Somoto is a quiet town of 20,000 in the Northern Highlands of Nicaragua, famous for the dramatic Somoto Canyon, one of the countries best natural features. Somoto provides travelers with an authentic look at Northern Nicaragua, a place international tourists have only started to visit in the last decade. Get to know the welcoming and inquisitive culture of the Somoteños (people from Somoto), while catching a rare glimpse of one of the few international volunteers working in the town. Also known as "Pueblo de la Amistad" (Town of Friendship), and "Pueblo de los Burros" (Town of the Donkeys).
From Managua, head to Mercado Mayoreo (the main bus station in the city). Direct buses to Somoto leave a few times a day and cost around $4 and take around 4 hours. If the times aren't convenient, take any Esteli-bound bus. Once in Esteli, go to Cotran Norte or any bus stop (going north) along the main highway to take any bus to Somoto. These leave hourly. Once in Somoto's bus station, go to the centre. Cross the highway and walk four blocks south. The central park will be one block to the right, next to the church. At night, you may want to take a taxi (20c).
From Choluteca (Honduras), take any bus to San Marco de Colon, take any frontera-bound bus, then transfer to any Somoto bus once you cross the border.
Somoto is a small city (1.5km x 1.5km), thus most destinations can be reached on foot. A taxi (20c or $1 per person) can be used for outlying destinations that aren't accessible by bus (they charge per person).
Use the various bus routes through Somoto to get to other towns and cities in the area (see photo of bus schedule). Routes include Managua, Esteli, Ocotal, the communities of San Lucas (Milquilce, Malpaso, Oruse, Matasano etc), San Jose de Cusmapa and Icalupe, and the border with Honduras (El Espino) which you can also take to the entrance of the Somoto Canyon.
There are two lookouts around town. The Mirador on a hill on the northeast side of town offers a great panorama of the mountains that rise 300m above the town. The cost is 10c per person, in addition to 20c per person cab fare. Use caution when visiting either Mirador as neither is located in a great area. Parque Central is a beautiful treed plaza with open WIFI (good quality too!) and some small restaurants.
Opened in 2006 after being discovered (in a touristic sense) by two Czech geologists, the canyon is the key attraction for the many adventurous tourists that stop in the area.
The canyon is 100m deep, with sheer 60m cliffs falling straight to the water. At some points, it is only a few meters wide. The canyon is dramatic and beautiful with rock formations and wildlife.
The canyon can be explored with a guide or alone. Typically in the rainy season a guide is recommended at the river can run very fast and high with sudden flash flood surges. In the dry season guides are useful if accidents occur as the government approved guides have evacuation plans. In either case, make sure to wear trainers, as the stones on the bottom of the river can hurt your feet. Also, a helmet is recommended (not currently provided by tour companies) as the canyon is narrow with probable rock fall. Be aware that at the height of the rainy season (September/October), the trip may be impossible due to the current. A guided tour will include lifejackets and dry sack for your belongings (both can also be rented for the day if you prefer to go without a guide). Taking a guide also helps support the local community with tours typically costing 15 to 25 dollars for a 4 hour tour. There are always guides waiting at the entrance of the canyon, along with those present at the bus station in town as well. Most of the government licensed guides work for one of the local tour companies that benefit the communities surrounding the canyon.
Exploring the Canyon Without a Guide
Doing the canyon without a guide is quite easy. Renting a life jacket from one of the local tour agencies ($2 each) is recommended even for strong swimmers in order to simply float down the current and fully enjoy the canyon views. Take a bus (El Espino) towards the border and ask to get let off at 'La Playa'. About 200m farther down the highway you will see a bridge. From here you can head north along the river, follow the current and views of the canyon in order to hike and swim through the entire Somoto Canyon (this is what guides will call the '6 hour tour'. The first half will consist of swimming but mostly walking along the river rocks, while the second half is almost all swimming (you cannot avoid swimming in this section). You will pass a boatman who offers the option to take a ride in his rowboat for a section of the way. This is then followed by a hike towards a boat port. Walk up the port/driveway to the 'entrance' of the canyon. Here you can pay the fee.
Typically, guidebooks describe the process for getting to the bottom of the canyon (taking this route will mean you will be swimming against the current constantly). Taking the bus to the border (El Espino) from Somoto, tell the driver you want to go to the Canyon and keep a lookout for a sign. You will be dropped off at the top of a road. After a short walk down a dirt road, you will come to a gatehouse where you will be asked to pay a fee. Continue down the road for about 10 minutes until you reach the river. Cross the river and continue down the road. Follow the road upriver until you reach a place with some boats parked. This is the bottom of the canyon.
