Festivals are fascinating showcases of Nicaraguan culture and tradition and every visitor should see at least one before they leave. With more than two hundred going on it is hard to choose which to experience, so let’s break it down into the best of the best for each month of the year. Presenting the twelve can’t miss festivals of 2015.
San Silvestre Papa
If you aren’t going to the beach or taking today as a recovery day from the party last night, head out to Catarina on the first for Nicaragua’s number one can’t miss festival in January.
Have you ever seen a bulldeer? It’s a mix between (you guessed it) a bull and a deer. They call it Torovenado in Spanish, we call it one of the strangest festivals we have seen. Especially considering it is to celebrate the good Saint Silvester.
The Torovenado parade is when hundreds of masked revelers march (perhaps crawl or creep or slither would be a better word) dressed as a zoo of jungle animals, devils and demons, caricatures of famous politicians and, well, anything goes. This festival brings out the best in Nicaraguan traditions with the Torovenado as well as other characters such as the Gigantona, the Viejo and Vieja and the little indians.
People start to gather in the morning when typical Nicaraguan dishes such as Nacatamales, Indio Viejo and Rosquillas are served. If you have ever wanted to eat festival food out of a banana leaf, this is the place to be. About noon is when the first march starts; it the official Saint part of the festival. It is when the devout followers of San Silvestre Papa gather around the statue of the saint outside of the church and shower him with offerings of fruit and flowers. He doesn’t eat much but that doesn’t stop the faithful from tying their offerings on sticks that reach over to the figure. It is the thought that counts. The procession of people, offerings and the saint make their way through the quaint village of Catarina with the Torovenado trailing close behind.
Catarina is located just a half-hour outside of Managua. The festival started last year and ends today, the first of January.
Don’t miss the amazing view of Laguna de Apoyo while you are there. From the vantage point on the edge of town you can see the entire lagoon and Granada with its isletas spilling into Lake Nicaragua. It’s worth the trip even if there is no festival going on!
International Poetry Festival
Nicaragua loves their poetry and this is the largest poetry events in all of Central America. Over 50 countries are expected to be represented by hundred of poets during this week-long celebration of the beauty of the written and spoken word in the rustic colonial city of Granada. It would have brought tears to the eyes of Ruben Dario.
Every year the work of a prominent Nicaraguan poet is featured. If you have ever wanted to rub shoulders with the heavyweights of Nica literature, this is the place to be. Throughout the week there are readings scheduled in different churches, markets, city streets, schools, even the police station. The event is so popular that readings spill over into neighboring pueblos of Masaya, Diria, Masatepe, all the way up to Leon. It’s a definitely worth exploring to not just get a feel of the Nicaraguan poetry scene, but also the culture of the villages.
In addition to poetry recitals there is also a book fair and an artists fair as well as a “cultural identity carnival” that features traditional Nicarauan dancing and cultural manifestations like the Gigantona and her little indigenous suitor, the Inano Cabezon (big-headed midget).
Head to Granada during the week of the 15th – 22nd to experience or share in the celebration. The city thanks you. And as poets at heart we say, “De nada, Granada.”
Check out the festival’s official website for more information: www.festivalpoesianicaragua.com
Don’t miss exploring the city of Granada and the surrounding villages. The city in itself is a big draw for tourism because there is a lot to see and do. The artists villages of Masaya (also known as the folklore capital of Nicaragua) and San Juan de Oriente are on their own “can’t miss”!
Every dog has its day. That is definitely true in Masaya on the 22nd when the dogs play dress up in honor of San Lazaro.
If you remember from your Catholic bible study, dogs licked the sores of Lazarus the beggar and he was miraculously cured of his ailment (sores eventually showed up on the dogs who were later killed by the local cats. There is a special place in doggie hell for Lazarus). Today San Lazaro is honored by residents who bring their pups dressed in their Halloween best to the Iglesia de Magdalena to be blessed by the local bishop. Not only does he bless them but he seals the deal by pouring an indigenous brew known as chingastuda on their backs.
