Somoto Canyon is a ‘newly discovered’ canyon that Nicaragua is so excited about that they slapped its likeness on the back of their currency. It is totally worthwhile to do a Google image search for ‘Somoto Canyon’ and prepare to be dazzled. The quick history is that this 5-13 million year old canyon was ‘discovered’ along the course of the Rio Coco (which stretches all the way to the Caribbean coast) in 2004 by a team of Czech scientists. Nicaragua quickly declared it a national monument and featured it on some travel brochures. Now tourists come to Estelí and Somoto for the chance to float down the river, scramble over shallow rocks and jump off the big ones. Life jackets are worn for safety.
Our friend, Shaun, got the number of a local tour guide in Somoto through a friend of a friend and we arranged- after many tenuous phone calls (it was election weekend, afterall)- to meer our guide the next day at the Somoto bus station. Rueben was not what we expected. First of all, he was German, second of all, he was somewhere between 12 and 20 years old. But he was cute and his English was better than his Spanish, so we followed him to the office of the tour company to drop off our bags and give us an opportunity to think twice about following a blond kid into the wilds of Nicaragua.
I’ve got to take a moment to talk about the German volunteer program- Rueben must have told me the name about 15 times, but I don’t speak German, so it didn’t stick. The gist of it is that German young people, some still in school for their undergraduate degrees, can take a year off to volunteer to work in developing countries, a lá Peace Corps. Like Peace Corps, it is a government-funded program to send young people into poor countries to do whatever it is that 20 year olds know how to do. Unlike Peace Corps, there is no formal language training and, it seems, that, while some people get the standard ‘teaching English’ posts or ‘environmental protection’ gigs, some people -like Rueben- get the tourism jobs. That’s to say that Rueben was assigned to ‘assist’ a local Nicaraguan tour guide who takes people on trips into the Somoto Canyon. The trips themselves are farmed out to field guides who meet the bus and actually lead the guests through the river. The owner will often tag along or maybe just greet the guests at the bus station. Since the owner was still in Estelí, partying hardy with the Sandistas, Rueben accompanied us on the river trip, basically providing comic relief and moral support. I can’t help but think of all of my friends who went to the Peace Corps in far-flung locales like Cameroon, Mali, and Honduras (you all know my feelings on that last one) and spent over two years going native in mud huts with thankless jobs. Then there’s tan, toned, young Rueben here, jumping off boulders and giving hi-fives to American tourists while a local guide actually does… the guiding. Let me qualify this statement and say that Reuben was a dream: young, good-natured, and completely dedicated to his work. But it was a funny experience for us ‘progressive’ American tourists, who wanted to support local enterprise. Turns out they’ve got it all figured out.
In any case, the river trip was something else. It was the end of rainy season and there wasn’t too much water flowing through the canyon this year, so we did more scrambling than floating. Our local guide, Francisco, was a real gem and he walked us through all of the crossings, floats, and jumps like a true expert. We also had a porter, who carried the single waterproof bag for all of us. And then there was Reuben, looking the picture of youth and vigor and leaving us shaking our heads after jumping off rock formations many meters too high to be safe for anyone over the age of 20. The scenery was incredible and we were the only ones in the river, with a few exceptions of locals splashing, fishing, or crossing the river.
The highlight of the trip was the mandatory 12-15 foot jump (I’m not so hot at estimating heights) that we were told about only after we had paid our money and been dropped off knee -deep in the river. Until now, I have studiously avoided jumping off of things higher than a bunk bed, but this one was compulsory. I managed to put off thinking about it too much until the time actually came. I made R go first, then I went second, but we were all put to shame when Reuben pulled some kind of mountain goat/sea otter maneuver and climbed up about 30 feet just to jump off an put us all to shame for feeling any kind of pride in our piddly little feats of daring.
We finished up in the late afternoon, just in time to climb into the back of some guy’s pickup truck for a scenic sunset ride back into town. It wasn’t particularity daring and it is heavily pushed in the tourism brochures, but we somehow felt like intrepid, daring explorers (maybe a little Reuben had rubbed off on us) and we felt like we really earned our dinner of mediocre-but-took-an-hour-to-cook-chicken and a whole lot of Flor de Caña rum. It is hard to say that we deserved a get-away (from our big, year-long get-away), but it was a nice little adventure to have after a whole lot of negativity and even fear that has resulted from our run-in with the robbers in Honduras.