Less famous and less crowded that its' next door neighbor, Nicaragua offers many thrilling off the beaten path adventures, like canyoneering in Somoto Canyon.
Traipsing through rural northern Nicaragua, I was mindfully stepping on the right rocks - meaning a combination of large enough for my foot, relatively flat surface head and dry as to not be slippery, to avoid injury.
My small group of 6 people plus our local guide made our way between the canyon walls swimming, jumping off cliffs and discovering wildlife like bats and hawks in Somoto Canyon.
Near the Honduran border and only recently discovered, Somoto Canyon receives very little tourists making this an electrifying off the beaten path experience in Nicaragua.
Getting to Estelí and Somoto Canyon
To get to Somoto Canyon, chances are you'll go from the city of Leon to Estelí, change buses in Estelí and then onto Somoto Canyon from there. It's roughly a 5-hour (public) bus ride from Leon to Estelí, however at noon each day they have an express bus with infrequent stops for a just under 3-hour ride! It's worth mentioning that a crowded, public bus at the peak heat of the day in Nicaragua are hot and can be unpleasant, so if you prefer there's also options for shuttles, minibuses or private drivers that take only 2-2.5 hours and are more expensive.
With a population of 122,000 Estelí is the 8th largest city in the country and has all the makings of a typical Latin American town; a few parks, a soccer team, a few grocery stores, plazas (or squares) for people to gather, markets, a cathedral, hotels, school, bars, etc.
Although it is the eighth 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.
You have the option to stay in Estelí or in Somoto Canyon. Most accommodation types in Somoto Canyon are a homestay, giving you a very authentic taste of life in Nicaragua.
We decided to stay in Estelí for the sake of not traveling a full day by bus 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.
Exploring Somoto Canyon
Somoto Canyon is one of the oldest rock formations in Central America, but this canyon was (re)discovered only in 2004!
Almost immediately after it's discovery, Somoto canyon was established as a national monument in 2006, is a protected area of 170 hectares of land.
The vertical walls of Somoto Canyon, reaching up to 500 feet (150 meters) extend for 5 miles! And in it's narrowest corners, the canyon walls are only 15 feet (5 meters) away from each other.
The chilly waters of the Coco River running through Somoto Canyon flows from southern Honduras eastward through Nicaragua and out to the Atlantic ocean.
There are a few options offered for trekking through Somoto Canyon:
- 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.
- Arriving in Somoto Canyon and finding a local guide to create your own journey.
Clearly we opted for the full day adventure tour.
TRAVELER'S 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 local guides were born and raised here, they know the canyon like the back of their hand so they can provide you with an incredible experience!
We left 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 just minutes, we’ve reached the first jump.
This first spot to cliff jump is only about 3 meters high (9.8 feet), a beginner jump just to get our feet wet, so to speak. The heights to jump from go up from there! Eventually getting to 20+ meters if you dare!
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.
One after the other, we reached more places to jump into the river, the cliffs are steadily increasing in height from 3 meters, to 5 to 8 and beyond. 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.
Nicaragua is an untouched travel destination perfect for thrill seekers, beach lovers and foodies alike.
Are you curious about experiencing Nicaragua for yourself? Contact us to help you plan your next great adventure to Nicaragua!