Virgin Trail: Travels in the Other Central America

Virgin Territory
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Dec. 19 2003 1:53 PM

Virgin Trail: Travels in the Other Central America

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Fireworks burn in Granada's central square as Nicaraguans celebrate La Purísima
Fireworks burn in Granada's central square as Nicaraguans celebrate La Purísima,

GRANADA, NICARAGUA—It is three hours after sunset, and pandemonium has broken out in Granada's central square. Old women duck for shelter in the cathedral as staccato blasts shake the humid air and flaming debris rains down from the sky. Teenage boys dash through swirling clouds of blue smoke as errant rockets skitter across the cobblestones. Women scream and children scatter as Los Toros—men dressed in crude, wooden, firecracker-rigged bull costumes—sprint through the plaza like human fireballs, trailing embers. A glittery parade float, which minutes ago was the center of attention, now sits abandoned in the chaos—its cardboard angels still leaking dry-ice fog. As I dodge the explosions in the plaza, I run into Colin McAuliffe, our expedition videographer, who cheerfully reports that his wallet has been stolen and that he has temporarily lost hearing in one ear. To hear him talk, you'd think he'd just won the lottery—and, in travel terms, we have.

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Indeed, there are moments on the road when you stumble across an unexpected spectacle that makes all the hassles and uncertainties of the journey worthwhile. Without a doubt, Nicaragua's Festival of the Virgin (referred to locally as La Purísima) is one of those moments. A weird Latin American synthesis of Advent, Halloween, and Christmas (with an explosive Fourth of July touch thrown in), La Purísima is a nine-day festival commemorating the Immaculate Conception. All over the country, Nicaraguans build altars to Mary in their homes, using palm leaves, flowers, and candles. Children go door-to-door singing hymns to the virgin, and are rewarded with candy and toys. Neighborhood committees design and build elaborate floats, which are paraded through city streets carrying an honorary "virgin" (usually a 16-year-old schoolgirl) and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Prayers are chanted, brass bands belt out Christmas tunes, and fireworks rock the streets well into the night.

In this particular corner of Nicaragua, the Purísima celebration revolves around a Virgin icon known as "La Conchita"—which traces its history back to the day when Granada was one of the most important cities in Latin America. Indeed, long before a canal was cut across the isthmus, freight from the Caribbean Sea was carried up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua, where it was offloaded in Granada before continuing overland to the Pacific Ocean. Thus, perched on a trade crossroads (overland commerce between Guatemala and Colombia also passed through the city), Granada grew rich—and all the new wealth attracted pirates. As local legend has it, freebooters plagued Granada until one December morning in 1721, when local women found a Franciscan statue of the Virgin Mary floating in the waters of Lake Nicaragua. Dubbed "La Conchita," the icon reputedly protected the city from marauders (as well as plagues and volcanic eruptions) for over a century.

Unfortunately for Granada, La Conchita had little effect on a runty, 31-year-old Tennessean named William Walker, who sacked the city with a small band of American mercenaries in 1855. The following year, with the tacit endorsement of the United States, Walker declared himself president of all Nicaragua—and his first act in office was to legalize slavery and institute English as the national language. Eventually, when Walker made it clear that he intended to conquer the rest of Central America and annex it to the American South, Salvadoran and Guatemalan generals united with Nicaraguan insurgents to oust the megalomaniacal American from power. Walker's last act as he retreated from Nicaragua was to burn Granada to the ground. Housed in the city's cathedral, La Conchita is said to have miraculously escaped the flames, but—in spite of her patronage—Granada never recovered as a hub for transoceanic trade. By the early 20th century, the Panama Canal had redrawn the strategic map of Central America, and Granada had reverted to a sleepy little colonial town on Lake Nicaragua.

Earlier this evening, the La Conchita Virgin was ceremoniously paraded through the streets before being removed from the float and carried into the towering halls of Granada Cathedral. The city's devout have now lined up inside the sanctuary to offer prayers and kiss the feet of the virgin. Outside the sanctuary, Granada's less-than-devout are turning the central square into something resembling a war zone. And, despite the ever-present danger of getting taken out by a stray bottle-rocket, I'm thrilled to be witness to it all.

Drive Around the World expedition vehicles parked near the Iglesia de Guadalupe in Granada
Drive Around the World expedition vehicles parked near the Iglesia de Guadalupe in Granada

The irony here is that I've been traveling amid La Purísima festivities since I arrived in Central America several days ago. In retrospect, I realize that the peculiar church fireworks in Antigua (as well as the virgin parade on the El Salvador-Honduras border) were a part of this same celebration. Had I not been obsessed by the presence of the other gringos in Antigua, I might have figured this out from the beginning. Instead, three countries later—surrounded by Granada locals (and a token handful of backpackers and expatriates)—I am seeing the festival for the first time. It occurs to me how profoundly my perception of foreign places is tied into the slippery notion of what I think the exotic is supposed look like.

As I wander through the crowds of the square, I note the similarities between Granada and Antigua: colonial churches, pastel facades, courtyard gardens, cigar vendors, horse-drawn taxis, volcano-etched horizons, coffee-scented humidity. In the windows that face the plaza, I notice ads for pizza parlors, kayak tours, sports bars, yoga classes, and Internet cafes. I see an English-language flyer taped in the door of a real estate office, and it reads, "Having seen the miracle migrations in neighboring countries, we knew it was only a matter of time before Nicaragua was discovered as the last frontier."

I suppose I could draw connections and conclusions here, but La Purísima beckons.

Hearing another barrage of fireworks I look skyward, hoping to spot the bursts of color before they fade into smoke ribbons and drift their way back down.

Several companies sponsored the Drive Around the World expedition; click here for a partial list.

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