlands creates a year round temperate climate – a wonderful escape from the muggy major cities of Leon and Granada.

Estelí has all the makings of a typical town; a few parks, a soccer team, a few grocery stores, squares for people to gather, markets, a cathedral, hotels, school, bars, etc.

Although it is the third largest city in Nicaragua, it’s almost what you’d expect from a small town. It’s quaint and spread out so it never feels overcrowded. It’s quiet, an air of calm to it suggesting a simple life. It doesn’t feel touristy, in fact I felt like I was one of only a few dozen tourists there. However, it has the benefit of a big city; convenient and frequent buses, supermarkets, and entertainment.

Estelí doesn’t offer tourists too many activities. In fact, most travelers skip Estelí, the ones who do visit do so for one of two reasons: Somoto Canyon and the Miraflor cloud forest.

We made the trek from Leon to Estelí to go canyoneering in Somoto Canyon. In case you’re not familiar with canyoneering, it means to hike, climb, swim and jump into canyons.

We decided to stay in Estelí for the sake of not traveling 8 hours by bus in one day from Leon to Somoto Canyon, and to see what Estelí was like.

However this means that we had to wake very early, catch the first bus out of Estelí to Somoto Canyon in order to be up in the canyon for our tour. Additionally, staying in Estelí meant we had to rush to the bus after our tour and lunch, instead of having a leisurely walk back and hanging out after lunch.

The bus to somoto canyon, very easy to spot!

The bus to somoto canyon, very easy to spot!

Somoto Canyon is 83 km (52 miles) north of Estelí. This canyon was discovered only in 2004 and established as a national monument in 2006, is a protected area of 170 hectares of land.

There are a few options offered for the Somoto Canyon trek:

  • A half day tour which gives you 10 of km (6.2 miles) to hike and a couple of cliffs to jump from over roughly 4 hours.
  • A full day tour which gives you 15 km (9.3 miles) of hiking over roughly 6 hours and roughly a dozen cliffs to jump from.
  • The last option is what they call the grandma tour of only 6 km (3.7 miles), with more boat rides and less opportunities to jump from cliffs. If you don’t want to swim or jump, this is the right option for you.

Clearly we opted for the full day adventure tour.

TIP: Some people recommend skipping the tour entirely. Even if you are experienced at canyoneering, there were so many places that we jumped from that would be very, very difficult to jump in that spot. These guides were born and raised here, they know the canyon like the back of their hand.

We leave Estelí bright and early. We catch the first bus out just after 7am. It takes around 1.5 hours to get to Estelí. From there, our tour company picks us up from the bus stop, and we head to the start of the hike which is also the owner’s home and B-and-B. Here we get shoes if we need them, instructions and information for the day, leave anything that can’t get wet that we do not want to take with us, and an option to change our minds.

We soon head off to the entrance of the canyon, where cows greet us.

We trek in between cliffs, following the weak creek as it’s dry season. Within minutes, we’ve reached the first jump. It’s only about 3 meters high (9.8 feet), a beginner jump just to get our feet wet, so to speak.

3 meters doesn’t seem high, it didn’t look intimidating from the water below, but it certainly was a bit scary from above.

We continue along the river, half walking and half swimming, past caves and bats. Past more cows.

We steadily cross more places to jump, and the cliffs are steadily increasing in height. From 3 meters, to 5 to 8. They get more and more intimidating but also more thrilling and your feet leave the comfort of earth and into the unknown. But I trust our guide. I know he’s jumped these all before. I know that I won’t hit rock below, so…. I continue to jump.

Before I know it, we’re near the end of our journey. We reach the main jumping area, with cliff options to jump off of 20 meters and higher (65.6 feet)!

After the intensely terrifying experience of jumping 8 meters (26 feet) into dark, unknown waters we approach an area of pure relaxation. We float down the river, gazing at the cliffs now soaring more than 100 feet into the air. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.

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