Peñas Blancas Massif
Nicaragua has plenty of spectacular yet rather unexplored and unknown tourist destinations. A large mountain mass, known as the Peñas Blancas Massif, located in the northern departments of Jinotega and Matagalpa, is one of these stunning places where few people have heard of. However, this area provides plenty of attractions for tourists, including beautiful rain forest, large waterfalls, superb viewpoints, and interesting rural communities. With this Special we aim to increase the public’s knowledge of a destination that has certainly a lot of tourism potential.
The Peñas Blancas Massif
A massif is a section of the earth’s crust that is demarcated by faults or flexures. In other words, it is a region or an area that is visibly moved by the earth’s tectonic forces, much like a mountain but generally as a more separated formation, due to the fact that the area is lifted as a whole. The Peñas Blancas Massif is part of the larger Isabelia Mountain Range, which stretches along the Jinotega department, forming a natural separator of on one side the Bocay and Coco Rivers (and their tributaries) and on the other side the tributaries of the Tuma River.
The massif is situated in both the Jinotega and the Matagalpa department, covering in total three different municipalities (La Dalia and Rancho Grande in Matagalpa, and Cuá-Bocay in Jinotega). In November 1999 the government declared this area, measuring 115.54 Km², a Natural Reserve, in order to protect the primary forests and the important role the area plays in the water balance of a much larger region.
The Peñas Blancas Massif is most notorious for the steep cliff-like walls that arise from the earth’s crust. The presence of calcium gives some of these walls a white color, which explains the name (Peñas Blancas means White Rocks). Due to these particular geographical formations the ecosystems that are present are rather enclosed and therefore capable of housing endemic animal or plant species.
One of the most important attractions of the area is the spectacular natural setting. Not only does the massif hold pristine forest areas, but there are also other aspects that make this a natural hotspot. The Peñas Blancas Massif is part of the huge Bosawas Biosphere Reserve, which is the largest natural reserve in Central America. The massif therefore holds an important role in safeguarding the biosphere’s biodiversity and ensuring survival of species that live in the particular habitats that the Peñas Blancas reserve houses. Cloud and rain forests are found in this area, which are fragile yet very important forest types that are threatened throughout the world. The region is situated at altitudes between 800 and 1,745 meters above sea level, and the parts located above 1,000 meters receive between 1,200 and 2,500 mm of precipitation per year. The rainy season extends from May until February (although this pattern has been changing unpredictably in the past years), and unlike virtually all other parts of Nicaragua there is not one single period of hot summer days in the Peñas Blancas Massif. Although the sun does brighten the day every now and then, there is no such thing as a prolonged dry and sunny period. The median temperatures range between 20 and 24 °C. The heavy rainfall makes the region an important chain in the water balance. Streams, creaks, and waterfalls are among the most common natural elements here, and water from this area feeds several of Nicaragua’s most important rivers, the Coco River and the Rio Grande, which both ultimately empty in the Caribbean Sea. Consequently, protecting the natural processes and the water quality is not only a local issue, but rather of national importance.
A major part of the vegetation at the Peñas Blancas Massif is evergreen, meaning that leaves are not shed and the tree leaves maintain their green color throughout the year. Due to the high fertility of the soil and the abundance of water, vegetation is abundant and often measures an impressive size. Whereas lower mountain forests generally have trees that reach a height of 30-35 meters, the trees in this area can measure up to 50 meters. Vegetation that can be found at Peñas Blancas includes trees like Black Oak, Granadillo and Walnut Trees, as well as giant tree ferns, orchids, bromeliads, heleconias, and palm trees. This large variety of beautiful plants and trees make it spectacular to hike in this area.
Throughout the massif, the quality of the forest varies depending on the level of human impact at the area. Starting in the ‘50s but mostly during the ‘60s foreign companies cut an enormous quantity of trees from the primary forests present in the southern part of the Massif. The lower areas are often used for coffee plantations, and close to the communities there were large tracts of pasture for cattle. Some ten year ago, however, the process of reforesting these meadows has started, and currently secondary forest is replacing these grasslands. The coffee plantations still exist, though, which threatens the forest and the area not just because it means that less forest is present, but also because the chemicals used in the coffee production infiltrate the soil and contaminate the sources of water. Primary forest is present, mostly in the northern and upper parts of the massif. This is the most valuable type of forest, preserving ancient trees and conserving the flora and fauna that was originally found in this area.
