The Somoto Canyon is one of oldest rock formations in Central America and has become one of the main attractions of Northern Nicaragua. The canyon is located fifteen minutes west of the city of Somoto and is also called "the structure" or “Namancambre” by locals.
The canyon walls run for five miles where the waters from the Comali River (from Honduras) and Tapacali River join to form the extensive Coco River. The cliffs have a height between 120 and 150 meters. In the narrowest area, they are situated just five meters away from each other. Between the small holes of the rock you can spot orchids, bromeliads and cactus.
The canyon was “discovered” by geologists in 2004 and since then tourism has ramped up in this tiny almost-border town and the Nicaraguan Government has wisely made it a Protected Area.
The Somoto Canyon tour
Somoto Canyon Tours is the only independent guiding group operating sustainable tourism out of the village of Sonis in the neighbourhood of the canyon. Somoto Canyon Tours started in 2008 to develop an enterprise to assist those who live within a few kilometres of the new attraction.
You can choose a trip of a variety of lengths depending on how much of the canyon you wish to see and how adventurous you’re feeling. I did the circular route of 6 hours covering 15 kilometres. It includes hiking, sightseeing, rock scrambling, wading, floating, swimming, boating, and jumps in both Rio Tapacali and Rio Camali.
You can also swim and do a small jump in the natural swimming pool below the confluence of the Tapacali and Comali rivers that form the headwaters of the Rio Coco, the longest river in Central America. I also got to check out the fruit bat caves that are only accessible on this trip which was a special treat.
Keep in mind that the water can get quite cold especially towards the end of the tour as the canyon narrows and less sun gets in. You should be able to warm up on the boat ride and walk back. I am a giant baby when it comes to the cold and I swore I would get hyperthermia in the last 10 minutes while floating downstream but I managed to survive until I got back into the sun and defrosted in our short hike back to the cabins.
I was asked if I was happy to have a new guide lead the small group of my two friends and myself. He didn’t speak much English but I speak Spanish and my friends were happy to be translated to. As with all the guides through Somoto Canyon Tours, he was a local guide and quite young, early twenties maybe. Even though he was young, he was very serious about making sure that everything went well and that we had fun on our trip. Too serious sometimes but we had a lots of fun trying to get him out of his shell!
The highlight of the trip for me was the opportunity to jump from heights up to 20 metres. This is one for the very brave or experienced. I only attempted the 15 metre jump and I was terrified but was super proud of myself when I landed with minimal ouchies. Ladies, cross your arms over your boobs when attempting the higher jumps, just saying. At that height anything sticking out will get a big smack when you hit the water. Listen to the guide’s instructions and make sure to jump as straight as possible.
The best part about the guided tour is that the guide chooses jumps that get progressively higher. You start with a jump at the beginning of the tour of 2 metres. By the time you get to the end of the tour you have the choice to attempt the big 20 metre jump or a 15 metre jump. There's also a 5 metre option for those who haven’t worked up the courage yet. My biggest piece of advice for anything like this is to just decide to do it and jump in straight away. Don’t let your brain catch up to your feet!
What to bring
You should only need a bottle of water, your camera and sun-cream. You’ll be in and out of the water so make sure to keep applying. Your guide will carry a waterproof bag in which you can place your items and where he’ll store snacks and lunch. You will be fully submerged in the water at some points so unless it’s in the bag it will get wet! Somoto Canyon Tours also provide river shoes which you can use if you do not wish to get your own wet.
Everyone gets a life jacket which is really important for safety reasons but also great to lay back and enjoy whit water floating when in the deeper downstream regions.
If you opt to stay the night you will be welcomed into Henry’s family homestead. There’s a farmyard full of animals to keep you company (and wake you up in the morning!) and you’re welcome to take part in the daily activities of the busy homestead.
There are cabins to sleep in that include private rooms and a dormitory with an adjacent toilet block. The accommodation is basic and there is only cold water in the showers but it is super clean and adequate for a night.
The family also offer a selection of traditional meals that include vegetarian options and you can preorder breakfast if you’re catching an early bus in the morning. I definitely recommend both the tour and staying a night here.
Getting there and away
It’s fairly easy to get to Somoto by public transportation as long as you keep in mind that this IS the edge of Nicaragua. You won’t find many tourists here and it is one of the more remote tourist destinations. Along the way, I highly suggest visiting Esteli for a night so you can stop in to one of the cigar factories. You can set off to Somoto early in the morning, do a canyon tour and be on your way by early afternoon.
If you’re coming from Managua, you can take a bus to Somoto from the Mayoreo Market. These buses aren’t that frequent so I suggest catching any bus going to Esteli where buses leave hourly to Somoto.
You will get picked up from the bus station if you’re taking a tour with one of the tour companies but if you’re planning to go solo then you can take a chicken bus to El Espino (border with Honduras) and ask to be dropped off at the entrance to the community of Sonis. From there you will have an 8 kilometre walk to the trail head so be prepared!
If you’re the adventurous sort you can use this opportunity to continue on to the border of Honduras where you can head north to the centre of Honduras and possibly Lago de Yojoa or head east to the border of El Salvador. I did the former and it was a pretty easy transition. Connections were frequent and with a basic level of Spanish you should be able to find your way to any of the bigger cities.
You can also do the reverse by catching a border bound bus from Choluteca in Honduras.
Somoto is a real treat in Nicaragua. By visiting and participating in a tour you are directly helping the local community and you also get to experience a different side of Nicaragua. I had a great time getting to know our very serious guide and the people in the small village community of Sonis. If you’re in Nicaragua and have a two days free then Somoto is a worthwhile stop and also a great border crossing option if you’re heading to El Salvador or Honduras.