The Coco (or Wangki), Central America’s longest river, runs all the way to the Caribbean, but its first impression may be its most spectacular. Gushing from underground, it has carved solid rock into this 3km-long gorge that drops 160m, and at times is just a hair under 10m wide. Protected as Monumento Nacional Cañon de Somoto, the canyon is an unmissable experience.
There are three routes to explore the canyon. You won’t always have comfortable footing, so reef shoes or sandals help a lot, and you’ll have more fun if you’re fit. Within the canyon proper there is one deep stretch of about 200m where you'll have to swim (tours will always supply life vests).
The full six-hour, 13km circuit will take you to two bat caves well above the rim before you hike down to the river, boulder-hop, swim through (small) rapids and leap off 8m rocks into deep swimming holes. This version is highly recommended for nature fanatics, as you'll hike through pristine landscapes and get to see the point where the Tapacalí and Comali rivers join at the birthplace of the Río Coco.
The most popular option is the four-hour, 6km classic loop: you head straight to the far entrance of the canyon, from where you’ll swim, hike and leap beneath slate-rock faces and jagged peaks until you reach the exit.
For those who are adverse to exercise, there is also a three-hour 'lite' tour where you are paddled up the gorge a short distance in a small boat and then can splash around in the canyon mouth or float around in an inflatable tube.
Following a couple of incidents, local guides (US$15/US$20 half-/full day for up to five people) are now mandatory if you want to venture inside the canyon. In addition to having expert knowledge of river conditions – which can become dangerous during the wet season – guides also blend local insight with adventure and create a richer experience, though very few speak English.
Guides from the local community of Sonis, at the entrance to the reserve, have formed a fantastic community tourism organization called Somoto Canyon Tours and work on a rotation basis. Another option is to visit with one of the guides from local tour operator Namancambre Tours (found in Somoto town).
To visit the canyon take any El Espino–bound bus (US$0.40, 30 minutes) from the bus terminal to the trail head at Km 231 near the community of Sonis (look out for the sign), where you will meet your guide. A taxi will cost around US$8. From here it's a 3km hike to the canyon, including a river crossing that may be over a meter deep. The last bus back to Somoto passes through at around 5:30pm. If you're coming from Honduras via El Espino – the Del Sol bus line has an authorized stop right at the entrance – there's no need to go into Somoto. The canyon often closes in October, when the water is too high. Call the guides to check on conditions.