Esteli was my first stop in the brilliant country of Nicaragua, and it was a peaceful resting spot following my border crossing from El Salvador. I journeyed across the Salvadorian border, bused clear across the southern Peninsula of Honduras, and walked into Nica just as the border was closing for the day. Immigration held me up for a good thirty minutes while paging through my passport and asking frivolous questions. The last bus away from the border was literally coughing exhaust fumes, and I barely managed to race after it and hop on. For a moment, I was honestly contemplating where I would be sleeping if stranded at the border. Another crises avoided!
After settling in Esteli, it was time to A) find decent coffee, and B) discover something new to do with my time. Budget backpackers have a ton of frills and thrills to choose from in Central America, and Nicaragua is handling this “adventure tourism” with a well-honed thumb.. From mountain hiking and volcano “boarding” to surfing and sailing, Nicaragua delivers unique and adventurous opportunities for all walks of life. In particular, the area around Esteli is known for two noteworthy excursions: the Cañón de Somoto and the Miraflor Reserve.
Somoto Canyon -Since the town of Esteli is often passed over in favor of the more popular Nicaraguan towns (i.e Leon, Granada, and San Juan del Sur), I hadn’t heard about the Canon de Somoto prior to crossing the border. Usually, these types of sought-after escapades are talked about over evening beers or crowded dormitory bunks. However, when I learned about Nicaragua’s largest and mostly untouched canyon, I jumped at the opportunity to explore this fascinating hide-away.
I booked my tour through the non-profit Treehuggers Tourism Office. All profits are donated and the resources are used to facilitate community-driven projects in rural and urban areas in northern Nicaragua. The company’s associated accommodation, Luna International Hostel, was also a cozy spot to unpack and repack. (Hot showers too!)
The Somoto Caynon was just recently discovered in 2004 by two Czech scientists, and it is now a protected National Park. How it wasn’t discovered earlier, I don’t understand, as the canyon stretches for several kilometers and flaunts sheer 100 meter cliff walls. Wouldn’t a local farmer or drug smuggler have discovered it at some point? Something to ponder. Anyway…off to the canyon!
We began with a one hour bus ride from Esteli to the little town of Somoto. Henry Soriano at Somoto Caynon Tours met us at the bus station, and we rode with him to his ranch where we were outfitted with water shoes, life jackets, and dry bags for our cameras. Fully equipped, we set off into the wilderness towards the canyon. Actually, our hike took us only a mere 10 kilometers from the Honduras border. To that effect, we carried copies of our passports just in case border patrols became suspicious.
The narrowest part of the canyon is only accessible by swimming The rest can be reached by wading through the water, boating, floating, swimming or scaling the canyon walls. As the water levels were quite high, we mostly swam, and I spent a lot of time gazing upwards at the massive rock walls. Though tranquil in setting, the canyon was actually a hive of activity. Wild orchids dangled from the cliffs, hives of honeybees and bat colonies swooped out of recessed caves, and soaring eagles rode vacillating air currents near the canyon’s rim. And there were spiders. Large. Hairy. Spiders.
Luckily, they stayed away from me.
Eventually, we arrived at an impassable waterfall and had to scramble across sharp boulders to a fifteen foot “high jump.” There was no other way to press forward except to throw ourselves head first or feet first into a deep green pool on the other side of the tumbling waterfall. If one was feeling especially brave, there were plenty of higher jumps to try, maxing out at a eye-bulging sixty feet. I was quite happy with the fifteen footer. Not only does this canyon provide excellent opportunities for hiking, swimming, and cliff jumping, but the cliff walls are also ideal for the adventurous rock climber.
We made our way through a few more rock scrambles and long, peaceful floats to the canyon exit. Our journey out of the canyon took us through a few fincas where horses grazed and cows napped. A local farmer passed us on his stubborn donkey, and he shouted a friendly hello. Tourism seems to not have ruined this idyllic spot….yet.
It won’t be long before Somoto Canyon becomes a highlight on every backpacker’s Nicaragua itinerary, but I hope it is a long way off. I pleased that I was able to enjoy the canyon without heaps of other tourists annoying me. Our tiny group of three was just perfect.
Miraflor Natural Reserve – One of the best introductions into Nicaraguan culture is to discover the spectacular Miraflor Natural Reserve, a gorgeous, unique reserve located about thirty kilometers away from the city of Estelí. Visitors have the opportunity to hike, bike, horseback ride, or just sit and talk with a local family. There are a great number of places to visit, such as forests, coffee plantations, miradors, and waterfalls, or visitors can stay with “host families” in order to fully appreciate the culture. I only went up to the Miraflor for a day of hiking, and I arranged a pseudo-homestay to provide breakfast and lunch.
The length of the Miraflor’s hiking tours depends on the visitor, of course. Guides take visitors on day hikes that last anywhere from one hour to eight hours. The outings can be built to suit special interests such as seeking out particular flowers, birds, or medicinal plants.
Alternatively, guides can lead visitors across the Miraflor’s various “climate zones” into one of the nine neighboring communities. There are three different climates in the Miraflor: dry at the lower area, intermediate and humid in the middle, and a predominantly chilly, cloud forest at the top. This diverse reserve offers extremely fertile soil for farming, and nearly 100% of the Miraflor’s inhabitants make their living from agriculture.
Our hiking group explored the lower forest area and hiked briefly into the intermediate reserve. The cloud forest was much too rainy and cold to venture into, and I was just as happy to stay dry for the afternoon. During our six hour hike to miradors, waterfalls, fincas, and verdant forests, we crossed many private farms and had to pay several small fees to walk on their land. The fees were usually just $1 or $2, and we often had the opportunity to stop and visit with the families and play with the children.
Our day at the Miraflor was looong as we started from Esteli at 5:30 a.m. However, once our bus arrived at the reserve, we were greeted warmly by our host-family-for-a-day. Breakfast was delicious and filling (lunch was too), and our guide couldn’t have been kinder. For only $18, including the cost of our guide and two meals, we saw a portion of the Nicaraguan countryside that is not often explored. I appreciate these opportunities to see the “other side of Nicaragua.” Now, it’s back to the well-trodden path of big cities and touristy destinations: Leon and Granada!