Sunday, September 25, 2011

Exploring Los Pueblos Blancos in Nicaragua

Scattered throughout the hills approximately nine miles northwest of Masaya, Nicaragua are a collection of isolated towns known as Los Pueblos Blancos. Meaning White Villages, these small communities received their name because many of the buildings and streets were once constructed with a combination of volcanic rock, water, and limestone that gave them a chalky-white color. In addition, there are stories where many of the buildings were once whitewashed to ward off evil spirits. Unfortunately, most of buildings have since been painted in a variety of colors other than white and the roads have now been paved, but the villages are still an easy, one-day trip for any visitor in either Managua or Masaya. Each village has its own special characteristic and with an average elevation of 1,600 feet, the views of the surroundings are spectacular.

For visitors, one of the most important reasons to come to Los Pueblos Blancos is to shop for the fine arts and crafts produced by its highly skilled residents. Each individual town offers its own signature craft and it becomes immediately obvious what they are by just glancing at the roadside stands when you cross each border. Many of the artists support themselves and their families by selling their work and in several locations, visitors can even watch ceramics and pottery being fired in the on-site kilns. Each workshop produces crafts of all shapes and sizes that range from decorative dishes and vases to intricate wood carvings and rocking chairs. Some items include price tags while others do not. But in both cases, negotiation is highly expected. Unless you are in a hurry, take the time to walk through several workshops before purchasing something (since many of the stores sell the same items) and always bargain because it is part of the overall cultural experience.

The Towns of Los Pueblos Blancos

Catarina - Located at the crossroads of Los Pueblos Blancos, Catarina is mostly known for its excellent mirador (lookout point) as seen in the photo at the top of this article. It provides breathtaking views of Laguna de Apoyo (a volcanic crater lake) as well as the city of Granada and Lake Nicaragua. According to local legend, this viewpoint was one of young Augusto Sandino's favorite places to contemplate decisions and where he received his best ideas when planning the future liberation of the country. Visitors will find many stalls selling everything from t-shirts to arts and crafts as well as some perfectly placed restaurants with some of the best views in the region. But the town’s main crafts are its carved wooden furniture pieces as well as the bright, tropical plants produced by the well-known viveros (greenhouses) that attracts buyers from all over the area. For those arriving by car, safe and secure parking is available for a fee of C20.

San Juan de Oriente – Also known as San Juan de los Platos due to their tradition of producing high-quality ceramics, this picturesque colonial town has actually been in the pottery business for more than 1,000 years, although many its best artists were lost during the colonial period. Fortunately, the Sandinistas in the 1980s made an effort to revive the craft by forming the Artesanos Unidos, a cooperative union that trained locals in everything from using the potter’s wheel and firing the kiln to painting the finished products. The shops line the cobblestone streets and offer an overwhelming number of pottery, decorative pieces, and vases of all sizes as well as wall hangings that resemble little houses (casitas). The most famous workshop is the Cooperativa Quetzalcóatl, but there are at least a couple dozen other places to purchase these crafts. Again, bargaining is expected, so take the time to search out the best deal.

(Photo by Celestemy)
Diría – Located south of San Juan de Oriente, it also includes a mirador even though it is not as popular as Catarina’s. The mirador is located east of the cemetery, just south of the Parroquia San Pedro in the center of town. The church itself was built in 1650 at the location where Cacique (chief) Diriangén of the Dirian tribe first met conquistador Gil González Dávila in 1523. After the Spanish gave Diriangén an ultimatum (with a three-day deadline) to convert to Christianity, he refused and attacked the conquistadors instead. Today, both this town and Diriomo are named after the chief to commemorate his risky but brave act of defiance.

(Photo by Manfut)
Diriomo - Located across the street from Diría, it is known as the Witch Capital of the Meseta. It is known for its tradition of black magic and curanderos (folk healers), who claim to do everything from healing ailments to reading your future (for a negotiable fee). Whether you believe it or not, the healers of Diriomo have remained proud of their skills, even after periods of oppression. Since many of them offer their services directly from their homes, it is best to visit the alcadía (mayor's office) to ask about specific locations. The town is also known for its cajetas (rich fruit-flavored sweets) as well as an alcoholic corn beverage called chicha bruja.

Niquinohomo – Meaning Valley of the Warriors in Náhuatl, this 16th-century Spanish colonial village is known as the birthplace of Augusto César Sandino. A large, bronze statue of Sandino is proudly displayed at the entrance to town and his birthplace and childhood home is located at the northwestern corner of the town’s plaza. It includes a small room with a variety of important artifacts and biographical information of his dramatic and influential life. Admission is free and it is open weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon, and 2 to 6 p.m.

Masatepe - This colonial town provides more picturesque views of Masaya and centers around its specialty as the rocking chair capital of the country. The town’s former railway station has been transformed into one of the best artisan markets in the area where rows of cane-woven rocking chairs await a new home. Located at the main plaza is the Iglesia San Juan Bautista that offers spectacular views of the Volcán Masaya from its gates. The town is also known for several food specialties such as a soup called mondongo (tripe marinated with oranges and herbs and simmered with vegetables for hours), and tamugas, much like a nacatamale (cornmeal, meat, vegetables and herbs wrapped with banana leaves) but made with sticky rice instead of cornmeal.

San Marcos – Located approximately five miles west of Masatepe, this is the largest town of Los Pueblos Blancos. Compared to its quieter neighboring towns, San Marcos seems busy, mostly due to the student activity from its Ave Maria University. Historically, the town is located on one of the oldest human settlements in Nicaragua, and excavations have unearthed artifacts that date back to 2500 B.C. But it will always be known as the birthplace of Anastasio Somoza García, the original dictator who notoriously led the country through fear and intimidation. Not surprisingly, there are no statues in his honor in the town.

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