Once you reach the boats, look for someone to pay to take you upriver a ways. You will be taken as far as the boat goes, at which point you will come to a place with some inner tubes. You can swim as far upstream as possible from this point, exploring the bottom portion of the canyon. Be careful, especially if you don't have any lifejackets. Certain portions of the canyon are deep, and distances can be far for people not used to swimming. Be aware that you will be swimming most of the way upstream; walking on the side of the river is rarely an option. As you get further upstream in the canyon, the obstacles you have to climb will get more and more difficult. After you've had your fill, turn around and go back to the bottom. Without a guide this is only recommended for the very fit.
For those who aren't strong swimmers, its best to just hang out in the river at the start/end of the canyon or simply make sure that you rent a life jacket! There are plenty of calm spots to enjoy the water and cliffs for relaxing/sunbathing.
Be responsible for your belongings (once again a guided tour will generally provide a dry bag).
Exploring the Canyon With a Guide
Hiring a guide will give you a somewhat different experience of the canyon. Although certain guides could simply accompany you on a trip similar to the one described above, others will take you on a more thorough trip. This trip involves using another entrance to the park further upstream, then going downstream through the entire length of the canyon.
It is not advisable to attempt this trip alone. It is difficult to find the top of the river where the trip starts, and the guide will use a large dry bag to keep your possessions from getting wet. Local tour companies guard your belongings safely at their headquarters while you do the tour.
Before buying any guide's services, make sure of all of the following:
(1) Your trip will be through the entire canyon instead of starting at the bottom (2) Life jackets are included (3) An inner tube or drysack will be provided to keep your possessions dry
Tours typically cost $10 to $20 US for a 2 hour tour, $15 to $25 for a 4 hour, and $20 to $30 each for a 6 hour tour through the canyon. These prices include entrance, guide, drysack, and life jacket. Deals can and should be made for large groups. Some local tour companies at the upper end of the price ranges provide lunch, river shoes (so your own do not get wet on the tour), an in tour snack on the 6 hour version and transportation from the bus station in Somoto 13km to the trailhead. Remember you get what you pay for!
Transportation To and From the Canyon
The canyon can be reached by taxi or by chicken bus. The chicken bus costs 10c ($.30) each way, and a colectivo taxi is perhaps 2-3 times as much. Normally, transportation is not included with the fee for a guide; in fact, you need to pay for your guide's transportation as well.
Here in Somoto we have two professional sports team that play in the national league of Nicaragua. Real Madriz is the professional football team (50 Cordoba for a ticket), while Los Canoneros de Madriz are the professional baseball team. Games are usually played on the weekend and both the baseball and football stadium/field are located in the same area in the East of Somoto.
Sport Center La Rocka consists of two artificial (turf) fields for playing 5 on 5 football. You can rent them any day of the week (500 Cordoba per hour in total) with a max of 15 people per field. Call +505 8368 8429 or message Sport Center La Rocka in Facebook to reserve a time.
The Zoo in Somoto is small and has mainly North American animals like squirrels, foxes, and raccoons. It is a nice wander and there is a great lookout spot above it, just ask for the 'Mirador'. There is no entrance fee, but it is customary to leave a small donation to help feed the animals, around C$20 per person.
There is a very nice pool right next to the Zoo with a very friendly pool keeper and a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. It is typically empty as most Nicaraguans don't like to sunbathe. Lounging by the pool is free, but it will cost C$50 if you want to swim.
Instituto de Promocion Humana (INPRHU) is one of the oldest NGOs in Nicaragua. The Somoto office works in various communities throughout the department of Madriz to support a diversity of development projects in the education and training of community members in agriculture, tourism, construction and teaching. Send an email to them regarding short-term volunteer opportunities (any speaker of english can usually be used to lead or support english classes in the rural communities) or use the contact at the bottom of the page for inquiries.
The Mercado Municipal de Somoto is the main shopping center. It is a very clean market, but is geared more towards locals than tourists. The Hotel Panamericano has tourist items for sale. Pali is the only actual grocery store in town. They sell the basics, so it's best to buy specialty items (eg. peanut butter) in the larger cities before arriving.
There are many comedors close to the main plaza such as Comedor la Soya located on the south-west corner of the central park or Comedor la Fogata, located 2 blocks south of the central plaza. Comedor Familiar, a great comedor serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, as well as drinks at night, is located just south of the Hotel Colonial, a half block off of the main street on the left. Full meals cost between $1 - $4 (30-120 Cordoba). Anything costing more than $5 would be considered quite expensive for Somoto.
