Hiking Bosawás Biosphere Reserve

Located 350 kilometers north of Managua, the 730,000 hectares of land collectively known as Bosawás are located within the municipalities of Waspám, Bonanza, Siuna, El Cuá-Bocay, Wiwilí, and Waslala. Although inhabited by some 40,000 widely dispersed people (more than half of whom are Mayangna and Miskito), most of Bosawás remains unexplored, unmapped, and untamed. Its name is derived from the region’s three most salient features: the Río Bocay (BO), Cerro Saslaya (SA), and the Río Waspuk (WAS).

Penas Blancas in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve.
Penas Blancas in the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve. Photo © Rebecca Ore (Own work), licensed CC BY-SA 3.0.

It’s the largest uninterrupted tract of primary rainforest north of the Amazon. Besides unparalleled stretches of cloud forest, Bosawás contains tropical humid forest, rainforest, and a wealth of disparate ecosystems that vary in altitude from 30 meters above sea level at the mouth of the Waspuk River to the 1,650-meter peak of Cerro Saslaya. Bosawás is a Central American treasure, an immense genetic reserve of species that have vanished elsewhere in Mesoamerica, including jaguars, rare small mammals, 12 kinds of poisonous snakes, and many bird species, including the gorgeous scarlet macaw and 34 boreal migratory species.

Bosawás was designated a protected reserve in 1997, but where there is no money, there is little enforcement and few rangers. There are many more desperately poor who continue to make a living from this ancient land. In many cases, this translates into slash-and-burn clearing of the forests and the continual push of the agricultural frontier, mostly for subsistence. The 1.8 million acres of protected area was declared a part of the Nature Conservancy’s international Parks in Peril program in 2001.

Visiting the Reserve

To do anything in Bosawás, you must receive permission (free). In Siuna, talk to the Bosawás Office (at central park near the stadium, not far from Hotelito Los Chinitos, tel. 505/2794-2036) who will help arrange a guide. There is also a park office in Bonanza (Barrio Marcos Antonio Samarriba, tel. 505/2794-0109), located in the MARENA office, that can help you find local trails and guides. The Bonanza INTUR (next to Casa Materna in the mayor’s office, tel. 505/8665-9534, Mon.-Fri. 8am-noon and 1pm-5pm) delegate can also help you get in touch with the Bosawás Offices. Guides ($15-25/day plus food) are both obligatory and absolutely necessary. You may be convinced to hire two guides for your trip, a recommended safety and comfort precaution.

Maps - Nicaragua 6e - Puerto Cabezas and the Río Coco
Puerto Cabezas and the Río Coco

Unless you have months to explore the reserve, you’ll have to pick and choose from various possible destinations. Get off the bus at Casa Roja (1.5 hours from Siuna) to stage an ascent of Cerro Saslaya (4-5 days); or continue to Santa Rosita (2.5-hour bus ride) for a two-hour hike to the river or trailhead to Cerro El Torro (4-5 days). Waslala is a 4-5 hour ride from Siuna and home to the original tomb of Carlos Fonseca (his remains were moved to Managua after the revolution’s victory).

Be advised: Any trip in Bosawás is a serious backcountry undertaking and should not be attempted without proper supplies, some wilderness experience, a tolerance for dampness and discomfort, and a basic survival instinct. You should already have supplies like water bottles, a mosquito net, and some kind of pump or purifying tablets for water (start your hike with at least three liters; a fresh source is available in the park), a brimmed hat, sunscreen, sturdy shoes, and a medical kit. Additional supplies that can be purchased in Siuna or Bonanza include rubber boots (for snakes and knee-level mud), four yards of heavy black plastic for a roof in the jungle, a piece of plastic or waterproof cover for your backpack, a machete, a hammock, extra rope, and food.

Take a local bus to Rosa Grande, then walk or rent a horse ($5/day) to Rancho Alegre. From there, the journey is a challenging one-hour hike through the community of Rancho Alegre to a series of waterfalls at Salto Labu. Another one-hour hike up a steep path leads to Mirador, a lookout and an incredible view of an absolutely stunning waterfall, before you reach the primary forest on the path into Bosawás.

Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.