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November 18, 2013

I realized yesterday

that never in my wildest dreams as a child, could I have projected to what my life has become.  I was a bit shy and retiring,  a likely perfect definition of a wallflower.  And not that much has changed for me personality-wise, but lifestyle, oh, yes.  I dreamed of travel as a child.  I dreamed of living in exotic locales, where it was winter all year long, summer all year long, seasons reversed or the same, with the exception of everyone speaking a marvelously different language.  Moreoever, I wanted my children to have that same opportunity.

I wanted them growing up and knowing the world.  To hear the pride in my son's voice when he reminds people he was born in Iceland, yet he knows that his heritage is American.  To see my daughter's friends span the globe.  They may live in however many different countries, but they share the same angsts and joys in life, no matter where their roots are for the moment.  Perhaps the best was watching Kelsey jump off a rock into the water in the middle of canyon in northern Nicaragua.  No fear, just following her friends with sheer excitement about the opportunities life gives us. 

There's my wee nugget, jumping fearlessly....

To say yesterday was another "this is why we moved to Nicaragua" moment would be an understatement.  As part of my position at the Embassy, Co-Community Liaison Coordinator, I planned to a trip to Somoto Canyon, which is so far north, it practically touches Honduras.  I was a bit nervous, having never actually made the trek before, and no idea what to expect.  I can only say it was so much more than I could have imagined.

Somoto Canyon is actually a fairly new tourist attraction, having really only opened to the public in 2004.  Given that it appeared to be a 3 hour drive (in reality, have 4 good hours each way without stops), and that I was planning for what could be a large group, I wanted something fairly inclusive.  Guides and lunch would be the plan, given that none of us had been before, and every review of the tours indicated that even the most-prepared hikes benefited from someone who really 'knew' the canyon.

I Googled and researched like crazy, and hit upon review after review of the Soriano family guide group on Trip Advisor.  Lo and behold, not only were the reviews stellar, but they had a website!  Pictures, tour descriptions, and confirmation that one could have inclusive tours that included guides, safety equipment, lunch and the like.  I sent off an email and a day later, I was sold.

I heard back from Brian, who runs the set-up of the tours and received more information than I knew what to do with.  Actually, thanks to him,  I now have a lovely 4 page .PDF with all of the info one needs for a trip to the area, to include directions, local hotel listings, and a food menu.  I was still a bit worried, as $25/person seemed like quite a bit (factoring in the drive there and such), until he mentioned the words "group discount."

Within days, we had a group set, and being the most thoughtful organizer that he is, Brian allowed us to run two tours concurrently.  For those who had younger children or simply didn't want the standard tour, he offered that they could do the shorter tour.  It's not quite the same hike, and you utilize inner tubes to float up to a pool of the canyon where the younger set can do small, fun jumps without the fear of scrambling up wet rock and then staring down a meter...or 20?

After a frantic week of planning (I had just finished up another major event at the Embassy on Friday), Saturday morning arrived suddenly.  We* packed up as much gear as we thought we needed based on my communications with Brian.  I still was not entirely sure how wet we would get (very!), or whether we needed good shoes for the walk and float (Tevas/Keens are best).  One minutes I worried that I was wearing shorts for the hike, however once it started, I was grateful I had left the longer pants at home.

We were able to secure a shuttle at the last minute, and for our group, that was likely best. For those who have fewer numbers in their tour, I would recommend driving up the night before and staying in Somoto (or at the Hacienda). Then you need only wake up and walk/drive to the hacienda near the entrance to the canyon. No worries about getting up at the crack of dawn, or who has to drive four hours in a row.

We met up with Brian, who runs the actual planning, and Henry, whose family runs the guide company, just outside the family's hacienda.  Once we were all set for the ride to the canyon (swimsuits on, check, shorts and t-shirts that can get wet, good hiking/water shoes, sunscreen applied & full water bottles), we re-boarded the bus and drove a kilometer up to the entrance.

Sadly, I've misplaced my Garmin, so I'm only guessing, but the hike from where we stopped along the Pan-American Highway must have been close to 2 kilometers (the total trip maybe 4-6?).  The path started off rocky, turned into fields and eventually ended in a long winding trip down to the water that was extremely muddy and fast at times.  One minute we were stopped to view the canyon below us, with Honduras mere kilometers away, the next minute we were back on the path, sometimes skipping down slightly slick rocks, other times carefully putting one foot in front of the other.  We hugged the side of the rock with one arm, and without an iota of embarrassment, held the carefully proffered hand of the guide in the other.

Not just one guide, but three, in addition to Brian.  It is a family business run by Henry Soriano, and he and his cousins were our guides.  I would not go through the canyon again without them.  They knew instinctively when we needed help, when we didn't, and were there in a heartbeat if we made the mistake of stepping down into the water and putting all of our weight on the rock that was just a wee bit too slippery.

Just before we descended to the water...
After our first leg of floating down the river...

Before we knew it, we had managed to get down to the beginning of the float down the canyon.  We all had been given life vests, and tightened them before we made the final few steps down to the water.  There was a natural water slide down one rock and before we knew it, we were sliding down into the shockingly cool (but welcomingly so after the hike) water.  The next two (I'm guessing) two hours were spent floating, climbing out of the water, posing for pictures as we jumped, flipped, swam, floated some more and made our way down the canyon.

 A view up the canyon:  spots of color on the rocks (mid-photo) are clothes drying in the sun, after being washed by local women in the river

On one hand, I wish I could describe every moment in detail. On the other hand, it was such an overwhelming experience that I would do a disservice to tell you every single thing, as you may think it's an experience not for you or you need only live vicariously through my words.  To watch my 5 year old proudly lead the floating pack down the river, to see my 11 year old scramble up rocks and insist on jumping off with no pause or hesitation...or watching my husband do higher than normal jumps as he knew the kids would always remember his fearlessness more than their own.  And to see our entire group have the same awesome experience was exhilarating.

I could go on and on.  The follow-up hike, having my best only Spanish conversation yet with one of the guides who didn't speak English.  The meal (fresh veggies, handmade corn tortillas...), the welcoming feeling at the hacienda as though we were family. Did I mention the video and photo montage Brian put together for us?  He even caught one of Kelsey's jumps on video! By the time we left, and I was hugging Henry good-bye, I could not believe the small price we had paid for a day that we will likely remember for the rest of our lives.  Well, that is until we return, as we have decided that we might need to visit at least every 6 months.  

I can only say that Nicaragua has really started to tug at my heartstrings.  And while I can't wait to return to Somoto Canyon,  I have a feeling Nica has so much more in store for us. Do we really only have two and a half years left? 


*If you are wondering, Cait was sick and missed the outing, but no worries, she will go next time!  

For more information about the tours, please contact Brian T. or Henry Soriano at Somoto Canyon Tours.  They will assist you with the planning, and have advice on everything from hotels to haciendas (you can also stay with local families) and which tour is best.  I just can't recommend them enough.


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