I hunt for a lot of things. Skittles, for one. Street dogs to pet, for another. Bottomless mimosas, craft supplies, and outfits that can be both business and casual are additional examples. So when I say that I hunted for sloths inside one of Nicaragua’s best kept secrets, I’m obviously referring to an activity sans weapons. Unless you count an extremely positive attitude as a weapon. Badda bing.
While reading Lonely Planet’s book on Nicaragua, I spent a lot of time evaluating the various national parks on offer. A surprising 17% of the country is considered “protected area,” which includes volcanoes, lakes, and jungles. The one that caught my eye in a big way was the Reserva Natural Macizos de Peñas Blancas in the northern highlands. Described as “possibly the most enchanting nature reserve in Northern Nicaragua” with “massive cathedral trees draped in orchids… as many as 48 waterfalls,” and “an incredible array of fauna, including pumas, jaguars, large troops of monkeys and many rare bird species.” I knew we needed to make our way out there. And it was a long way out there—a 2.5 hour drive from Managua to Matagalpa followed by another 2.5 hour drive from Matagalpa to the reserve, with a 12km unpaved kicker of a road to finish ‘er off. But what is time when there are sloths and big kitties to be seen?
We arranged an overnight trip through Matagalpa Tours and hit the road in our rental car, grabbing our bilingual guide, Marlon, along the way. As we descended the dirt road into the park, I knew that the drive had been worth it.
A newly built jungle hut awaited us at Centro Entiendemiento con la Naturaleza (CEN), a scientific research post and non-profit organization that manages the reserve. With a treehouse feel and open walls that gave way to the sounds of the jungle, I was in heaven.
We spent the next two days hiking through both secondary and primary forest (the main difference being that secondary forest was reforested after formerly being used as farmland). We passed a cave where jaguars have been known to sleep, came across the carcass of a wild pig that a large predator had attacked, and passed by over a dozen small waterfalls leading up to the largest, the Arco Iris at 120m high. The experience threw me back to my time in Bolivia where I traipsed through the jungle with Gato the puma every day for a month. The slippery muddy trails were the same, but I knew that seeing a large cat in this environment would be far different than the rescued animals at Parque Machia. This was the real deal.
In the end I didn’t see my sloth, or a jaguar, or an ocelot, or even a quetzal. I know they were out there, probably laughing at me as I tripped over and over as I scanned the trees overhead. But it didn’t matter. I felt like I had experienced something truly special that few other tourists, or even Nicaraguans, have had a chance to see. Yes, it was a long schlep out there, but as I’ve learned over the past few years—convenience and incredible travel experiences rarely go hand in hand.
Photos from the Reserva Natural Macizos de Peñas Blancas can be found via the PHOTOS tab above. You can also follow my adventures on Instagram @off_she_goes.
WANT TO HAVE A SIMILAR EXPERIENCE? HERE ARE THE IMPORTANT DETAILS:
Tour Company: We booked just one day in advance and had a very positive experience with Matagalpa Tours. Our guide, Marlon, was an English teacher for 20 years before starting his own translation business. He was knowledgeable and honest, giving us a lot of insight into the various conflicts in Nicaragua and sharing candid information about his family’s experience. We cannot say enough good things about him.
Cost: We paid $160 for two of us, plus $20 tip for Marlon and a small tip for the local guide and chef at the park. The per person cost would decrease if you had up to four.
Getting There: We drove ourselves to the park and saved around $150 versus a taxi service. On the morning of the tour, we simply picked up our guide and hit the road, dropping him off back in Matagalpa at the conclusion. If you want to tackle the trip completely on your own, you can take a chicken bus from Matagalpa to El Cuá and get off at the Empalme la Manzana turnoff ($2.25; 3 hours). The park is 600m off the main road.
Accommodations: The tour arranged our hut at CEN, but I suppose you could call and arrange it yourself if your Spanish is strong. The bamboo hut was open to the jungle on one side, but mosquitoes weren’t a problem.
What to Bring: For hiking: Long pants, a poncho or raincoat, mosquito spray. For lounging: Warm top, long pants, flashlight.
What is Provided: Rubber boots for hiking, unless you wear larger than a men’s size 12. A local guide must accompany all groups, and you’ll understand why once you get into the tangled jungle. The water at CEN is drinkable, so simply bring a water bottle to refill.