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Top Nicaragua

El Viejo

Population: 45,594 (city), 94,399 (municipality)

Altitude: 43 metros

Telephone code: 344

Distance from Managua: 134 km


El Viejo, once an indigenous capital called Tezoatega, is arguably best known as the home of Nicaraguan’s patron saint, La Virgen del Trono. According to dueling legends, the name of the city was either changed to honor the powerful indigenous chieftain Agteyte or in adoration of Pedro Zepeda, whose sister, Saint Teresa of Spain, gave him the virgin icon to bring to the New World.



La Basilica de la Inmaculada ConcepciĂłn de la Virgen MarĂ­a now stands where both Agteyte once had his plaza and where La Virgen del Trono is said to have repeatedly reappeared after vanishing from the pack of confused Pedro Zepeda.



The doll-like Virgin was elevated to national Patron Saint status in 2000, over 430 years after she arrived in El Realejo. Pilgrims come every winter to shine up the filigree altar, located in front of the Virgin’s alcove, during the Lavada de la Plata (polishing the silver) on Dec. 5 and 6. The cotton they use to clean both the altar and other offerings to the relic are saved as good luck.



While it is mostly overshadowed by the more famous fellow relic, the Basilica is also home to the ebony “Cristo del buen viaje” (Christ of the good journey), which arrived in El Realjo from Peru in 1626.



Strong indigenous and Catholic ties can’t stop El Viejo from feeling more like a suburb of Chinandega than an entirely separate city, though. Ask about lodging in El Viejo and locals will suggest you make the five kilometer trip to more plentiful options in the bigger city.



Hostel San Marino (505-2-344-1664) offers the only accommodations in the heart of El Viejo. The hostel, which daily doubles as a comida corriente restaurant from 11 a.m. to midnight, has a brightly colored and pleasant courtyard, with a small (sometimes filled) pool. Take a look at the rooms, though, and you’ll realize what most locals already know – “hostel” in this case stands for “love motel.” Grimy sheets, giant wall mirrors and bathrooms without doors or toilet seats suggest that most clients pay the C$120 per hour rate rather than C$240 (with fan) or C$410 (with air conditioning) to stay the night.



The area around the Basilica is where you’ll find the majority of local eateries and, if you walk two blocks south, a Palí supermarket. For a quick bite, head to the fritanga stands that line the far side of the central park. On your way, check out the spiky sculpture in honor of FSLN founder German Pomares Ordoñez.



There are several decent restaurants to the north of the Basilica whose business picks up at night and on weekends. Restaurant Tezoatega (505-2-344-2436, Mains C$80-180, open 10 a.m. to midnight) has an open courtyard and a lively dance floor: Thursdays have a “night of guitars” theme, Fridays are for karaoke and Saturdays and Sundays are all about disco.



The namesake of Restaurant “Piscina Olímpica” looks like it hasn’t been used since the revolution, even though the owners say they fill the jumbo pool every Sunday – and then charge people C$30 to use it. On non-swimsuit days, you can get a plate of typical Nicaraguan dishes (beef, pork, chicken and seafood) for between C$70 and C$200. Piscina Olímpica is open from noon to midnight on weekdays and until 2 a.m. on weekends.



There is a Banco ProCredit (505-2-344-1710) to the south side of the central park and next to the El Viejo fire station. The bank is open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and on Saturdays until 1 p.m.; the neighboring ATM is open 24 hours, but only accepts VISA credit cards.


Other places nearby El Viejo: Padre Ramos Estuary & Nature Reserve, Puerto Morazan, Playa Aserradores, Potosi, Chichigalpa, Jiquilillo, Corinto and Playa Jiquilillo.

By Rachael Hanley
A sometime newspaper journalist with a heavy side of wanderlust, Rachael moved to Quito in November to work on the V!VA staff. She is currently...
12 May 2009

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