A deep chasm cuts through millennia-old rock. Vertical walls of 150m rise up from a spectacular gorge of 12km in length. Below, the emerald waters of the Rio Coco twist and turn through its narrow passageways. This is the breathtaking Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua.
In 2006, Somoto Canyon, also known as Canyon de Somoto, was awarded National Monument status. And rightly so. In a country better known for its gargantuan volcanoes, Somoto’s 420 acres is a vast haven. The serene landscape summons pleasant thoughts of lazy afternoons and picnics by gentle river shores. But, just like the canyon itself, the real beauty of Somoto Nicaragua cuts deeper than just the laid-back charm that lies on the surface. It’s found in the adventure within.
In this guide, we’ll show you how to really experience Somoto Canyon; by hiking, camping and canyoneering. We’ll discuss different trail options, Somoto Canyon tours, and, importantly, how to get there.
If there’s one place you don’t want to miss out on when travelling through Nicaragua, it’s Somoto Canyon.
For more adventure-seeking and epic overnight hikes in Nicaragua, check out our Volcan El Hoyo, Volcan Asososca and Volcan Cerro Negro hiking guides. Also, check out The 16 Best Hikes in Nicaragua and Hiking Ometepe: 4 Excellent Trails Not To Miss.
What to Expect at Somoto Canyon National Monument
Dan and I were keen to explore a different and more untouched side of Nicaragua. As much as we’d been seriously relishing the chance to hike every volcano we’d come across (within reason, of course), the idea to hike a different Nicaragua was all too appealing.
Though gaining in popularity, Somoto Canyon National Monument is still largely untapped by the everyday traveller. The tourism infrastructure surrounding Somoto in Nicaragua is certainly developing by the day. This will make it easier to visit and make real adventure in northern Nicaragua much more accessible.
For us, combining a hike with camping and canyoneering was an opportunity we couldn’t turn down. And of course, we chose to explore every inch of this wonderful place.
Somoto Canyon Nicaragua Map & Trail Options
There are four different trail options at Somoto Canyon. Something to suit everyone, I suppose. All trails can be completed as day hikes at Somoto.
- Short Route: 3.5 hours | 6km | 40% of the canyon
- Medium Route: 4 hours | 8km | 70% of the canyon
- Long Route: 12km | 5-6 hours | 90% of the canyon
- Mirador hiking route: 4 hours
The Somoto Canyon Overnight Adventure
Dan and I chose to combine the Mirador hike with the long canyoneering route. This allowed us to view Somoto Canyon National Monument from on top of the canyon walls. Also, it added an epic night of camping. And of course, some extra hiking, which is always good for us. We enjoyed a much more scenic trail this way, rather than taking the usual road walk from the general entrance to the canyon, which is done for the long route. Doing so meant we experienced the canyon from epic lookouts. Basically, we experienced every aspect of the canyon that’s open to exploring.
Somoto Canyon Hike Preview
- Type: One-Way
- Distance: 8.5km
- Time: 3.75 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 332m
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailhead: Somoto Canyon General Entrance
Before embarking on the Mirador hike, we firstly offloaded our camping gear with the driver. In turn, he would take it to the campsite for us. Very convenient indeed. Basically, we just set off with the essentials. Afternoon hiking is hot in Nicaragua. So, less weight to carry suits us well. With our local guide, whose home is located at the foot of the canyon, we began.
The initial climb to scale the slopes of the canyon is surprisingly easy. This is no volcano after all. Almost immediately you’ll come to Mirador Garrobo, the first of three excellent lookouts. It’s a fantastic vantage point to glimpse the grandeur of Somoto Canyon Nicaragua. And boy is it grand. The green waters shimmering in the afternoon sun left us wondering how the other miradors could rival such a view.
Heading into the Canyon
As the trail continues, the rocky path passes farmland and undulates along the canyon’s edge. The next miradors you’ll visit along the trail are, in fact, equally as spectacular as the first. Perfectly showing Somoto off from every considered angle.
You’ll find the Miradors closely linked together. There’s a steep sand path that zig-zags down to the river bed after the final lookout of Mirador Mioceno. Here, you’ll get your first sense of the size of the canyon. Rocks scatter the floor of the exposed river bed. It’s common for the dry season to cause the water to recede. You’ll find cattle grazing around here, which is an interesting site, deep in a gorge.
From this section of the canyon floor, you’ll cross over the river. The wealth of stepping stone options means you’ll stay dry. For today, anyway. The climb then begins back up the other side of the canyon wall and then it’s onwards to the campsite.
