|The Walls of the Mercado Viejo
Although there are other smaller artisan markets within the city, the majority of tourists tend to flock toward the Mercado Artesanías or also known as the Mercado Viejo. Located one block east of the Parque 17 de Octubre, it was built in 1888 as a gigantic Gothic structure reminiscent of a Spanish fortress. It covers an entire city block complete with turrets, towers, and enormous gates. It was formerly used as a regular market, but in 1978, the National Guard during Somoza's dictatorship practically destroyed it. Left abandoned for almost two decades, it was fortunately renovated in 1994. Today, it is packed with stall after stall of Nicaragua's finest arts and crafts. The large, open-air walkways are visitor friendly and somewhat commercialized so be prepared to pay higher prices compared to other markets around town. The merchants are fully aware that busloads of tourist stop by with plenty of money to spend. So be aware because the prices can be somewhat on the high side.
For those who desire a more authentic market experience, with crowded stalls, sometimes stifling heat, and more standard goods, the Mercado Municipal Ernest Fernández is located less than a quarter-mile east of the Mercado Artesanías. There you will find stalls of artesanías with the owners ready to bargain to some of the cheapest prices around. In addition, it is the best place to enjoy the comedores (cheap eateries) that sell everything from carne asada, rice and beans, and every type of snack available. The setting is far less flashy and well worth the visit, but just be aware of your valuables since the crowds can be a haven for pickpockets.
What to Shop For in Masaya, Nicaragua
As with Central American outdoor markets, always be prepared to negotiate and never accept the first offer unless you are about to miss your bus. Negotiation is always part of the cultural experience and it is expected by all of the vendors. With a seemingly endless supply of crafts ranging from leather sandals and wood carvings to beautiful pottery and paintings, here is a general list of the most popular items for sale:
Hammocks: The hammocks are offered in colors ranging from plain to festive, and consist of two overall designs: the one-person version that hangs like a swing, and the large one that can comfortably accommodate two people. The hammocks have become one of Nicaragua's trademark crafts and even though traveling back home with them can be a slight hassle, the effort is rewarded once you take your first nap in one.
Black Ceramics: This heavy ceramic pottery is specific to the cities of Jinotega and Matagalpa in the north. Although these crafts are not originally from Masaya, there are plenty of stalls selling these black ceramics for a negotiated price. Crafted from volcanic clay, these crafts are formed into a variety of designs ranging from small figurines to large decorative pots, and then buffed and polished into their typical dark shine.
Soapstone Sculptures: These beautiful, smooth sculptures are specific to the San Juan de Limay region. But as beautiful as they are, keep in mind that they can be very heavy. This can cause problems especially when shipping them back or carrying them around for the rest of your vacation. So make sure to plan ahead when traveling with them.
Jícara Shells: These shells come from the first plants domesticated to the country of Nicaragua, and they are usually carved into interesting varieties of cups and bowls.
Woodcarvings: These intricately designed carvings range in an almost endless variety of styles including everything from toys for children to elaborate religious artwork. A good share of the carvings comes in a tropical theme, which is not surprising since they primarily come from the indigenous Caribbean tribes.
Paintings: Some of these paintings are produced by some of the finest Nicaraguan artists. Most focus on natural landscapes and everyday village life. The prices (also negotiable) can range dramatically depending on the level of the artist and the negotiating skills of the buyer.
Natural Weavings: There are literally thousands of choices ranging from the pita hats of Camoapa to the reed mats of Masatepe. Again, they can be plain to highly decorative.
Memorabilia: Every possible item that a Nicaraguan logo could be placed on, it is sold. T-shirts are especially popular and can be negotiated down to almost nothing. For those in the revolutionary spirit, the Che Guevara items are offered on jewelry, t-shirts, leather items and carvings. Some vendors claim that there are more Guevara items sold there than in Cuba.
Organic Coffee: Unless a trip is planned to the Northern Highlands and Estelí, make sure to purchase some high-quality Nicaraguan coffee. It is some of the best in region.
Finally, if the timing is right, and all of the shopping is done, try to view the Noches Verbenas. Held on Thursday evenings, this free folk-dance exhibition includes excellent Nicaraguan marimba performances and freshly made traditional foods. In addition to the country's high-quality crafts, this festival can be the perfect end for a visit to this colorful city.