If you’re like me and you hate to shop when you travel, you’ll find Nicaragua to be a different destination in this regard. Shopping here is actually a pleasure. In fact, shopping can border on the eccentric. The country is filled with craft markets, farmers markets, and unusual boutique vendors selling one of the kind speciality goods. Since 2012 I’ve been collecting and furnishing my hotel and home with some of the most unusual and beautiful items picked up in the ‘Pueblos Blancos’ or the White Towns. When guests decide to buy them off my shelves, I have to take another shopping trip!
Since life is not so uniform and regimented in Nicaragua, you can find countless treasures throughout the country in the most unlikely places. It may be a set of lights, a dress, or a special bowl for your coffee table. The benefit is no one else has it and unlike mass produced factory items, you are purchasing sustainable, local goods.
In the White Towns or the ‘Pueblos Blancos’ outside Granada, you can shop and sightsee. Stop for lunch and savour breathtaking views of the Laguna Apoyo, a Volcanic crater lake.
Then, continue on to the towns of Nindiri, San Juan de Oriente, San Marcos, Niquinohomo, Masatepe, Catarina, Diria and Diriomo. These country towns have strong pre-Columbian traditions meaning they are experts in making everything by hand!
Journeying here brings you closer to the heartland. You’ll find wall murals and art telling the story of Augusto Sandino, a celebrated and controversial figure in Nicaraguan history. You might even see red beans drying on the front doorstep in the sun, and a family’s entire set of sheets, towels, underwear and clothing drying in the breeze outside their home.
The pueblos are also famous for gardening and plant cultivation. It’s cooler here and everything from herbs to flowers grows abundantly in the dark volcanic soil. If you’re searching for practical items like grass and plant pots for your new home as an expat, or are just a curious traveller, head to Bamboo Garden for the best selection (accepts credit cards). You’ll also find religious figurines, some life-life and all kinds of ceramic art, hammocks, all sorts of interesting knick-knacks at other stores close by. While some will not fit into a suitcase, in recent years artisans have made travel-friendly mugs, bowls, plates and other items light enough for a carry on bag.
Nicaraguans are also prolific artists and this is just an example of one of the pieces my mother discovered in San Juan del Oriente. The painting was easily taken off the canvas and rolled up to transport home.
San Juan del Oriente or the town of Saint John of the East is a short walk away. Nicaragua’s unique Pre-Colombian styles are thought to have come to the area by Mexican immigrants over 500 years ago. They refined and developed the process, and over time, branched out from rainforest and nature scenes to modern, geometric styles.
The pottery is made from volcanic clay in the area, and we love it so much you will see it in the rooms and apartments at Casa Lucia.
A visit to the White Towns would not be complete without spotting La Gordita, the little fattie. The statue is thought to be a replica of Marina Cardenas who was a popular bolero singer in Nicaragua in the 1960s, and nicknamed La Gordita de Oro, or the Golden Chubby. She’s wildly popular in the white towns, and if you want a good conversation piece in your living room, take home a La Gordita for your coffee table or bookshelves.
In April, we spent days poking through the back roads of Masatepe for room furniture. I stumbled across Taller Karin, or Karin’s Workshop, in the town of Niquinohomo. For generations, Karin and her family have produced hand-crafted banana leaf furniture and decorative bamboo lights.
We bought this beautiful set for the tropical king suite. If you are living in Nicaragua, make sure to ask the artisan to varnish the furniture to protect it from mold and mildew. Then every six months you’ll need to clean it – Karin can provide details or she will send a worker two times yearly for maintenance of your furniture.
While you can always barter when you shop in Nicaragua, especially with vendors who do not put price tags on their items, tread carefully. There are cooperatives who make a living selling pottery at fair trade prices and will not reduce items unless you plan to buy several pieces. The banana leaf furniture isn’t cheap either as the process involves a lot of painstaking work by hand, but overall prices are fair.
These mugs are made by an artisan from San Juan del Oriente. My sister drinks her coffee from it every morning and they are dishwasher and microwave safe. I often gift these to honeymooners, and you can find them in our gift store.
One of our favourite sustainable stores is called Amano located in San Juan del Sur. They sell items for homes, businesses, and fashion items, all made in the pueblos. These cushion covers are made by them, as well as blankets and table runners. The blankets are light enough to be rolled up and will fit a suitcase or backpack.
When guests ask me if it is worth visiting the White Towns I tell them it is – even if you just want a few souvenirs. You’ll enjoy hiking, closer contact with artisans and lovely country people, views of the laguna, fresh air and sunshine. Get some great photographs and take home not only souvenirs but lasting memories of Nicaragua.
How to Get there?
From the Granada bus station behind the Mercado municipal, take the bus to Caterina. The driver will let you know when to get off. From there, take a moto-taxi like this one. They’ll often drive you for hours around the towns for as little as $15-20 but set the price with them beforehand.