3 April 2016.
Intent on going hiking in Nicaragua, the promise of lush primary jungle, gushing waterfalls and the elusive puma meant the Peñas Blancas Nature Reserve was earmarked in our trusty Lonely Planet from day one.
Though after realising the excessive price tag attached to an overnight hiking trip from Matagalpa, we hastily packed our bags, jumped on the chicken bus and set off to discover the cloud forests of northern Nicaragua for ourselves.
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We left sunny Matagalpa in a rickety yellow school bus, the only tourists on board.
We were glued to the windows as drought-stricken countryside morphed into verdant farmlands and the distant mountains of the reserve shrouded in thick cloud came into view.
Before long we said adios to the tarmac and were bumping past coffee plantations in a flurry of peak harvest activity. Beans were laid out on huge mats to dry, farmers in colourful hats dotted the fields, and others loaded produce into enormous sacks for transportation.
On a stretch of deserted muddy road amidst the dripping trees, we jumped out, the bus attendant waggling an insistent finger in the direction of a small road leading right before zooming off down the hill.
We trudged off down the road in search of accommodation, dodging ankle-deep puddles and mud along the way. A few hundred metres further we happened upon a ring of cosy cabins backing onto the spectacular white cliffs that Peñas Blancas is famed for.
And then… it started pouring. And it kept going All. Night. Long.
Torrential rain, howling winds and us tucked up in our tiny cabin shivering under our one blanket hoping the roof wouldn’t blow away just yet. The lights flickered violently before fading away completely and plunging the entire camp into darkness.
Our alarms blared bright and early the next day, a wakeup call for our first hiking adventure in Nicaragua. One look outside and we closed the door and went back to bed. If anything, conditions had worsened and there was no way we were going out in that.
After hours huddled up in our cabin, the clouds dissipated and we woke the following morning to blue skies and white cliffs drench in golden morning light.
At a nearby finca named after the charismatic Don Chico, we found the Don himself.
A lively man in his 70’s who gets around in wellies and a cowboy hat, plays the accordion (among other instruments), and still does the steep hike into the mountains regularly. He is the most experienced guide around and don’t let his age fool you. You’ll be gasping for breath while he skips past with spritely grace.
Deep in the primordial jungle, everything grows on everything, crowding each other out in search of light. Ferns and bromeliads cling to moss-covered trees, while rope-like vines meander from trunk to trunk.
The way up to la cima – the top – is viciously steep and muddy, but dressed in our wellies took us back to being little kids. Sliding in the mud (unintentionally), splashing through puddles and climbing over boulders alongside gushing waterfalls and rivers. Crawling between mazes of roots beneath hundred-year-old trees and up mossy ladders that hung off the edge of cliffs. Grabbing onto swinging roots and spiny trees just to stop ourselves from sliding over and falling face first in the mud.
This was the type of adventure we had been waiting for and we loved every second of it.
When we did finally reach la cima, covered in mud, we were rewarded with beautiful views over the mountains and community of farms. Fields of coffee, banana and potato plantations checkered in different shades of green. Waterfalls bucketing over cliff edges with all manner of vegetation clinging to the rocks.
That afternoon we massaged our sore feet and tended to blisters and thorn-pricked hands as the sun sank below the line of distant clouds.
The light glanced once more off the craggy white cliffs, the misty haze glowed above the peaks and we sat there and watched the world turn golden. It was the best sunset we saw in Nicaragua and we couldn’t have picked a more beautiful place for the show.
From Matagalpa take the bus heading to El Cua from the northern bus terminal. The road to La Dalia is paved but from there it’s a winding bumpy road through small farming villages. The views are great.
You will be dropped at an intersection that is seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Take the road to the right and follow it for a few hundred metres to the start of the tiny community of Peñas Blancas.
COST – 55 cordobas ($1.95) | TIME – 3 hours
There are also buses twice a day between Jinotega’s northern bus and the intersection to Peñas Blancas.
