During my stay in Leon, Nicaragua I met another traveler who was also planning to head to the Corn Islands on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast soon and we decided to travel together for a while. Before heading to the islands she convinced me that I needed to see the northern part of the country and I’m very glad I did.
Situated about an hour north of Leon on the Pan American highway, Estelli is a big local town not really frequented by tourists. Another traveler named it the ‘Las Vegas of Nicaragua’ for all of the casinos and night clubs you can find there. With its prime location on the Pan American highway, it sees a lot of the traffic in Nicaragua and is local hub for merchants. I was even able to replace my probably stolen sunglasses (fake pair of Raybans) for a new fake (or black market) pair of Oakley’s.
We only stayed a couple of nights in Estelli and mostly spent our time outside of the city. Our first day trip was to Somoto Canyon, about 2 hours north of Estelli and only miles from the Honduran border.
Our second day trip was to the village of La Garancha deep in the Tisey Reserve just miles outside of Estelli. In this small village you can see how the people live off the land in a sustainable way. We also got to meet local artisans who excel at stone and wood carvings as well as other local crafts.
I wasn’t originally planning to venture into this part of Nicaragua, but I certainly enjoyed the trip. The scenery is gorgeous, the people are very friendly, and getting off the more mainstream traveler/ backpacker path through the country was nice as well.
Flips On the Trip
Hiking and Floating through Somoto Canyon was amazing.
Somoto is a small town on the border with Honduras and its main draw is a canyon carved into the landscape by the river below. On a low day (like when I was there) it’s a great hike and float down the river. On a high water day I wouldn’t want to be anywhere close as I’m sure it would wash away even the most experienced rafters.
I went with a small group; two German girls, my travel mate Maricka, and our guide. We started with a mile or two hike from the guide’s house along a road and then through local farm land. We passed cows, donkey’s and stopped at a makeshift restaurant (check out the kitchen below).
I didn’t exactly do my research before we arrived and was surprised that I wouldn’t be plopping into an inner tube to float down the river. Instead we did a combination of hiking across slippery boulders/rocks, wading through water, and swimming from boulder to boulder. We also found a number of spots to jump off of the rocks into the water below. My highest jump was somewhere around 20 feet but let me tell ya it felt like a lot higher from the top!
The views were spectacular and I am utterly convinced that the sky in Nicaragua is just plain prettier than anywhere else I’ve been. It must be the elevation and lack of pollution but whatever it is it’s the most beautiful color of blue I’ve seen.
Near the end of the float we were picked up by a boat and taken to the bend where we finished our hike back to our guide’s house.
Home cooked chicken dinner that could even trump my Granny’s cooking
Sorry Granny, but I think I’ve found a better cook. After our long morning in the canyon, we reached our guide’s house and his wife had prepared the best chicken dinner I’ve ever had. Mind you I’m not big on chicken but this stuff was excellent. Whatever the spices were had my mouth watering!
Startled awake by my first actual chicken on a Chicken Bus
On the way to Somoto we were on one of the many chicken buses of my journey. This one was a bit different though. I was sitting near the front, crunched against the window with my bag trying to nap the ride away when I was jolted awake by a loud squawk. Yes, it was a chicken and a chicken that wasn’t exactly happy about his or her ride on the bus. The owner fought with the bird as he boarded and struggled to get his bags on as well. Another passenger took control of the chicken long enough for the man to board the bus and hoist his bags inside. To everyone else it was a common occurrence I’m sure, but it was a highlight for me as I’d taken a lot of chicken buses but this was the first time I’d been greeted by a chicken.
Beautiful views from the Tisey Reserve
As I mentioned earlier the Tisey Reserve is just a short drive outside of Estelli though it does take a hefty truck to navigate the rocky roads. This is one of a few reserves in the area, the most visited being Mira Flora. My travel mate Maricka, had a friend that had just recently visited the area and was kind enough to share detailed notes on her favorite parts. This helped us to pick the Tisey Reserve over the others.
It sits well into the mountains and provides fantastic views of Estelli below as well as the volcanoes circling the area. In addition, we had a few opportunities to interact with locals, which I almost always enjoy.
Toured a mountain top village – La Garancha
Deep into the reserve resting on a well treed section of the mountain sits the La Garancha village. It’s named for the delectable cheese that they make there that is a staple of the breakfast meal in the area.
La Garancha is a self sustaining village with farming, herb, gardens, goats, and more. We had a guided tour of the village and got to see everything from how they make their potting soil (It was manure mixed into dirt with tons of worms weaving it in…..gross!)
Met an eccentric sculptor in his mountain side gallery of sorts
Alberto Guiterrez is unique man and the slice of land he calls home certainly matches his eccentricity. Alberto with his kind smile (showing only 2 teeth) will gladly give anyone who finds their way to his home a tour of his life’s work, a sculpture garden unlike any other.
Set a mile or so from the road and reached by crossing farmland and a boulder covered road, Alberto’s home is certainly off the beaten path. He has spent years creating carvings into the side of the mountain his home rests on. The work is intricate and the views are magnificent.
Alberto said that years ago he was having trouble sleeping (and still does) and so with his extra time he began the project that now covers a large portion of the mountain side and is continually growing.
Flops on the Trip
My Sanuks let me down
When I was in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico I was excited to come across a store that sold Sanuk flip flops. Since I have a bit of a bum knee I can really only wear flip flops with quite a bit of padding and Sanuks make a style that is made from real yoga mats. So when I stumbled across this store I decided I better stock up….or really just add another pair to my collection. To my disappointment, they only lasted two months. I was walking down the street in Estelli and nailed a tile on the sidewalk that jutted up a couple of inches more than the rest of the walkway. I banged my toe pretty good and the strap on my Sanuks busted. Granted they’d had a work out in those two months, but I was still under impressed that one kick of the foot took them out.
I’m taking recommendations for a replacement pair!
Bumps and bruises
As a previous member of cubicle nation it was pretty rare for me to have bumps and bruises before I hit the road. Now days I almost feel strange if I don’t have some bruises, a few cuts, and certainly a handful (or more) mosquito bites for good measure. Well, Somoto Canyon certainly added to my collection. Not more than 20 paces into the river I was swimming across to the other side and apparently had my legs bent a little too much. I cracked my bad knee dead center onto a large rock hidden in the murky water. Weeks had to pass before that bruise healed and it certainly made the next few days a bit uncomfortable trying to hike up and down mountains.