For vegetarians! Options can be hard to come by in Somoto, however almost every restaurant should be able to make their typical breakfast consisting of beans, rice, plantain, and perhaps avocado and egg as well!
There are two expensive restaurants close by the south- east corner of the market. Comida Tipica sells upscale and quite good versions of Nicaraguan food and a fancier restaurant right around the corner of hotel colonial sells the only real steak in town. There are a few pizza carts next to the Parque Central.
Cafecito sells light snacks, coffee, fresh juices and smoothies using purified water. They can be found across from the town hall, 2 blocks south of the south-west corner of the market.
Not much of a nightlife in this small town. The town has two bars, Bucanas, next to the Hotel Portal del Angel and an out-of-place bar/disco Danceoff. Thursdays you'll find Karaoke in Bucanas and Saturday there may be some dancing in both.
Any other day of the week it is pretty much dead. The backroom of Comedor Familiar is sure to have some locals sharing 1L beers (40c or $2).
There are four main hotels in town, plenty of hospedajes, and couchsurfing.
The Hotel Panamericano is located on the north side of the Parque Central, with a pretty garden, restuarant, and store. For $8-10 per person payable on check-in, you get a room with fan, private bathroom, TV, and refrigerator. Unfortunately, some rooms are dungeonlike and lack furniture, and bathrooms can be bleak. Ask the staff to show you several rooms. In addition, the staff might seem a bit relentless trying to get you to do a tour or eat in the restaurant. Internet is shut off between 9.30pm and 6.30am no matter how much you plead with staff.
The other option is the Hotel Colonial, a more upscale hotel. This hotel costs $25 per room for two people, and includes a good tipico breakfast. Although the amenities are almost exactly the same as the Panamericano (except for lacking the refrigerator), the rooms are more pleasant and comfortable, with nice furniture and set around a pretty courtyard. The foyer and lounge have a formality that would befit a nice property in Granada or Leon. There has been incidences of clothes and personal items going missing from rooms. Located just south of the central park on the main road.
Portal del Angel, located 4 blocks south of the bus terminal and 5 blocks from the main square, has 12 comfortable rooms accommodating between two and up to five people per room. They serve a typical breakfast and are located next to one of the only bars in town. The staff are professional and informative and the premises are clean and very safe.
Hotel Rosario. Popular mid-town hotel.
Across the street Hotel Oriental offers very basic rooms with bathroom starting at $10.
Namancambre hostel. Useful for backpackers. Cost for $7 per night in dorm room. Free WIFI and included kitchen, guided tours around the canyon, adventure tourism as well few volunteer sites. Phone: (00505) 27220889.Página web de Namancambretours Located 1/2 block south from the church next to "Hotel Colonial".
Casa Huesped Somoto Canyon Tours also known as Casa Soriano or Casa Huesped Soriano has dorm and private double cabins available immediately off the Panamericana Highway at the village of Sonis at the entrance to the canyon, particularly convenient if you want to get an early start to a tour. $8 dorm style $20 private room. Clean and safe with the largest independent sustainable group of government certified guides. Excellent meals are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner on the terraces of the family houses on the homestead. Transportation is available daily in front of the house for direct express buses to San Salvador and Guatemala City (reservation required through Somoto Canyon Tours concierge service) as well as via local buses into Honduras. Phone and WhatsApp: +505 8610 7642 (Español), +505 5791 9556 (English) Webpage of Somoto Canyon Tours Located at Km 229.5 Carretera Panamericana, Comunidad de Sonis, Municipalidad de Somoto.
Couchsurfing: there are a few hosts in the area (as of 2017). A nice way to learn more about Somoto from those living here.
Despite being located within 15 km of Honduras, Somoto is quite safe with very few signs of the gang issues in other parts of Central America. There is a community policing initiative in Somoto which means each neighbourhood pays attention to who's hanging around. The streets are very quiet after 8pm (even on a weekend) with very little going on. That being said, stick to the centro if walking at night and watch for traffic if walking along the unlit highway (utilize continued caution as you would in any other Latin American town). Stress harassment/cat-calling is very common so try to walk in groups. Also, pay close attention to the roads as people often drive drunk.
See "Get Around" section. Head to the bus station and grab a bus to Managua, Esteli, or the Honduran border (El Espino). For trips to Managua, it is recommended that you purchase a ticket a day beforehand to ensure that you have your own assigned seat and thus don't have to stand for 4 hours.