Monday, February 18, 2013

Cañon de Somoto

"Cent cinquante cordobas, mon dieu!" I hear Mateo booming in his sarcastic (and comedically stereotypical) French voice. 

I wipe the sleep from my eyes as I step down from the antique school bus, sweat dripping down my back, knees throbbing. I've long ago gotten used to the habit of elevating my knees to try to fit pressed against the seat ahead of mine. I think the limited blood flow helps me sleep.

"Cet homme dit que nous pouvons faire du camping près du canon pour seulement 150 cordobas par nuit!" Mateo goes on informing the group, gesturing towards a guide called Osman, a well dressed man sporting a high and neat haircut, motorcycle helmet in hand.

"Mais, nous l'avons déjà fait des réservations pour un séjour en famille ce soir avec Henri", replies Laetiticia, reminding him that she has already gone through the trouble of organizing our entire overnight excursion to the Cañon de Somoto, twice now. Mateo and Julia overslept this morning and we missed the chance to make this a day trip. Didieur got upset, Cedric felt ill, and it wasn´t until late afternoon that we were able to hit the road for the 2 hour ride up north towards the Honduran border. 

In that time, Laetiticia made contact with a local guide named Henri and (after missing our initial reservation) re-negotiated the fair price of 20 bucks for the a full day tour and 7 buck for accommodation with host families.

"Umm...Español, sil vouz plait?", I mumble through crusty eyes, not sure what language I am, should, or could be speaking.

"Ah, désolé! Vamos a hablar en Español," Julia directs the group; a Belgin couple (Laetiticia and Cedric), a French couple (Mateo and Julia) and their third wheel, Didier.

We discuss our options, as 150 cordobas is about a buck fifty cheaper than the price we had arranged with Henri, and camping would be fun. As we debat, Osman anxiously awaits his chance to enter the conversation (a fast mix of French, English, and Spanish) and takes the opportunity to throw in a bigger option: The same price for a full day tour with all equipment and camping, PLUS water and two included meals. An added value of about 200 cords each. 

At this he has me sold, but not the French trio. "You Americans spoil them and pay anything like Disneyland, we can do better than that," laughs Mateo in a friendly voice, commencing a hilarious negotiation with Osman that takes over a hour. Laetiticia plays good cop, Mati bad, their spouses and Didier and I caught in the crossfire, pointing out whatever we can along the way to try to sweeten the pot.

At first, it comes down to $25, then $20, then finally $15 per person, for the full day tour and camping, plus two meals and entrance fees. We have to buy water and pay for our own transportation, but Osman promises a diverting night on a private river beach with endless stars and a bonfire. Deal.

Fair is fair: Mateo phones Henri to ask if he will make the same deal. He refuses. We cancel. He´s not happy.

Finding supplies is a challenge, as the bus to the park entrance (Osman's family owns a mud-brick home along the river within the natural reserve) is scheduled to leave in 10 minutes and we don't have time to go the supermarket. We need the two most valuable fluids in Nicaragua; water and rum. Split up. Girls find water, guys find rum. Don't get ripped off.

Water from a gift ship, take-away rum from a cantina. The water is more expensive than the rum. Classic.

Fast forward 45 minutes and a cramped bus ride later. We arrive at the park entrance. Henri is there waiting for us, no shirt, quite tall. He smiles, but rather aggressively tries to convince us to take his tour. Folks on the bus have seen this before. They surround us in front of Henri and pull us back on the bus before we can even really interpret the situation. Just 20 meters further down the road, we are dropped off again, at a smaller entrance to the reserve. Osman is there one his moto smiling nicely, waiting for us. He rides slowly along side us as we walk down the trail 250m to the ranger station.

After a brief lecture about the region and what the tour will entail, we unpack the necessary supplies for the camp-out and leave our big bags in the ranger station. Osman leads us on a short (45min) hike into the reserve along the river, and teaches us that the Cañon de Somoto is actually called Namancambre by locals and was only declared a national monument and a national park in 2005 when it was "discovered" by a group of Czech scientists. Discovered. Please.

*Not really my photo
We arrive at his family home along the Río Namancambre to find a sandy beach with children climbing trees and splashing around in the shallow waters. "Son mis primos," Osman informs us that they are his cousins. He doesn't live in the house himself, but it is shared by his father, siblings and lots of little cousins and nephews. The kids help us set up camp, sweeping clear sticks, rocks, and horse doodoo from the sand to make room for our tents, and climbing trees to help hang hammocks. We build a fire just in time for sundown and after a few ron con colas, dinner arrives. Its a big bag full of plates with grilled chicken, gallo pinto, fried malanga chips, and a carafe of coffee. Osman brought it all down from town in the dark, walking along the rocks in the river, following the route he has taken in the darkness since he was a child. 

The night was full of coffee, ron, and conversation in Spanglais (Spanish-English-French) about the cultural differences between American, French, and Latin American cultures. 

The next morning, its the crow of the roosters that wakes me at sunrise. I can hear the kids on the sand, running and playing, their yells echoing off the canon wall across the river. I throw on my jacket in the cold of the morning air, and unzip my tent door to find a fine mist rolling around the river bend, low on the water. It´s cold, so I light a fire simply by dropping some dry grass, then twigs, then charred logs onto the still glowing coals from last night´s fogata. The Frenchies wake up, and we pack the camp and head up to the ranger station for our breakfast of fresh gallo pinto, heuvos, and tortillas. The coffee is sweet, and I'm the only one who tries it before adding extra sugar. Thank god.

Sunscreen, water, life vests, fruit. We pile into the back of a pick-up truck and drive 10 minutes to the start of the trail. It´s an hour hike through dry forest 'till we get back to the river. It starts off easy, a pebble walk along the shore. Then the walls of the canon begin to rise on both sides and we start a scramble over the larger rocks in the river. The walls get higher, and the rocks get further apart so we don our life vests and toss cameras into Osman´s dry-bag (my camera broke two weeks ago, so I've got to wait for the french guys to post their shots on FB). The rest of the day is a 10k float through a gorgeous canyon (pun intended?). Every so often, bored of the float, or tired from swimming, but certainly intrigued by the challenge, I make my way to the edge of the river and climb up onto the canyon wall. Slowly and deliberately, I feel my way across the steep rock wall, climbing up and down to get the most secure hold as I trail behind the rest of the group. Warm sun on the rocks feels great on my pruney skin. Osman, points out the areas with deep water, so I am able to make jumps of 5, 10, 20, even 30 feet.

At the end of the day, we take a short boat ride through the last part of the canyon, passing the sandy beach area where we camped, waving goodbyes to Osman's cousins.

These photos are for illustrative purposes only, as My camera is broken, buy this is Cañon de Somoto, promotional pics from the Hostel's facebook life vest was red:

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