Masaya, Nicaragua: Shop Til You Drop – Central America

During my recent trip to Granada, Nicaragua with my friends Francis and Kay whose tourist visas in Costa Rica had expired, and who therefore needed to hop over a border for 72 hours, we did what most every woman loves to do: we shopped.

Fourteen kilometers from Granada is the town of Masaya, also known as the City of Flowers (I read this has to do with its women rather than its wild vegetation). We contemplated taking the bus; with its many stops it would have meant about an hour. After our brief chat with Macro, the proprietor of our hotel El Club, we decided to hire a taxi for the day. It would take us not only to Masaya, but also the Catarina Mirador, to San Juan de Oriente (the pottery capital in the area) and some other small towns. We thought it was well worth our $35.00 investment.

Masaya is a town famous for both its crafts and its coffee plantations, but as our agenda was strictly shopping, we saw no plantations. There are two markets in town: one for the locals with cheaper prices, and a newer market catering to the tourist crowd who prefer more of the comforts of home while shopping. They both sell all types of crafts including wood, leather, ceramic, fabrics, wool, jewelry, clothes and, of course, food.

Armed with water, we piled into the taxi with Segundo Garcia, our driver. He basically spoke no English but thankfully, Francis knew enough Spanish to play translator for the day.

By avoiding all the stops the bus would have made, we arrived in Masaya in less than 20 minutes. We told Segundo that we wanted to go to the Old “non-tourista” market, which was where he dropped us off. As soon as we parked, we were bombarded with locals who wanted to be our guide for the day. Despite our valiant efforts to evade our suitors, we were followed into the market by a very persistent young man. Thankfully, Segundo took note of this and he too followed us in; he was able to explain that we weren’t looking for a guide and that basically, he should leave us alone.

Ronald just wanted to practice his English
We stopped at the first table we saw to look at jewelry. It was there that we met Ronald. He spoke excellent English and took it upon himself to help translate. After making our purchases, we indicated that we didn’t need his services as guide for the day, but he impressed upon us that he just wanted to practice his English.

So off we went. As the afternoon progressed, Ronald told us about all the stalls he knew that would give us a better price. “Don’t buy that T-shirt here for $8.00; I know a better place for a better price, $5.00.” This became the theme for the afternoon. It was at this point that we realized we got suckered. It was simply a matter of time before he would make the price for his assistance known to us.

Francis was looking for a decorative piece of artwork for the wall in her bathroom, while Kay and I were only looking around. Since Francis wasn't sure what she wanted, she stopped at many places and looked at different things. Ronald kept hurrying her up. “Gotta get to the next shop. Let's go. Hurry up.” One thing I know about Francis is – you don’t rush Francis!

We were getting aggravated with Ronald; tried to ditch him. In hindsight, though, we knew that was never going to happen. The annoyance of Ronald aside, we walked up and down the aisles taking in the sites: handmade jewelry, paintings, hammocks, colorful piñatas, musical instruments, leather shoes, sandals, belts and hats, hand stitched blouses, children’s toys and food – a potpourri of sights, sounds and smells.

When we finally finished our purchases, with Ronald's help, we probably saved about $10.00 – total – maybe! Having made arrangements to meet Segundo back at the car, we knew our time was almost up and we started to make our way back.

Hot Stuff
Hot Stuff

En route to finding our way out of the maze of the market, we stumbled upon a very large vat of marinated peppers and onions. I knew I couldn’t leave this market without bringing some home. I had a strong feeling these were going to be very good. I bought a coffee jar’s worth for less than $1.00.

It was time for Ronald to make his play. “Do you think you can give me $20.00 so I can buy shoes for school?” I don’t know what school he could be attending as he looked to be in his mid-twenties (if not older). Francis was a bit pissed off at being rushed; wanted nothing to do with him, but she gave him $5.00, thanked him and sent him on his way. He next tried to work on me. My reply was along the lines of, “Um, don’t think so and good luck.”

As someone who prefers non-tourist traps, I never made it to the newer market so I can’t compare the two, but I recommend the old market for a dose of local color and some great bargains. And we did learn one very valuable lesson. Unless you look and sound very local, you are going to get bombarded by local tour guides, especially when you get out of a taxi or a tourista bus. You might have more alone time if you take the local bus, but odds are the minute you open your mouth and you sound like a gringo, that "alone time" will evaporate.

Should you get assaulted by the onslaught of tour guides, here's what I suggest. Tell them outright that no matter what they do or say, or how friendly they are, you have no intention of giving them any money no matter the reason – even if their grandmother is dying. If they still want to tag along and practice their English, then they can. If you’re willing to pay, negotiate a price upfront. Put your foot down and don’t let them pressure you, or rush you in any way. Ideally, bring along your friend who speaks fluent Spanish, who can tell them to buzz off in their own language. In the end, the money you might save from a better price will end up in the pocket of someone like Ronald.

Those hot peppers and onions were HOT. Because of the intensity of the spice and the heat, I strongly suspect they are Habanero chilies. I thought I was going to lose a layer of my lips after I took the tiniest of bites. After I got home, Mike took a taste (trying to be macho, “oh, they aren’t soo hot”). After about 12 seconds, he concurred. "Muy Caliente!"

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Older comments on Masaya, Nicaragua: Shop Til You Drop – Central America

Onthewateralot
18 April 2010

Hey, just got back from Nicaragua and had a great time. We too went to Masaya (twice) and explored both markets, locals and gringo. First of all you have to know the local market is where we all stand out like a sore thumb and having a bi-lingual guide is both a convenience and a curse when you have to pay them. However in Nicaragua (vs. Costa Rica) I found when you are in a local market, it is a real local market where few english words are spoken. If you can’t speak spanish forget it for high value items. The tourist market in Masaya is actually a clean, government run market that, altho you may pay a higher price, we found the people friendly and bi-lingual. Guides are avaiable here as well but they are checked by the government. None of them forced anything on us and we felt no pressure to buy anything, in fact my 18 year old friend actually got some facebook addresses from some local girls. We found Nicaragua in general an un-tapped more cultural experience than Costa Rica. Now if you really want to have fun go to the island of Ometepe in Nicaragua but that’s another story.

Onthewateralot