Published on May 3rd, 2015 | by Eleni N. Gage
Fiestas, Forever: 4 Nicaraguan Festivals You Shouldn’t Miss
In her novel, The Ladies of Managua, author Eleni N. Gage delves deeply into one family’s most intimate secrets and reminds us what it means to love the people and the places we each call home. In this feature for LatinFlyer.com, this New York City-based journalist shares her favorite travel tips for four Nicaraguan festivals you shouldn’t miss.
Growing numbers of visitors are drawn to Nicaragua by its natural beauty and opportunities for adventure travel. You can surf volcanic ash or Pacific ocean waves, fish in the Caribbean or swim in a lake so large it’s known as the “sweet sea.” I appreciated the lush scenery during the seven months our family lived in Granada, Nicaragua. But, as someone who majored in Folklore and Mythology in college, I enjoyed the local festivals even more. One of my favorite things about living in Granada was how you couldn’t help but be drawn into the pageantry of the city. Religious parades passed by our door every Friday during Lent. Parrots flew overhead. And when we were too tired to walk home after dinner, it was cheaper and easier to flag down a horse and carriage than a taxi. There’s almost always some sort of celebration going on in Nicaragua. With a little advance planning, you can schedule your trip to coincide with one of the more major events on the cultural calendar. Here are a few of my favorites.
Every January, the small town of Diriamba hosts one of the cornerstones of Nicaraguan folk tradition: The Güegüense, a combination dance/play that has been performed there and in the neighboring villages since the 18th century. Believed to have been composed in Nahuatl by an anonymous artist and passed on orally, the Güegüense is a kind of musical-slash-subversive-soap-opera about marriage, deception, and colonialism. Participants wear masks to play the role of locals with black mustaches, Spaniards with blond mustaches, and donkeys. The plot revolves around an old man (the Güegüense) who is planning a wedding between his son and one of three ladies, and also trying to avoid paying taxes to the Spaniards. After the masked revelers dance up and down the aisles of Diriamba’s church on Saint Sebastian’s feast day, they’re followed by a parade of statues of saints. Legend has it that if you shimmy in front of a saint while making a wish, it will be granted. And if your experience is anything like mine, you’ll also be the only tourist in attendance.
The International Poetry Festival
Along with coffee and beef, poetry is said to be one of Nicaragua’s most fertile areas of production. Nicaraguans revere their national poets—from Ruben Dario, the 19th-century modernist, to Ernesto Cardenal, the priest and father of Liberation theology during the Revolution of the 1970s who was nominated for a Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry—and they often name streets, hotels and other landmarks for them. As if that weren’t enough, the eight-day International Poetry Festival was inaugurated in Granada in 2005 and is held there every year in February. A major tourist draw which also brings writers from all over the world, the event features nightly parties and concerts by beloved musicians such as the Mejia Godoy brothers, and daily parades, including one which culminates in a mock funeral observing the burial of ignorance, and showcases dancers from all over the country.
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It’s already hot and humid by the time holy week rolls around (Easter is March 27 in 2016), and the jet set of Managua spends their time off at the beach. But neither the heat nor the holiday stops others all over Nicaragua from staying home during Holy Week to mount countless religious parades, in which statues of saints and children dressed as Biblical characters process through the streets, sometimes re-enacting the Stations of the Cross by stopping at fourteen different houses where altars have been erected. Arguably the prettiest of the parades doesn’t walk down any street at all; the locals who live in the isletas, the 365 islands within Lake Cocibolca, pile into little boat and sail to fourteen different ports, following a lead boat with a statue of Jesus, and trailed by fellow pilgrims and onlookers.
The most rockin’ homage to the Virgin Mary you’re likely to see in your lifetime, the Purisimas are nine days and nights commemorating the holiday of the Immaculate Conception. All over the country individuals and businesses hold Purisima celebrations in their homes, inviting guests to sing songs and receive goody bags of traditional gifts including tambourines, candies, juice, and fruit, often presented in sacks or Tupperware emblazoned with images of the Madonna. In Granada, each afternoon during the Purisimas, the Virgin Mary statue from the Catedral is paraded through the town to a different neighborhood, where everyone comes out to sing to her, dance to marimba music, set off homemade fireworks, eat candied apples and cotton candy, and applaud whenever the master of ceremonies yells, “Let’s give a big hand for the Virgin!” Then the statue is pulled back to the Catedral on a float, surrounded by girls dressed as angels. The whole affair ends on December eighth the feast day of the Immaculate Conception, making the seventh your last chance to join in the shouted call and refrain “Quien causa tanta alegria?” “La Concepcion de Maria!” (What’s the cause of all this happiness? The conception of Mary!) For this reason, the seventh is called La Griteria, or “The Shouting.” Regardless of your religion, chances are you’ll find yourself joining in the joyful noise; when you’re in Nicaragua, the love of partying is contagious.