When it comes to both flora and fauna there have been few scientific investigations and an exact list of neither plant nor animal species can be given. However, among the animals that have been identified are many mammal species including monkeys (White-headed Capuchin, Mantled Howler Monkeys, and Spider Monkeys), jaguars, pumas, tapirs, and pacas, among others. Plenty of bird species have also been identified, including flycatchers, hummingbirds, parakeets, solitaires, tanagers, warblers, and wrens. A rare bird species that can be found in the Peñas Blancas Massif and only at a few other sites in Nicaragua is the Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno), which breeds at higher elevations in the cloud forests. The Quetzal population is expected to be relatively large but loss of habitat makes it hard for this beautiful bird species to maintain its population at this level. For more information about birdwatching, be sure to read our Birdwatching Special.
A wide variety of frogs and toads can also be found at Peñas Blancas, and often species are seen that are not found at many other places in Nicaragua. Again, lack of investigation makes it unsure to say if there are any rare if not endemic species. This also applies to the reptiles that live here, including snakes and lizards.
The communities living at Peñas Blancas
The fertility of the soil and the abundance of water made the massif an interesting place to settle. Thousands of years ago this area was inhabited by indigenous tribes (mostly Miskito and Mayagna people), but during times of the Spanish conquest these tribes fled to what is currently the RAAN department (Waspan, Siuna, etc.) and the area was uninhabited for a while. However, families from the Jinotega and Condega areas started to migrate to this region and currently there are some 280 families living in the Peñas Blancas Massif.
The people in the region have traditionally been dedicated to farming activities, which is why a certain part of the massif was used as farmland. The main products were coffee and bananas, which made the local economy vulnerable as it depended on these two products only. In recent years, however, things have been changing.
Since the year 2000 the communities have undergone a process of setting up cooperatives, with the support of organizations that operate in this area. There are five different communities, and each community has its own cooperative. These cooperatives are characterized by a high degree of commonly organized and shared activities, aiming to benefit the community as a whole, involving each family in the different activities.
The principal organization that is present in the region is the Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza (CEN), which aims to stimulate investigation and development of institutional indigenous villages, municipalities, and rural organizations. The CNU has investigation centers in Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and its main goals at Peñas Blancas are to protect the water sources and the natural environment, while conserving and restoring indigenous aspects and promoting sustainable development of the rural communities.
One of the consequences of the efforts of the CNU has been the introduction of agricultural diversification, which means that farmers in the area nowadays not only plant bananas and coffee, but a larger variety of products. This makes the producers less vulnerable to price changes, diseases, and bad seasons, while also improving the sustainability of the production, as the soil is less intensively used. Instead of planting on large tracks of farmland, the CNU has introduced a form of planting agricultural products within the secondary forest that has replaced the previous pasture area. The first harvests of tomato, potatoes, cabbage, and pepper have shown that this method indeed yields the same or better results as the previous methods, while significantly increasing the sustainability.
The abundance of water and the well-conserved natural setting have furthermore made this a sanctuary for the Maya people. In the beliefs of this ancient tribes water is one of the principal elements, and every year people from several other Latin American countries (mostly Guatemala) travel to the Peñas Blancas Massif to practice ancient rituals, honoring this sacred area.
During Eastern Week the local population bathes in the rivers and in the streams, which is common in Nicaragua during this particular week (see our Eastern Week Special). A not so common practice involves covering the body with white clay found in the area, in order to heal and improve the skin, which is also done during the Eastern Week.
Getting to know the rural population at the Peñas Blancas Massif is certainly an interesting option for visitors. The local population knows a lot about the area and about local practices and habits, which can certainly be interesting to foreign visitors. Options to stay at the homes of local farmers (more information below) should certainly be considered when interested in learning more about the way of living in this area.
Visiting the Peñas Blancas Massif
Tourists are welcome to visit this unexplored area, and although it takes some more effort to visit than other, more developed areas; the Peñas Blancas Massif is certainly worth the effort for people interested in nature that do not sun a certain touch of adventure.
When it comes to tourism infrastructure the Alliance for Rural, Community-Based Tourism (Alianza para el Turismo Comunitario Rural de Peñas Blancas) is trying to set up lodging options in all five communities, and so far there are possibilities in two different communities. There is one eco-lodge in the community of Peñas Blancas (this is the name of the community), providing a rustic, simple ambiance, and there are also lodging options at the homes of farmers in this same community and in the community called Valle de los Lyra. Visitors should not provide luxury or a wide variety of amenities, but tourist can count on the warm hospitality of their hosts.
Two main types of activities form the main attraction in this area: exploring the stunning natural settings, and getting to know the rural population and their way of living. People interested in nature and hiking can find a wide array of activities, involving the exploration of the forests, waterfalls, viewpoints, and other natural attractions. Due to the fact that tourists are just beginning to arrive here, there are not many well-prepared trails or visitor centers like at other natural reserves. However, there are quite some hiking options varying in length and difficulty. Below is an overview:
El Cafetal Trail
Duration: depending on the hiker
Particularities: visitors get to know a coffee farm, including the plantation and the production processes.
