Orchid Hunting, birdwatching, and canyoning in Nicaragua

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I stepped outside my cabin at La Posada de Sonada in northern Nicaragua and it was like stepping back in time. A thick mist from the early morning's thundershower had settled across the treetops in the distance. Residual raindrops glinted off the leaves as the light of dawn began to cast a shadow over the meadow. Across the road, a brand-new clutch of chicks skittered alongside their mother, a gallina (hen) pecking for insects in the dirt. From the neighboring finca (farm), a horse whinnied, a tethered brown pig with black spots snorted (I snorted back for fun). Dogs barked, and a cow grazed contentedly at the fence line, poking her head under the barbed wire to access the more delectable grasses. The sounds of a simple life -- a pastoral life -- somewhere in the remotest highlands of Northern Nicaragua. In the agricultural heartland of Miraflor.

Our New Book

My husband Gustavo, son Nicolas, and I threw on makeshift ponchos and met our guide, Aldo Marcel, a botanist from nearby Esteli, on the patio outside our cabin. We were headed into the rainforest, in search of orquideas (native orchids) and resident birds.

From the moment we set foot in the verdant greenery of the bosque, our outdoor classroom instruction began. With Marcel the ever-attentive teacher and the three of us his eager pupils, we traipsed through primary forest in search of bromeliads and blossoming epiphytes.

In Search of Orchids

The woodlands were teeming with plant and animal life and we studied them all -- from the most miniscule of inchworms clinging to tiny webs to the broadest of elephant ears (sombrillas des pobres), with 4-foot leaves. We examined spongy, spore-like mushrooms growing on decomposing trees; we snickered at monkey tails, primitive ferns covered in hairy spines; we even climbed betwixt the roots of a towering ficus tree, called a matapalo by the locals -- riddled with lichens and green algae.

We continued through the cloud forest, passing massive oaks and pines, searching for those elusive orchids. Suddenly Aldo stopped, and pointed. Pointed to a sprig of miniature purple flowers. "Orquidea," he whispered in a hushed, almost reverent, voice. "This is very important for me, for it's been many years since I've seen these." He pulled back the neighboring foliage for us to snap a quick photo, careful lest he injure the teensy yellow stem that supported the plum-colored blooms.

Discovering a Rare Bird

Further along the same trail, we halted again, this time to listen,to listen for the distinctive song of a three-wattled bellbird (pajaro rancho). Back and forth, we retraced our footsteps along the path, trying our best not to rustle the leaves or snag the underbrush. Marcel assured us this was a rare avian species, more commonly spotted in Costa Rica, and he was determined that we have an opportunity to see this loudly-bellowing chestnut-and-white pajaro. The wind shifted for a moment, the overhead tree branches parted and I was lucky enough to catch sight of him waggling Fu Manchu wattles and all.

For me, the cloud forests of Miraflor were one of the highlights of our Nicaraguense odyssey. But we were off to explore the Canyons of Somoto, so we bid a fond farewell to Senora Corinna, la dona of La Posada and caught the next bus from La Rampla. Crowded and noisy, the "chicken bus" lived up to its namesake; as I stood straddling the aisle, hanging on for dear life at every lurch in the road, I glanced to the elderly woman seated next to me. In her lap, in a woven-cloth sack, she jostled a live chicken, contentedly rubbernecking from side to side, assessing its surroundings. That would have been the photograph worth a thousand words.

Canyons of Somoto

Back in Esteli, we touched base once again with the gracious volunteers at TreeHuggers, the local tourism company, about our impending excursion to Somoto Canyon the next morning. We retired to our hostel, the charming Hospedaje Luna and grabbed a bite to eat across the street at its sister eatery, Cafe Luz.

We had intentionally booked all of our adventures in Nicaragua's mountainous North through this non-profit trio of establishments -- hotel, restaurant and tour agency -- because all monies directly benefitted the agriculture communities of Miraflor and 15 families in Somoto.

Dawn encroached and a couple of harrowing bus rides later, we arrived at the Soriano family retreat on the outskirts of town. Henry, the proprietor of the property and overseer of the entire pueblo itself, was absent, but his brother Olvin greeted us and showed us to the rooms of our homestay. Though a bit more primitive accommodations than we're used to on vacation, the spartan rooms (a pair of twin beds with mosquito nets) and latrine up the hill were exceedingly clean.

Rock Climbing and Treading Water

A forty-five minute descent, on foot, brought us to the canyon, and the Rio Coco. Not unlike The Narrows in Utah's famed Zion National Park, the walls of the ravine beckoned and we scrambled nimble as schoolchildren along the rocky trail. A bit too hastily perhaps. Within minutes, Nicolas slipped on a narrow ledge and tumbled into the water, head first. Luckily, the only thing bruised was his tender ego.

I, on the other hand, was having a bit of difficulty maintaining my balance while maneuvering on the uneven stones. No matter though, because our charming guides -- Olvin and Renaldo - -were more than willing to shepherd me by the hand along the entire course of the meandering river; adeptly, the two of them helped me navigate the winding channels.

Appreciating the Scenery and the Local Customs

It felt just like when I rafted in the Grand Canyon--with the steep granite facade of the gorge, looming on both sides of the valley, I experienced that same sensation of smallness, of being just an inconsequential speck in an infinitesimal cosmos. At each new bend in the river, it seemed as if we were trapped,with no way out. Glancing behind, to where we'd just been, it looked as if there was no turning back.

So, we continued our course along the shoreline of the Rio Coco, alternately swimming in deep water or wallowing in the shoals. Near the end of our journey, at a concrete embankment leading to the road, we waved to a young local boy bathing the family burro in the shallows. Dousing the donkey with river run-off from a bright blue bucket then scrubbing him with a sponge. Both appeared to be enjoying the crisp, cool water; needless to say, neither the youngster nor his burrito paid us the slightest attention.

We followed the tree-lined route back to the homestead where we shared a relaxing evening chatting with the Soriano clan. Up a little after sunrise, about 6:00 a.m., we said our good-byes and caught a ride back into the town of Somoto. Back to the chicken bus. With a couple bags of rosquillas (corn snacks) tucked tightly in our rucksack, we bumped along the highway of northern Nicaragua -- towards Esteli,back ON the beaten' path.

If You Go

You can find out more about this volunteer tourism agency and some of their tours, accommodations at: Cafe Lazy Luna and TreeHuggers All profits directly benefit the local communities.

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Vickie Lillo
is a Florida-based travel writer, multi-lingual, and an avid adventure traveler who appreciates meeting new people and experiencing new cultures from around the world. She is proud to say that she has already given the gift of the love for travel to her 13-year old son.

Photos by Vickie and Gustavo Lillo

Published: January 17th, 2014

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