To the Campsite
From here, the trail leaves Somoto Canyon behind, and you’ll cut across the countryside to rejoin the river at the campsite. En route, you’ll just about be able to spot the convergence of the Tapacalí and Comali Rivers, from where the Rio Coco begins.
We enjoyed the flattish and very simple hike as the afternoon sun began to set. Speed hiking was very easy for us on this terrain, especially carrying such little on our backs thanks to the convenient shuttling of our gear.
WHAT’S SPEED HIKING? Increase the pace and get the heart rate up. Cover extra ground and experience more in a day. We love the rewards of a good speed hike. Find out more about speed hiking here.
The final part of the hike to the campsite is a steep and somewhat slippery dry trail down the canyon wall. Located at the foot of the wall and next to the campsite are some very picturesque swimming holes. You’ll likely see locals enjoying themselves here.
Our gear was waiting for us on-site, and there was just enough daylight left to pitch our tent and sort out dinner for the night.
The campsite feels dwarfed by the steep canyon walls. The towering embankment shades one side of the camp, with banana trees on the other. It’s a very pretty-looking spot.
Tents can be pitched on a convenient piece of flat grass in the centre of the site. There’s even a toilet outhouse and communal dining area to enjoy. Unlike our camping trip on the side of Volcan El Hoyo, there is very little breeze or cool air here. Dan and I struggled with the heat. So, we settled on sleeping with the outer lining of the tent rolled up, in the hope that cool breeze, would flow through and ease our minor discomfort. Surprisingly though, we slept quite well. For camping standards anyway.
In the morning, you’ll wake to a wonderful sunrise poking through the tree cover. It signals the start of another adventurous day.
Camping gear and pretty much anything you don’t want to get wet can be packed away and sent on ahead, back to the main entrance. Our guide carried a dry bag for any valuables which was great, since we didn’t have one. From here, the canyoneering begins, and we can’t wait.
Somoto Canyoneering Preview
- Type: One-way
- Distance: 12.5km
- Time: 4 hours
- Accumulated elevation gain: 106m
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Trailhead: Al Pie del Cañon Camping
The adventure begins just a few metres’ walk from the campground. Admittedly, I was keen to jump in and get started after such a hot night under the stars.
The route back to the general entrance can now be experienced from below. You’ll get to enjoy everything from rock jumping and swimming through the pleasantly cool waters, to exploring hidden caves and even a little more gentle hiking.
Some of the best parts of the canyoneering at Somoto Nicaragua are at the start of this trail. So, it really cemented what a great decision it was to have camped overnight. The caves are simply amazing.
The jumping is exhilarating and yet a little scary at the same time. Adrenaline levels are high. But, during the dry season, the water is placid and not fast-moving. Fears are easily conquered. I can honestly say, Somoto Canyon is some of the best fun you’ll have throughout all of Central America.
Having camped, we were lucky enough to be the only two (with our guides of course) in this section of the canyon. It’d be a few hours till the day hikers for the long route would reach the river. The feeling of having this extraordinary place to ourselves was special. Like discovering it for the first time.
Time flies by whilst you’re canyoneering in Somoto. Seriously. But you know what they say. It’s a sure-fire sign of having a good time!
The final section of the trail involves a relaxing rowboat and then a short stroll back to the van. What an unbelievable morning!
So, is Somoto Canyon Worth the Trip?
On a scale of grandiosity, Somoto in Nicaragua is dwarfed, somewhat, by other canyon tours in Central America, such as Sumidero Canyon in Mexico. However, what it lacks in size it more than makes up for in adventure.
You may be thinking Somoto Canyon is a little too off the beaten track for your travels in Nicaragua. But, it is actually very straightforward to get to. You just need to be willing to spend the time and/or money.
Somoto Canyon is a hidden gem within Nicaragua. And, if you’re looking for an adventure that few people are prepared to travel to, then Somoto Canyon National Monument is for you.
Somoto Canyon Tours
You’ll find plenty of tour operators offering trips to Somoto Canyon. Whether they’re day trips or camping experiences, their growing popularity means you won’t struggle to find a company willing to get you there.
But, one company we really highly recommend is Fun ‘N’ Sun Travels Nicaragua. They’re by far our Nicaragua tour company of choice and we used them many times for our volcano hikes in Nicaragua. So, naturally, we knew they’d deliver the goods on the Somoto Canyon tour. Which, they did, and then some.
Fun ‘N’ Sun Travels Somoto Canyon Tours
- Day Hike from Leon: The Somoto Canyon tours begin in Leon at 4am. The entrance fee and all other costs are covered. Lunch is provided by a local family near the canyon. A group dry bag for valuables and a life jacket are provided too. You can choose which length of tour you would like to do.