All kind of costumed pooches wearing all kinds of costumes are walked, carried and dragged to the church. The church will be filled with people trying to either get their pets blessed or get a look at the lucky pups who have to go through the ordeal. There is also a small fair and market, as well as the opportunity to try some backwoods local dishes (iguana egg stew, anyone? Anyone?).
Get to Masaya in the morning and take a taxi to the church in Monimbo. And don’t forget your camera!
Don’t miss walking throughout the barrio of Monimbo where you will see small congregations of people and their pets forgoing the big celebration for a smaller, more intimate session with a local priest. Free bags of dog food are used to entice people to sit down and hear their sermon.
The biggest holiday of the year is Easter week or Semana Santa. Festivals start the week prior to Easter Sunday and continue non stop all week long. Thursday to Easter Sunday are the official holidays with most public services shut down (most buses are still running) and thousands of people at the beach!
Those who aren’t sunburning themselves on the shores of Nicaragua’s biggest toilet are probably celebrating one of the multitudes of festivals going on country-wide this week. Good places to go for festivals are Leon and Granada, with the latter a great jump-off point to see how they celebrate in the surrounding communities.
Chaining of the Judases
The best celebrations this month are for the biggest event going on. Easter. Semana Santa is the week leading up to the big holiday, and out of the hundreds of celebrations going on one of our favorites is in the village of Masatepe on Good Friday. That is when the entire town turns out to watch the hooded crusaders find and capture the roaming Judases, then drag them around town in chains.
There are about two dozen crusading groups of masked men, each group sporting their own style of uniform but generally keeping with the bright, frilly space hat theme, who are on the hunt for Jesus’ betrayer. When they find him (and it isn’t hard since there are at least one per group), they hold him down, hook their chains around his belt, throw the chains over their shoulders and start pulling in all directions. Judas is lifted off the ground and carried by the chains through the streets.
It is quite a sight to see and exhilarating to watch. Expect loads of people there as well but very, very few tourists. This is one of the best-kept secrets of all the Nicaraguan festivals!
Don’t miss getting there early to see the groups departing the church dragging their chains and stay past noon to see Jesus Christ crucified on the church grounds.
The Tulululu is the closing parade celebrating Mayaya, the Caribbean coast’s goddess of fertility. It is also the name of the dance that goes on for blocks during the festival, but more on that later.
The entire month of May is devoted to the Maypole celebrations in honor of Mayaya and the May rains she brings. On the last day of the month, starting right after the sun goes down, the people of Bluefields gather in the Old Bank neighborhood with their marching band and ribboned maypole tree. They start dancing in the old Caribbean maypole style around the tree and start the slow march across town to Cotton Tree neighborhood.
It is a very organic, almost disorganized event. People join up at every block until there are thousands of revelers and dozens of maypole trees shaking their way down the road. When there are enough people the Tulululu dance begins, with tulululu chains stretching for blocks. The best way to describe the tulululu dance is to show you:
The party goes well into the night with the parade ending and the concerts beginning. Live music by local groups and the ever-popular Caribbean Taste belting out maypole and reggae favorites.
Don’t miss eating a rundown while you are in Bluefields. It is the official dish of the coast!
San Juan Bautista
Sword fighting in the streets. Actually, it would be better described as mutual whipping with homemade sabers made from the penises of bulls. This is how they honor their saint in San Juan de Oriente during the festival held between the 22nd and 25th of June.
The origins of this strange tradition stem from the local indigenous submitting to the mighty Spanish sword. To show San Juan the degree of faith they have, they fight with their own homemade swords believing San Juan will protect them from harm(not even San Juan could save them from real swords). While no death from a penis beating has been recorded (thanks San Juan!), it is possible that the liquid faith of St. Rum keeps them from feeling pain. But boy does it leave a mark!
During the main day of the festival the sober revelers who aren’t busy with the mad penis sword whipping get together and parade through the streets carrying a giant crown of flowers and the figure of the saint.
Don’t miss visiting the workshops of the local potters whose clay pieces are world renowned.