El Sonoro Trail
Duration: 20 minutes
Particularities: two types of ecosystems are present, and visitors can bathe in a water stream.
La Piscina de las Guardatinajas Trail
Duration: 20 minutes
Particularities: great views, including view of the Pavona waterfall from afar, and it ends at a stream where hikers have the option to bathe.
La Pavona Trail
Duration: 1:30 – 2 hours
Particularities: impressive quantity of water in the form of streams, creaks, and waterfalls. Forest regeneration can be observed and there is stunning vegetation with at the end of the ascending trail one of the most impressive waterfalls of the area.
El Horno Trail
Duration: 3 hours
Particularities: beautiful, primary forest with guides explaining about the interaction between soil, rocks, and water. Visitors can camp at the top to see quetzals fly out early in the morning. For adventurers.
La Media Luna
Duration: undefined, depending on the hiker
Difficulty: very hard
Particularities: there is no structured trail at all! Hikers will explore the pristine forest and can reach a beautiful viewpoint. For extreme adventurers.
All hikes should be undertaken with a local guide, who can also explain more about the flora and fauna of the region and make it easier to spot animals or interesting details. The price of the hikes is around US$5 per person (including guide), with decreasing prices when with more people and increasing prices when hiking tougher trails.
People interested in learning more about the local communities can undertake several activities. Booking a home-stay is a first step to become involved in the everyday routine of the farmers. Participating in other activities like milking the cows or cutting coffee is also possible, and tourists can also visit a local furniture maker. After arriving at the area, other activities can also be organized in coordination with people from the community.
The Peñas Blancas Massif is located some 200 kilometers from Managua (60 from Matagalpa), and can be reached by using public or private transportation. From Matagalpa, it takes about 2 hours from Matagalpa using private transportation, and 2.5-3 hours in bus.
Route in car (from Managua)
Head north over the Pan American highway, taking a right turn at Sebaco in the direction of Matagalpa. In Matagalpa, take the road to El Tuma and La Dalia. At La Dalia, head towards El Cuá, and take a right at the sign that says ‘Centro del Entrendimiento de la Naturaleza’ (at Km. 195 of the road to El Cuá), heading towards the community of Peñas Blancas. Here, ask for the house of Don Chico, where more information about hikes and guides can be found. The eco-lodge is located along this road. The last part of the road is a dirt road that requires a high-clearance vehicle (preferably 4WD, especially in the rainy season). For more information about transportation in Nicaragua, see this section about Transporation, or this map with road times and other useful details.
Getting there using public transportation (from Managua)
Take a microbus from the Mayoreo Market. These buses leave for Matagalpa every hour from 4 AM until 6 PM. In Matagalpa, take a taxi to reach the Guanuca bus station, and take a bus to El Cuá or to Bocay (buses depart at 6 AM, 9 AM, 10 AM, 12 PM, and 1:30 PM). Get off the bus at Empalme La Manzana, some 14 kilometers before El Cuá, in the community of Peñas Blancas. The ecolodge and the house of don Chico are located within 600 meters from there.
Tips and hints
The Peñas Blancas Massif has a very humid climate with plenty of rainfall, so bringing protection from the rain (raincoat, boots, etc.) is certainly useful. Bringing insect repellent is also a good idea. There are furthermore some policies at Peñas Blancas that make this area stand out from other rural communities (and from other tourist centers as well). In this region, alcohol consumption is not allowed, nor is smoking within the area of the community. Visitors should also respect nature and the people in the communities, and take special care of garbage. Visitors are expected to take everything that is brought to Peñas Blancas back home, so when bringing food or other products that cause garbage, visitors should bag this and take it back instead of leaving it at the reserve.
There are eateries in the zone so food can be bought on-site. The eateries generally serve delicious home-backed, traditional food, but small shops also have cookies and other food that can be brought along a hike.
Good hiking boots are also useful, and it can prove practical to bring extra clothes as the rain easily gets things wet. Temperatures are generally lower than in other parts of Nicaragua, so it can be a good idea to bring a sweater or jacket. Tools that should not be forgotten include a camera and a pair of binoculars, and a flashlight.
Due to the fact that the area is not heavily visited, it is recommended to make reservations ahead to ensure that everything is in order when arriving. For more information or to make reservations, contact the CEN at the following address:
Centro de Entendimiento con la Naturaleza
Km.195 carretera a El Cuá
Phone: (505) 470 7590 or (505) 413 1827