- Long tour: $85USD/person with a minimum of three people needed for the tour to run. The price reduces to $70USD/person for four people, $65USD/person for five people, $60USD/person for six people and $55USD/person for seven people +.
- Medium tour: $5USD/person cheaper on all of the ‘long tour’ prices as mentioned above.
- Short tour: $8USD/person less than the ‘long tour’ prices.
- Day Hike from Somoto: If starting and finishing the tour from nearby Somoto, the price is adjusted to $35USD/person for up to three people. It will be $30USD/person for four people +. For the medium and the short tours, the usual $5USD/person and $8USD/person are deducted respectively.
- Camping from Leon: At a cost of $140USD/person, the overnight camping tour (that we did) begins from Leon in the afternoon and needs a minimum of two people. Dinner, breakfast and two lunches are covered in the cost. Again, so is the canyon entrance fee. Camping equipment is provided in addition to those items on the day tour (life jacket, etc). The logistics with luggage, as we mentioned in the trail description, are also taken care of. The price reduces to $110USD/person for three people, $95USD/person for four people and $80USD/person for 5 people +.
- Camping from Somoto: The price is $100USD/person if beginning the tour from Somoto, and reduces by the same amount per person, similar to the tour beginning in Leon.
Get in Touch
If you’re keen to book a tour with the Fun ‘N’ Sun Travels Nicaragua team, you can find their office based in Leon. You can also contact Memo and the team as follows: Office No. +505 2311 0748 or via Whatsapp on +505 8993 3714 or for emergencies use +505 8851 2059.
Once at Somoto Canyon, your options are very limited if you want to explore independently. Basically, you can only complete the easy route solo. All other routes require you to take a guide – it’s mandatory and for your own safety. Also, you’re only guaranteed to be able to hike this route in the summer. It can be too dangerous to allow tourists to go alone in the rainy season, and so you may be left disappointed.
But, you can get yourself to Somoto Canyon independently, and then book a guide once you’re there. They usually cost around $30USD for two.
The entrance fee to the canyon is $3USD and an extra payment fee is required for the boat, which takes you either into or out of the canyon.
It’s possible to take the Mirador hike independently. However, it’s advised to take a guide. This is because some of the lands you pass through are private farmland and payment is often required. A guide will take care of this for you.
How to Get to Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua
The simplest way to get to Somoto in Nicaragua is by a tour, of course. Most tour companies can arrange to pick you up from your accommodation in most major cities such as Leon, Managua and Granada. But, we understand some of you want to make your own way there to save on pennies. So, this is for you.
Firstly, you need to get yourself to Estelí. From Leon, take a bus from the main terminal. It should cost around $0.75USD and take around 2.5 hours. From Managua, you can take the express or regular bus. They take 2.5 hours and 3.5 hours, respectively. Both options leave fairly regularly, with the first bus of the day departing at around 4:30am. Buses from Leon and Managua will arrive at the south bus terminal in Estelí.
Once at Estelí, make your way to Cotron Norte bus station located on the Pan American Highway. From here, take bus #60 to Somoto. The bus will say direct, but, that can still mean regular stopping. It can be a time-consuming journey taking 1.5 hours +.
From the town of Somoto, you’ll hop on a bus from the Terminal de la Frontera towards the Honduras border. Just tell the bus driver you’re going to the canyon and he’ll stop on the highway at the small community of Sonis. From here, you’ll need to walk the rest of the short journey to the canyon entrance. Often though, for this leg of the journey, it’s just as easy to take a taxi.
Check out the CentroCoasting website for more up-to-date timetables and information.
If you want to spend more than a day at the canyon, and don’t want to camp, then finding a nearby hotel is a great option. It’s also perfect if you’re choosing to use public transport to get to Somoto Canyon National Monument. There are more than a handful of accommodation options to choose from. A sure sign of the continuing improvement of tourism infrastructure.
- La Ceibita Tours: a fantastic accommodation option right at the gateway to Somoto Canyon. Guests rate this place highly. It has a relaxed country-house feeling. Plus, the hotel offers an a la carte breakfast and tours can be arranged to the canyon. The accommodation is a real crowd-pleaser.
- Hostel San Jose: if staying in nearby Somoto town, then Hostel San Jose is your go-to. Rooms have a private bathroom with a patio, and the continental breakfast is particularly good.
- Hostel Rio Piedra: if you’re staying in the city of Estelí, then you can’t go too wrong with this popular hostel. There are various room types and a shared communal kitchen. Free drinking water is available and there’s coffee served in the morning.