San Juan and San Pedro
San Juan de Oriente isn’t the only place to go and San Juan isn’t the only festival worth seeing this month. Other villages celebrate San Juan Bautista in their own special way. Jinotega has an incredible parade that features a wide selection of traditional Nicaraguan dances that are a sight to see. In Masatepe they have the dance of the giant fish which is just that. A giant fish that dances in the streets.
Very much akin to the bull-penis whippings are the wooden sword beatings that happen during the festival of San Pedro in Diria. Or if that isn’t violent enough, head to Mozonte where they do the chicken “dance”. That’s where they get all liquored up, give a guy a blindfold and machete and let him go after a chicken buried up to its neck.
19th of July – Sandinista Day
Today is the anniversary of the end of the Sandinista revolution when the Somoza regime gave up power in 1979. Every village, town and city is celebrating today with the largest celebration in the capital city of Managua.
People start gathering in the Plaza de Revolucion in the late afternoon to hear the president speak but he isn’t the only one. It’s a who’s who of politicians from revolutionary states who take the podium to speak to the hundreds of thousands of people. Last year we saw the president of Venezuela, ex presidents from Honduras, Ecuador, Cuban politicians and the Pulitzer peace prize winner from Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchu.
The event goes on until after the sun goes down and finishes with a grand fireworks display and a long wait for a taxi to return home.
Don’t miss getting your hands on a 36/19 t-shirt commemorating the 36th anniversary of the 19th of July.
Crab Soup Festival
The owning of slaves is sooo 1820’s. To commemorate their emancipation, the Corn Islands march, dance and eat crab soup on the 27th (Big Island) and the 29th (Little Island). And what a party it is.
First of all, it’s the Corn Islands. White sand beaches, crystal blue water, Caribbean English speaking population… it’s a completely different Nicaragua. And this Nicaragua has their own way of celebrating. It starts about 5am with a band in the back of a truck making the rounds around the island to wake everyone up. Nobody wants to miss the emancipation parade that starts soon after.
When lunch time draws near, people meet up in Southend to watch performances of local dance groups, the greasy pole competition, play Kitty Alley and of course eat the crab soup!
The little island’s celebration happens two days later on the 29th; rumor has it that’s how long it took islanders to sober up and inform their neighbors they were no longer bound by the chains of slavery.
Don’t miss the other activities like the horse race on Long Beach and the election of Miss Corn Island.
The last day of the month is the kick off of the longest festival in Nicaragua, the San Jeronimo celebrations of Masaya. Today is the day the little big saint leaves the dark confines of the church and is carried around on the shoulders of his faithful followers throughout the streets of the village. And if that was all it would hardly warrant making it onto our list. Luckily, there is more.
Following the saint is the parade of the Torovenado, even bigger than the one in January. True to the satirical spirit of the indigenous Nicaraguans, the roving parade ranges from magical creatures plucked from local folklore to costumes of local politicians alive and dead, famous and forgotten, as well as enough demons and devils to scare the daylights of any kids who dare go to visit.
It happens during the day and at night there are usually big parties scattered around town. If you are in Nicaragua during this month then you have to go!
Don’t miss seeing how many people it takes to lift the alter that holds the saint. Even though San Jeronimo stands about 8″ tall, the alter is huge and weighs hundreds of pounds!
Festivals of San Jeronimo
Masaya is the folklore capital of Nicaragua and this is one of the reasons why. They celebrate San Jeronimo for a full three months out of the year!
In addition to the main day at the end of September, every weekend is dedicated to parades and events, mostly centered around the Monimbo neighborhood. Los Aguizotes on the last Friday of October is a can’t miss, as well as the Departure of the Devils on the last Sunday of November.
But Masaya isn’t the only place that celebrates San Jeronimo. Leon’s famous Toro Huaco characters come out on the 30th of September as well. If you haven’t seen them then you haven’t seen Nicaragua!
Masaya’s biggest, scariest festival happens on the last Friday of the month. What is it? It is when the gates of hell open up for a fearsome parade of devils and demons, which this month falls just before Halloween.
Now, when I say, “fearsome parade of devils and demons,” I don’t mean a few groups of people dressed in rubber “scream” masks like you might find at the downtown Halloween festival in Anywhere, USA. I mean the demonic hoards of thousands are unleashed upon the streets for one night of… following a marching band.
