Somoto Canyon in Northern Nicaragua offers magnificent frames for an adventurous day out. Swim through Coco River that pierces this unique rock formation named as a national monument, between cliffs 120-150 meters high, and jump off from the cliff sides into the clear waters.
Many have been volcano boarding down the black and steep sides of Cerro Negro, but this deep canyon that was rediscovered only in 2004, near the Honduran border, still receives few tourists. Somoto Canyon is Nicaragua’s new, cool spot for the adventurous traveler and something not to miss!
Chicken Bus Ride to Somoto
We were riding in a pretty full ruteado (a.k.a chicken bus), heading towards the little mountain town of Somoto. We had boarded the bus in Estelí in the morning and had about 2,5 hours ride ahead of us.
Instead of taking a pre-arranged tour to this amazing canyon, we had opted in going there by ourselves and picking up a guide when getting to the bus station of Somoto. We’re not so fond of group tours and this was a way of avoiding them.
The chicken bus ride wasn’t exactly enjoyable, and after arriving at Somoto, I ran straight to the toilet. Meanwhile, Niina caught a guide for us, a guy called Hervín who was one of the guides of the Soriano collective. They are the heads of the Somoto Canyon Tours, committed to responsible and sustainable tourism in this unique Northern landscape.
With Hervín, we took another 20-minute ruteado ride to the Soriano family house, the headquarters from where all the tours start. Their little, wooden house is not far from the Pan American highway, and you can’t miss it, because of a large sign on the roadside.
We had agreed to go on a standard 4-hour tour, and Hervín gave us a room from the house to change our clothes. We stuffed all our valuables into dry bags which were staying in the house, and our cameras and phones into another, which was coming with us to the canyon.
Another, larger group of people was just leaving ahead of us. We were happy that it was only us and our guide going together. Hervín gave us sneakers from their vast shoe collection, so we didn’t have to wet our own. They fitted nicely and turned out to be good for hiking on the rocks. Then we equipped ourselves with life vests, and it was off to the canyon.
Hiking to the Somoto Canyon
It was only about 1 km hike down to the canyon, but we still had time to enjoy the views. The trail went through the bushy countryside and soon came to a viewing spot from where you could see all the way to Honduras.
Hervín spoke only Spanish, but luckily he spoke so clearly that even we with our broken Spanish survived some small conversations. He told that this particular area with the proximity to the Honduran border was also popular with drug smugglers. It’s why there are lots of police around, too.
One guy had tried to smuggle 85kg of marijuana from Honduras, but he only got about 300 meters away from the bus station before the police caught him. He got 12 years in jail. And if you get caught with just one smoke of marijuana, you’ll face 5-6 months in prison. Nicaragua has strict drug law which is a good thing. These exciting stories of Hervín kept us entertained, and we arrived at the canyon in no time.
Starting Our Somoto Canyon Adventure
From this point on the adventure began. It was mostly swimming forward in the bit chilly water of the Coco River which runs through the canyon. The scenery unfolding before us was spectacular; the red, rocky cliffs on both sides rose so high that you could hardly see over them. The river water was glimmering in green in the bright sunlight, shining straight into the canyon.
I could barely imagine the awe of the geologists who rediscovered this place in 2004 when they have arrived and saw all this natural beauty in front of them. Fortunately, Somoto Canyon has been declared a protected area as a national monument, as also to keep this site mostly untouched.
After covering ourselves with sunscreen, we dipped into the river and started swimming forward, between the mighty cliffs. The river was quite shallow; you could touch the bottom with your feet most of the time. But I was still happy about the life vest, I didn’t need to stress out and was able to enjoy thoroughly this experience.
It was absolutely awesome to just slowly swim and float through the canyon. Sometimes we stepped out from the water and hopped from cliff to cliff, hiking on the slippery rocks. We also stopped to take pictures always when we wanted to. Hervín dug up our cameras from the dry bag and waited patiently.
Occasionally Hervín showed us huge spiders with long legs, hanging on the wall near the waterline, and we also saw little bats flying around. The rock walls were spotted with tiny holes, inhabited by the bats.
Soon came a place where you could jump into the river from a cliff point 4 meters high. I chose to just slip my way through a narrow gap along with the river, which did not prevent me having a plunge into it, but Niina jumped down.
Jumping Off the Cliffs
The journey consisted of swimming and hiking alternately on the rocks for three kilometers through the canyon. It felt longer, though. The whole route is about 8 km altogether.
On the last third of the river was the highest jumping point, on a spot where the river is pretty wide between the rock walls. Here we caught a bigger group which had been traveling ahead of us. Here is also the spot for the daredevils to show their skills. On the rocky walls, there are several jumping spots in different heights: 8, 16, and 21 meters.
I climbed with Niina and Hervín to the first edge of 8 meters, but with no intentions to jump off. I’m terrified of jumping into water from high points. Instead, I was there to catch on film when Niina leaped off the edge and plunged into the shimmering water below.
People took turns in jumping from various heights and it looked like they had a blast. I bet they did. I just floated around, admiring the natural beauty of this place, its untouched corners, and unique features.
Jumping from that high is dangerous. You can potentially seriously injure yourself, so be careful! In this spot, you have to jump far enough, as not to hit any rocks at the bottom of the river, for example.
Our guide Hervín and his brothers who were guiding the other groups showed off their skills and jumped off many times from the cliff. Hervín was the bravest and did the highest jump from 21 meters. It seemed like he climbed upwards forever on the rocky wall until he was seen only as a small spot, and then leaped sharply off the cliff. It looked terrifying, but he pulled it off professionally. Everyone was impressed.
Unfortunately, soon after our adventure in the Somoto Canyon was over; we had swim through this amazing crack in earth’s surface. We still had to walk a little way back to the Soriano Family house. A chicken dinner was waiting for us and after our 4-hour tour with surprisingly much physical efforts included, it was more than welcome.
Our 2-hour ride back to Estelí in a packed ruteado wasn’t the best ending to the day, but it didn’t matter since we’ve had such a great adventure. We ended up having bad burgers in a casual restaurant but fortunately accompanied by cold beers.
When to Visit Somoto Canyon?
The water in the canyon rises too high during the rainy season, between November and February. During that time the canyon becomes inaccessible. Hervín also told that then he has to go to work elsewhere, like to Costa Rica or Mexico. You can visit Somoto Canyon during any other month of the year, though.
The six Soriano brothers mainly run the tours as the cooperation, with few outside guides as help. You can also book the tour from the Treehuggers in Estelí or from the Nanamcambre Tours, who as a first company, has established small rock climbing tours to the canyon.
We preferred to book straight from the Soriano brothers, ensuring that no middlemen cut a share from the profit. Our tour was cheap, only $25/person. The price may have gone up, though, since we were there in 2014. But I’d recommend booking the tour like we did. You’ll be contributing straight to the sustainable tourism they practice.
Have you visited Somoto Canyon? How did you like it? Tell us your experiences! We think that if you like adventures, you should include Somoto Canyon on your bucket list!