How to Stay Safe at Somoto Canyon National Monument
- Wear a life jacket. It takes much less effort during the Somoto Canyon tour to stay afloat. Plus, you never know when an unexpected current might take hold.
- Always seek advice from your guide about where is safe to rock jump. There are many hidden boulders lurking beneath the surface and you don’t want to be landing on one.
- Make sure you have dry clothes to change into once the adventure is over. No one wants to be hanging around in damp clothes, regardless of how warm the weather may be.
When is the Best Time to Visit Somoto Canyon?
Dry season is the most reliable time of year to visit Somoto Canyon National Monument. The water levels are low and the flowing Rio Coco is neither rough nor difficult to swim in. The lower water levels also open up more opportunities to explore interesting caves and cool rock formations. These would otherwise be submerged in water or inaccessible.
Wet season brings new challenges for exploring Somoto Canyon in Nicaragua. A placid river is replaced with a torrent of water some several metres deeper than in the dry months. The fast-flowing river currents mean it’s more a case of floating and being washed downstream, rather than swimming. In fact, it’s advised to lie with your feet in front of you in the water, just in case you are washed towards the rock walls on either side. Better to bash your feet than your head. Wet season brings an altogether different kind of adventure, but that might be just what you’re looking for.
It’s important to note, all or some routes of the canyon may be closed for safety reasons if there has been a lot of rain, in the wet or dry season.
Five Hiking Essentials to Bring On the Somoto Canyon Tour
Why do you need this?
See it in action
These hiking boots are really comfortable and a great choice for hiking Somoto Canyon
This camera is lightweight and compact, so it's perfect for an overnight trip. The Sony Cybershot RX100 VII takes high-quality photos and 4K videos
Crazy as it sounds, it's always good to travel with a lightweight wind jacket, even in the hot climes of Nicaragua
The Osprey Aether AG 70L backpack has anti-gravity suspension, which makes the backpack feel super light. You can also adjust the back support so it fits perfectly
It's best to have a power bank to charge your electronics overnight. You don't want a flat battery when trying to take photos during during the Somoto Canyon tour!
Five Camping Essentials for the Somoto Canyon Tour
Why do you need this?
See it in action
Somoto Canyon camping can be hot business! If your sleeping bag is too much, a sleeping bag liner can be much cooler to sleep in
A headlamp is very useful around the campsite at night
The most convenient, comfortable and compact camping pillow you will ever find! This pocket size pillow is a must
Pack a sleep mask and ear plugs to help you sleep
Just incase you feel the chill, or, it doubles as fab pillow case
Make sure to also pack 2L of water, snacks, sunglasses, sunscreen, aqua shoes, bug spray and a hat. We were able to buy extra water from the town nearby to the campsite which was very useful and meant we didn’t need to carry two days’ worth.
For a more comprehensive hiking gear list, check out our 66 Travel Accessories That You Must Travel With. Otherwise, for a general summary of everything you’d need for a trip, visit our Ultimate Packing Checklist.
What Else is There to Do in the Area?
Undoubtedly, Somoto Canyon is the biggest draw in this area of northern Nicaragua. But, given its proximity to the Honduras border, it makes for an ideal stop-off if travelling through.
Estelí is the nearest sizeable town. It’s famous for its award-winning cigar-making. In fact, it’s one of the most important cigar-making cities in the world.
There’s also the option to visit the Miraflor Natural Reserve. This protected nature reserve is one of the richest orchid zones in the world. Its bountiful biodiversity ranges from incredible birdlife to a plethora of plant species. There are even numerous fincas growing world-class coffee.
Somoto Canyon Facts
- A group of Czech and Nicaraguan scientists ‘discovered’ the canyon in 2004. Ever since it’s been growing in popularity. Of course, locals have been enjoying Somoto Canyon for years.
- The Tapacalí River in Nicaragua and Comali River in Honduras converge at the head of the canyon.
- The canyon took between 5 and 15 million years to form.
- You can boat, walk, swim or climb in the canyon.
- Somoto Canyon is actually one of the oldest rock formations in Central America.
- During the wet season, the water levels rise significantly in the canyon, making some trail options unsafe to complete.
- Somoto Canyon Natural Monument is the only geopark in Central America.
- Somoto Nicaragua was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2020.
- Just bring the essentials: for Somoto Canyon tours, it’s just easier to travel light.
- Quick-dry clothes: I actually borrowed one of Dan’s t-shirts for this tour, and it was worth it. You’re in and out of the water so often that it can start to get a little chilly if you’re in clothes that remain soaked throughout.
- Riding in style: some tour companies offer tubing rides down the river. More fun, yes please.
Have you visited the Somoto Canyon National Monument? Let us know in the comments below.
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