The name Aguizotes comes from the harbinger of death in local lore, the guis bird. It is a small yellow and white finch with giant horns. The cheep of the guis is a sure sign death is imminent to someone, somewhere in the world.
The Los Aguiozotes festival takes place to remind us all that one day the guis will come cheeping.
Don’t miss the little brother festival that takes place the day after in Ticuantepe. Called El Candil, it is a parade where hundreds of black devils clamor around a rolling bonfire which is the candle.
The proud Garifuna people are survivors. They survived kidnappings, crossing the Atlantic, shipwrecks, living LOST!-style in the Caribbean, forced migration to the mainland of Honduras and are now thriving on the coasts between Nicaragua and Belize. Theirs is a tale of a magnificent hybrid culture originating in Africa, mixing with Arawak and Miskito and, in Nicaragua, Creole. The 19th of this month is the culmination of a week-long celebration of that culture in the capital of the Nicaragua Garinagu, Orinoco.
Drums and dancing are the center of this culture. Just before lunch there is a big presentation of local music and dance groups from communities stretching from Tasbapauni to Bluefields. Lunch is a great opportunity to sample traditional Garifuna fare which is based around seafood and cassava and you might get to try deer, gifnut or armadilly if you are feeling adventurous.
But wait, there’s more! The climax of the festival happens in the late evening when the punta-rock band puts on a show. This isn’t just a couple of local guys with more time than talent, this is the world-famous group Black Men Soul from Honduras. They never fail to impress as the party goes on well past the midnight hour.
Getting to Orinoco on the 19th is half the fun. At about 5:30am a boat filled with about 200 revelers leaves out from the Bluefields wharf, blasting punta music and reggae as it weaves through the jungle rivers. When the boat finally arrives to Orinoco about 10am, this is what is there waiting:
Get your tickets for the boat from the Garifuna office in Bluefields or ask Atlantic Tour to help get them.
Don’t miss getting there a few days early for the smaller celebrations going on not just in Orinoco but La Fe and San Vicente as well.
La Gigantona Nocturna
If there is one character that defines Nicaraguan culture it would have to be the Gigantona. She is a giantess, a caricature of the fine Spanish females that the indigenous male population were smitten with. During the dance of the Gigantona you will hear the drums pounding a fast beat while she swings her arms around her ten-foot frame and the narrator shouts humorous sonnets. Accompanying the tall drink of water is a short little brown man with a giant head, the enano cabezon or big-headed midget. His head is large because he is highly intelligent, and he dances around the object of his affection while the poet narrates tales of how he sneakily wins her over.
While you occasionally see La Gigantona and her small procession roaming around in any town from Leon to San Juan, this festival takes place in Masatepe on the 23rd starting about 9pm. Get there and plan to stay up late because the Gigantonas don’t let the village sleep. The merry bands of revelers are all over town until the big party starts about 3am in the park.
Don’t miss the perfect hangover cure found only in Masatepe: Tamuga!
Christmas and New Years
Christmas events start well before the 25th and are a big part of this Catholic country. Shout and sing with the devout during La Griteria in Leon or explore the beautiful and artful displays along Avenida Chavez in Managua during La Purisima. Speaking of Managua, that is also where you can walk through a Bethlehem-sized nativity scene and interact with people acting as if they were going about their business in year 0.
And of course we can’t forget the New Year’s Eve parties all over the country. In Nicaragua they really know how light the party on fire (you will see what I mean and I am not referring to fireworks)!
Christmas and New Years is an excellent time to visit and you certainly won’t be disappointed!
These festivals are just the beginning of what goes on nearly every day in a village or city somewhere in Nicaragua. While I handpicked these twelve as the can’t-miss festivals, there are hundreds more that are definitely worth seeing and perhaps your list would be different than mine.
I am very excited to offer my new book that details the fascinating festivals of Nicaragua, the NCX Guide to Festivals and Events. Weighing in at 222 pages, the guide has over 200 entries and excellent information about transportation and suggested itineraries. Click the link above for more information.
I hope this post has been helpful and you enjoy your time in Nicaragua!