El Mercado Ernesto Fernandez: Masaya's "Other" Market
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
Some of the worst fighting and violence in Nicaragua’s most recent conflict has occurred in Masaya. The city has a history of ethnic pride and civil disobedience. The residents of the Monimbo neighbourhood, for example, have risen up against successive oppressors—the Spanish Conquistadors, the American marines, and the Somoza government.
Today it is ground zero for the country’s July 19th victory celebrations. In fact, it is famous for a number of revelries.
This is the third in a short series of blog posts on Nicaragua we will be publishing this Spring in the hope that a lasting peace soon finds its way back to the country.
Masaya has been called both the “City of Flowers” and “The Cradle of Nicaraguan Folklore.” It carries both monikers well.
Compared to Granada, Masaya can appear at first blush as a bit downtrodden. It is an industrial city with a folkloric heart. But if you are looking for authenticity, you can do no better than Masaya.
Most guidebooks rave about the city’s Mercardo de Artesanias (Craft Market). It is housed in what appears to be an attractive 19th century fortress but was actually at one point a university of philosophy. It has been a market in one form or another for almost one hundred years.
Masaya’s location on the road between Managua and Granada—or Managua and Panama—has secured its destiny as a hub of travel and trade. But most recently, the Mercado Viejo (another of its confusing names) has been revitalized as tourist destination. The handicrafts from the town’s numerous artisans can be found on display here in its broad lanes and covered kiosks. And Thursday nights are often witness to folkloric dance and festivities, known as Noche de Verbena.
However, there is another market in Masaya a few blocks and a world away. The Municipal Market—also known as El Mercado Ernesto Fernandez—is located next to the bus station and is a veritable hive of activity and an assault of colour and sound. The polite calm of the Mercado de Artesanias might seem like a distant memory here. And at first glance, chaos seems to be the predominant form organization. However, there is order in the chaos. Under its flimsy roof, the market is divided into sections, with each segment catering to a different desire—food, shoes, clothing, electronics, handicrafts, and more. This is a workingman’s market. But of the two, this is by far our favourite market in Masaya.
You can spend hours here. Nicaraguan crafts such hand-made hammocks, embroidered dresses, wood products, and woven baskets are heaped at the various kiosks. Primitive art hangs next to clay wind chimes. Hand-crafted leather baseball gloves sit beside beaded bracelets and maracas. Take a step too far, and suddenly you are among hardware or fish heads.
If you imagine a Central American Market, the Municipal Market in Masaya is probably your platonic ideal. You will have to duck and weave through its numerous alleys and stalls. You will respond frequently to “Hola, mi amor,” “Temenos buenos precios,” “Mira al dentro, mi amor.” You must be firm and never stop smiling.
Negotiating the market is more difficult than negotiating the price, however. A little dickering is expected; it’s all part of the game. But be fair. You are surely getting a bargain, even if you pay the sticker price. People have to eat. In fact, if you can brave the calamity of noise, close quarters, and high-pressure sales, you will be rewarded with much better deals here than are available at the Mercado de Artesanias.
As a warning, Spanish is the idioma de commercio here. But a few phrases (“Cuanto cuesta?” or “Cuanto vale?”) and a working knowledge of number will suffice. Conveniently, you may find a young man, or three, who are willing and able to speak near perfect English. They will also be able to help you navigate the warren of alleys and direct you to the item you want most. However, it is best to avoid this. These boys will wish to be paid for their services, and if you are not confident or secure, they may want more than you are willing to give. Following these gentlemen blindly might also deposit you in a quiet foreign corner of the market. Keep your wits about you in a distant land. Always.
The thing about travelling in a country like Nicaragua, or to a destination like Masaya’s Municipal Market, is that it is different from your world. If it weren’t, why would you spend on a place ticket. Seeking authenticity doesn’t have to mean seeking danger. But it may mean stepping outside your comfort zone. And remember, not everyone is trying to scam you. People are people the world over. And if you want to meet and interact with them, Masaya Market is as good a place as any.
Once your shopping is done, be sure to check out slices other than the handicraft section. Our favourite, for example, is the shoemaker’s alley, where old-fashioned, foot-operated sewing machines are worked over by hard men in aprons—just some of the city’s many talented artisans.