Somoto, Esteli, and Miraflor, Nicaragua – I hadn’t really thought much about Nicaragua before we traveled to Central America. In fact, when looking at my 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book before we left on our trip, I forgot to write down anything about Nicaragua. But, when I finally looked through the Lonely Planet, I got excited for all the cool things that there were to do there. There were highland towns, Caribbean islands, colonial cities, volcanoes, lake islands and jungle rivers. Cool!
We started our journey into Nicaragua in a small town called Somoto. The town wasn’t much, but there was a canyon nearby which was supposed to be really pretty. The hotel owner told us that we could eat breakfast at the hotel at seven the next morning and the guy who does tours would come by and arrange our canyon tour while we ate.
At seven the next morning, right on time, we were in the restaurant, but none of the hotel staff was anywhere to be found. Fortunately, the canyon guy did show up. After we decided on the trip we wanted to do, he said that we could eat breakfast at his house. He sent us in a taxi with our guide, Luis, to his house near the entrance to the canyon. After we ate and got fitted for water shoes headed into the canyon.
It was a really cool trip. We did a short hike to get a nice view of the small canyon from above and then hiked down into the canyon. The rest of the hike was a combination of walking and swimming in the river at the bottom of the canyon. The water was a prefect temperature and the canyon was beautiful. It reminded me of Yosemite. There were a few points where we could jump off the rocks into the water. We watched some Swedish guys with another guide jump from these really high rocks, but our guide told us that he doesn’t let his people jump from them because they are too dangerous. He told us that a German girl broke a bunch of bones doing it a year ago.
After a couple hours in the canyon we got in a boat and traveled the rest of the way down the river and then walked back to the house. While we were eating lunch we ran into a girl that we met on the hike we did from Xela to Lake Atitlan in Guatemala (small world). She and some friends were thinking about doing the canyon, but they didn’t want to pay $15 each for the guide. Granted that price is steep for the average backpacker, but we really urged them to spend the money on the guide – informing them that it was worth it because they might not be able to reach parts of the canyon that we did without one, but they went on without one anyway. When we met them again later in Esteli we leaned that they didn’t make it to the best part of the canyon, but we didn’t have the heart to tell them.
We’d brought our bags with us to the canyon and after our lunch we headed straight for Esteli since the town of Somoto had nothing more to offer. Esteli was a cool town. There are a lot of schools there, so it has a younger feel. We liked it right away. We spent our first day checking out the town and setting up a trip to the Miraflor area for the next couple of days.
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To get up to the village of Cebollal in Miraflor we had to take a 5am bus – and we were told by the tour company that we booked our guides and home stay through, that our guide would meet us on the bus. We got a little nervous waiting for the bus when we didn’t see our guide, or anyone that even looked like they might be a guide. We managed to get on the right bus, but we weren’t sure when to get off or what to do when we arrived in Cebollal. With the help of the bus driver we got off in the right spot and when we did a girl also got off the bus and came up to us and told us that she was our guide.
We were really not expecting a girl as our guide (we’d never had a female guide before on any of our trips), which is why we didn’t pick her out when looking around at the bus station, but we were also really confused as to why she waited until these two confused tourists got off the bus before she introduced herself. We clearly could have used the extra help back at the bus station in Esteli. Oh well, she turned out to be pretty nice – she’s a young college student studding English. She’s originally from Cebollal but goes to school in Esteli and works as a guide part time.
We had our breakfast at our “homestay”, which was kind of in-between a hotel and homestay. We stayed in a little cabin with no electricity or running water, and the family (with some extra help – including our guide’s sister) prepared our meals, and stayed in the main house. It was a cute, quiet place complete with pigs, horses, chickens and dogs running around.
We explored the area around the posada that morning. Hiking through the dry forest we spotted the allusive Barro Ranchero (also known as a bell bird). Apparently, we were very lucky to see this bird. While it can be found in several places throughout Central America they are rare and usually pretty hard to spot. We also visited a handicraft shop – which our guide was much more interested in than we were, and orchid forest (with no blooming orchids because of the lack of rain this year) and a small waterfall. It was a pretty full morning and we were hungry and tired and not looking forward to the hike back up to the posada from the waterfall. Thankfully, there was another group there – turns out the guide with them would be our guide the next day – and Stuart convinced them to give us a ride back in their truck.
We returned to the posada and had our lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon making use of their hammocks and reading. It was nice to have nothing to do and just relax. After dinner with no electricity or anything to do we ended up going to bed at 8 o’clock.
The next morning we met up with our other guide after breakfast and took packed lunches that our hosts made and headed out on a longer hike. Today our guide didn’t speak any English but we managed to understand most of what he was saying. As we hiked through dense forest, I don’t even think we were on a trail and Stuart and the guide were really into looking for birds. I get kind of bored bird watching so I found myself imagining that I was in the Hunger Games – trying to walk quietly through the forest, evading my opponents. I would so be the first person killed. We did see some Emerald Toucans and a few other cool birds and toward the end a big troop of howlers monkeys that our guide managed to get all riled up by grunting at them. No Mockingjays though.
Back at the posada in the late afternoon we sat around chatting with two Canadian paramedics that had come to Nicaragua to do some training with local paramedics and then tour around Nicaragua for a couple weeks. They were fun to talk to – and we were glad we had some people to pass the evening with, though we still found ourselves heading to bed pretty early, which was just as well since we wanted to catch the early bus back to Esteli.
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Back in Esteli I started to feel pretty sick again and I had a fever and some other issues. I finally decided to go see another doctor. The hotel staff pointed us to a clinic around the corner where I was able to see a doctor right away. She didn’t speak any English, but I used what Spanish I could muster up to try and explain what was going on and I did pretty well – though I didn’t really understand everything she said. It was late in the day so she prescribed me some Tylenol for the fever and ordered some labs tests for the next morning. I met with her in the morning to review my lab results and as I suspected, I still had the infection and she prescribed a different antibiotic. It’s funny – I felt this doctor listened to me more than any of the other three I had already seen and we didn’t even speak the same language.
We spent an extra day in Esteli so I could recover and we tried to visit this museum that was closed the first two times we tried to visit and closed again the third time we tried. So we mostly just hung out in the town square watching kids drive around the fountain in those little electric toy cars that guys rent out.
Next we headed to another highland college town, Maltagalpa. From the bus station we had a weird taxi ride to our hotel. Lots of taxis in Central America will pick up several people along a route – we were used to that, but this driver picked up and dropped off several people on the way to our hotel and we could tell that he was going quite a bit out of the way so it was taking a long time. Then a few blocks before the hotel he wanted to be paid, but we told him we’d pay when we arrived at the hotel which is standard practice. He got all huffy and when he dropped us all (and after we paid) he peeled away like he was in some huge rush. A burst of aggressiveness we were not used to seeing in Central America.
I was looking forward to going to the nearby chocolate factory, but it turned out that it would be closed the entire time we were in Maltagalpa, which was a big bummer. The town was pretty hyped up in the Lonely Planet and by fellow travelers, and it was okay, but I didn’t think it was that amazing. There was, of course, a town square and a church (though there was a funeral going on when we tried to visit). We did do a really nice hike that had a great view of the town. It was good for a short visit, but I think I prefer Esteli overall to Maltagalpa.