COST – 75 cordobas ($2.70) (we presume we were stung with the gringo tax on this one) | TIME – 3 hours
There are only three lodging options around which are, conveniently, the first buildings you reach coming from the intersection. Accommodation and facilities are clean and comfortable but basic.
Don Chico’s Finca Agricultura is the first one you’ll reach along the road. This is also the main restaurant in town serving up simple meals for up to 80 cordobas ($2.80).
Further along is El Ecoalbergue Guardianas del Bosque – THE place to watch the sunset – which has basic private rooms and a dormitory on offer.
Further still is the slightly more upmarket Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza (CEN for short).
COST – Prices range from 150 cordobas ($5.80) in the dorm at El Ecoalbergue to 400 cordobas ($14.20) and upwards for a private double.
Peñas Blancas is a traditional farming community surrounded by cloud forest and primary jungle in Nicaragua’s northern highlands.
If you enjoy living on the rustic side of life and enjoy a bit of adventure, then this is one of the best places for hiking in Nicaragua.
If you can’t handle getting a little wet and muddy, having no electricity and showering in icy cold water or going without for a few days, then this might not be the place for you.
There are two main hikes in the area, both of which require a guide.
The 2-hour walk to the Arcoiris waterfall leaves from the path opposite the CEN and takes you across rivers and through tree roots to the base of the huge falls. A guide is technically required although honestly, the path is pretty clear. A couple of smaller side paths take you to lookouts but the main trail is very well trodden.
The other more adventurous trail to la cima is a steep 4-hour hike taking you through the best part of the cloud forest complete with scrambling through mud and climbing to the ridge above the cliffs. From here you can see just about everything around you if the skies are clear.
There is another short hike which leaves from a small trail at the entrance to the CEN. The 15 minute trail takes you to a small waterfall and a bridge and returns by the same path with no guide required.
Officially guides cost 250 cordobas or $10 per person for each walk. But if you have a group or are planning on doing multiple walks the bargaining power is all yours. We paid just 700 cordobas ($25) for both of us over two hikes. Guides can be found at the CEN or stop in at Don Chico’s.
After 2 months travelling through southern Nicaragua, in the muggy heat of the Caribbean jungle and sweltering Pacific Coast, cold and rainy weather was something we stupidly assumed just did not happen in this country. Peñas Blancas sure shook us out of that thinking pattern.
The lush surrounds are due to the fact that Peñas Blancas receives rain for around 10 months of the year.
Don’t let that put you off though. When the sun is out, you’ll forget the cold and rain ever happened.
Although home to around 400 families, this community seems tiny.
Small cottages are spread along a vast stretch of road surrounded by farmland rather than the compact village we were expecting. And in this small community, you’ll get a true ‘back to basics’ experience.
Electricity is patchy at best. It was off more than it was on during our stay. Considering how cold it gets here this was one place we were hoping for a hot shower. Nope. They may have electric shower heads but after waiting for ten minutes under the trickle for it to miraculously heat up we realised it was cold water only (and we mean cold!). And you might have guessed, but don’t even think about internet.
Yet these are some of the greatest things about the place. It’s a wonderful sensation walking down a cobblestone street in the middle of nowhere in pitch darkness, with no man-made sounds around except that of a bicycle bouncing by.
It is the kind of darkness you just don’t get in a place where street lights, neon signs and headlamps are the norm.
- It can get really cold, especially at night. Bring warm clothes and ask for extra blankets if you need to. They have plenty to spare.
- With the electricity spontaneously switching off, often precisely when it was getting dark, a torch (flashlight) is essential. If you’re planning on using your phone, remember that without power you may not be able to charge it for a while either.
- It rains at some stage every day. While gumboots are often provided for hikes, a rain jacket is a good idea so you don’t get completely soaked.
- Don Chico’s has a tap that gives out purified water but during our stay this was rather temperamental and often cut out right when we needed water most. Take water purification tablets or a water filtration system. We love the SteriPEN for water purification and never travel without it.