Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Somoto - San Rafael del Norte

I drove from León to Somoto on Monday, about a four hour trip mostly on the Pan-American Highway with sparse traffic. It was a bit of a dreary drive with overcast skies, smokey haze from burning fields and a drought dry landscape.

It's not only the end of the dry season here. Central America has been suffering from a drought for the past two years brought on by El Niño conditions. This part of Nicaragua is shown as being an area of "severe drought" on most maps. Most of the trees are barren of leaves, the grass is brown and there is a lot of bare soil. It would be really beautiful here when all the trees and foliage are green; pictures of the area are stunning. It's a bit disappointing, but I take it as it comes and appreciate things for how they are.

On the way to Somoto I somehow didn't recognize until too late that the police had set up a checkpoint at a crossroad and I didn't stop when I should have. Here's what I posted on Facebook about the incident:
Inadvertently blew through Policia Nacional checkpoint this morning. Policia were not happy. Asked for 1,000 Cordova fine. I said in Spanish, "No. I'm sorry. First time in this country. Learning to drive." They cracked up, made fun of me, shook my hand and I was on my way. The late Peter Sellers is my muse in situations like this.
My main (only) reason for traveling to Somoto was to go on a tour the Monumento Nacional Cañon de Somoto, which is at the headwaters of Coco river which runs all the way to the Caribbean Sea.

I arrived in Somoto around 3 pm and checked into the Hotel Rosario.  I quickly made friends with two Germans staying in the hotel, Nico and Rene. I asked them if they were planning on visiting the cañon and they said they had already booked a tour for the morning. I asked them if I could join them, they said of course and I added my name to the list at the tour agency.

Somoto is a small town without much to do and which pretty much closes up at 8 pm. So Nico, Rene and I spent the evening talking and drinking beer in the small courtyard of the hotel.  They are both in their mid-20's but our difference in age didn't seem have much effect on the tone or topics of conversation, except when I mentioned my kids or I brought up events that were contemporary in my life but took place before they were born.

The cañon tour was excellent, a combination of hiking, boulder hopping, wading, swimming and jumping into water from rocks. Rene, Nico and I were joined by a Spaniard and an Israeli, both also in their 20's. We all got along really well. The tour began with us hiking to the river and along its banks, then wading in a wide, shallow channel. As the canyon began narrowing and getting deeper we had to swim short sections and clamber across boulders. About halfway through, the canyon got much narrower and deeper, less than 50 feet wide in some places with the top of the cliffs more as much as 500 feet above the river. We swam most of that section in fairly deep but slow moving water. There were several opportunities to jump from rocks into the river with plunges ranging from 15 to 35 feet high. The initial step of launching myself off a rock to drop 35 feet into a thin ribbon of water without hitting other bits of the rock on the way down was a bit daunting, but once launched the falling through space and landing into the water was easy. The trip ended with us hiking out of the canyon to a small village and enjoying a simple lunch at a small comedor.

I brought my GoPro camera with me and took some videos which came out pretty well, but I don't have enough disk space on my computer to edit for posting right now. I took some still pictures which I've posted here, but they are a little distorted from water droplets on the lens. I'll try to get the video posted soon.

Rene, Nico and the Israeli guy (sorry, I forgot his name) were all heading in the same direction after our canyon tour, so I offered them all a ride in my rental car instead of them having to take the bus. They were really appreciative and it was nice having company for the drive. When we arrived at the town of Esteli, their destination, they treated me to a couple of beers at a cafe, which was a nice gesture.

I left the cafe in Esteli at about 5 pm and had to drive "purposefully" to get to my stopping place, San Rafael del Norte, before nightfall. It was a nice drive and I made good time. I'm staying at a small, quite hotel with a decent restaurant. The town is at an elevation of about 3,300 feet, so it is pleasantly cool during the day and night.  That was my main reason for picking it as a place to stay!

This morning I explored the town. There's not much to it. I visited the sanctuary at the top of a hill where Father Odorico D'Andrea is buried; he helped the Sandinistas and Contras reconcile and end their war. It's a nice spot with a good view. The cathedral in the center of town is quite pleasant too. That's about all there is, though. I spent the rest of the day catching up on my "to do" list and correspondence.

Tomorrow I head for Malagapa which should be a bit more exciting.

Not much traffic on my drive from León to Somoto. But dreary skies and a very dry landscape.
Tobacco farm near Esteli. This is the cigar-making region of Nicaragua, using tobacco grown from Cuban seeds.

Hiking, wading, swimming the Cañon de Somoto

Cañon de Somoto 
Rene and Nico near the end of the Cañon de Somoto hike

A parched landscape looking back towards the Cañon de Somoto

View of San Rafael del Norte from the hilltop sanctuary