My first Nicaraguan adventure began in Masaya, “The City of the Flowers”, a little less than an hour from the capital, Managua. This town was the perfect stop en route to our final destination, a rugged seaside village a few hours away. In Masaya, I was able to have a couple of days to ease into the new environment, language, and culture, before being immersed in dirt, dust, intense heat/humidity, and dramatic surf.
Masaya is the third most populated city in Nicaragua, near lakes and volcanoes, and is home to Nicaraguan artisans, folklore, and traditional handicrafts. It is the center of cultural festivals such as the fall Torovenado processions and San Jerónimo festival, as well as weekly folkloric dances in the Mercado de Artesanías, also known as Mercado Viejo.
The Parque Central is the center of town, hosting family oriented play areas, open restaurants, snack and ice cream vendors, merchandise sellers, and a beautiful 18th Century church, Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Asunción. Numerous shops, including the electronic district and Pali supermarket, restaurants, cafes, and the Mercado de Artesanías line the perimeter of the park.
Way back, in the Pre-Columbian era, Masaya was first inhabited by an indigenous Mexican group known as the Dirianes. The Dirianes were skilled farmers and creative artists who were devoted practitioners of witchcraft and medicinal remedies. The Dirianes were conquered during the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century, and as history often presents, cultures blended forming a mixture of European and indigenous traditions that are practiced and celebrated in Masaya today.
The Town Center
Masaya is one of the only towns in all of Nicaragua where tourists can find an abundance of cultural goods and souvenirs. The Mercado de Artesanías, an old Spanish fort dating back to the late 1800s, is a concentrated square block of vendors selling everything from folklorico paintings, clay wind chimes, and leather belts to “Yo love Nicaragua” shot glasses, embroidered blouses, and colorful placemats. The high block walled structure was burned by Samoza’s troops during Nicaragua’s 1978 Revolution and abandoned for decades. In the 1990’s, it was restored and established as an outdoor market with cramped stalls and rickety roofs.
The Mercado also hosts a number of food vendors selling pork, rice and beans (gallo pinto), plantains, smoothies, candied fruits, sweet breads, roasted peanuts, gaseosas (sodas), and more. Since many tourists pass through this area, be prepared to bargain and have small córdoba bills on hand to minimize dealing with change. Since the heat and the shopping at the Mercado can get a bit overwhelming, I suggest taking a pit stop for a smoothie at Fruti Fruit, near the main stage in the fort. They offer a variety of delicious anxiety quenching smoothies that will keep you going for the rest of the day.
The hammock district lies in a neighborhood just beyond the perimeter of the Parque Central. Within a small quarter square mile radius, home fronts serve as workshops displaying beautiful brightly colored hand woven single and double hammocks, hammock chairs and benches, doll hammocks, and even hammock baby swings. Without harassment, vendors invite interested wanderers to take a look at their stock of hammocks, boasting of the quality. Most of the time a price will be lowered a bit here and there, especially when buying more than one hammock, but a few vendors, knowing the effort and pride put into creating these works of art, will not budge. In selecting a hammock, look for ones that are thickly, sturdily, and tightly woven with no loose threads. If the quality is excellent, but the displayed colors and patterns are not desirable, explain what you’re looking for and ask to see more. Sellers often store a variety of hammocks in a side room.
My favorite fine dining getaway in town is 1900 Restaurante-Café. During the search for a place to enjoy a nice dinner before venturing off to the “badlands”, I stumbled upon a restaurant plaque on a wall near the Pali supermarket, but didn’t see any restaurant. Curiosity sent me down a narrow walkway to a beautiful secluded outdoor patio seating area in the middle of a quiet courtyard. The atmosphere, delicious gourmet dishes, and ice cold Toñas suited me just fine. 1900 Restaurante is the ideal place to splurge a little for a nice dinner.
In November, I was so fortunate to pass through Masaya for a day trip on the way to the airport during the San Jerónimo celebration, one of Nicaragua’s biggest and most famous cultural festivals. To see, and read more, visit my video: Masaya, Nicaragua fall fiesta of San Jerónimo .
Where to Stay
I highly recommend staying at Hotel Casa Robleto, the most charming family owned bed and breakfast. Like most homes in Masaya, the outside is nothing more than a huge wall on the sidewalk with two stylishly old wrought iron gates fortifying carved wooden doors. Entering through those doors was like stepping out of the wardrobe into Narnia. I was greeted by the owner, a pleasant middle-aged man (we’ll call him “Mr. Robleto”, since I don’t recall his name, though that very well may be his name), whose family has owned this property for over a century. The front room is decorated in rich walnut curio cabinets and intricately carved royal mahogany tables and chairs. Framed vintage photos of family members line shelves and plastered walls and at some point during our stay, Robleto gave a very interesting run down of each of his relations pictured.
Beyond the grand room, the patterned ceramic floor tile flows out into an opened air square courtyard centered around a patch of grassy pathway, flowing fountain, and tropical flowers. The far end begins with an office desk, more like a small bar top, and entertainment area which includes a billiards table and television set. Turning a corner, there is a corridor of rooms with doors facing the courtyard, the long porch lined with quaint side tables and lofty rocking chairs. The next ninety-degree turn leads into what would look like your great grandmother’s dining room, and a small kitchen. The invisible half of the quadrilateral shaped property, blocked off by the garden and fountain wall, is the family’s private quarters.
There are only a handful of guestrooms, some with double beds or one large bed, private bathrooms, most with air conditioning, and all super clean, comfortable, and well maintained. Like the entire structure, the rooms have high ceilings with fans, colonial architecture, and stylish antique furniture.
For an extra small fee, and definitely worth it, guests are served a traditional Nicaraguan breakfast in the dining room by the women who run the place. This breakfast usually consists of fresh juice, coffee, tropical fruit, eggs, gallo pinto, and sweet plantains. Nicaragua, unlike the US, is not the land of refills. Therefore, if you don’t get your fill of coffee at the B & B, I suggest hitting one of the coffee shops in the Parque Central area.
Hotel Casa Robleto is within walking distance to the hammock district, Parque Central, Mercado de Artesanías, shops, and restaurants. Walking around town during the day is pretty safe, however, just like any other place, use caution when walking around at night.
If you’re ever in Nicaragua, maybe I’ll…