Any trip to the Pueblos Blancos should start with a journey up the Catarina Mirador, a spectacular lookout point on the rim of Laguna de Apoyo Crater Lake. Here, you can make believe you can see all of Nicaragua, with Granada and Masaya at your feet and the twin peaks of Ometepe Island in the distance on Lago de Nicaragua. The town itself is famous for its carved wooden furniture; bamboo products; basket making; and lush, tropical nurseries. The mirador (Spanish for look-out point) is behind the 18th-century village church and can be easily approached on foot; if you are driving, you'll have to pay an admission of C20. Here, you'll find an array of market stalls and restaurants, all of which get crowded on weekends with day trippers from Managua and Granada. Otherwise, it is quiet during the week. El Tunel, on the north side of the mirador (tel. 505/2558-0303), is a good place to stop for breakfast or lunch. There is a footpath that leads down to the crater, with an arduous trek back up. Catarina is the place to be on New Year's Eve, with a massive party thrown for San Silvestre. The mirador was apparently the favored hangout of the military leader Augusto C. Sandino as a youth, where he dreamed about and plotted Nicaragua's liberation.
San Juan de Oriente
Pottery is the specialty here, and if you ask at any store, they should allow you to take a look at their backyard workshops with kilns. In fact, the town's rich heritage in ceramics earned it the moniker of San Juan de los Platos, and while they still make plates, they have branched out into pots and urns. Handmade pottery has been made here for over 1000 years from locally sourced clay. Much of the expertise was lost during the colonial period, but the Sandinistas made a concerted effort to revive the industry in the 1980s. A cooperative was formed called Artesanos Unidos, and locals were trained in how to use a potter's wheel and apply pre-Columbian design with paint and polish. The initiative has been a resounding success, with the majority of the population working in some aspect of ceramics. Their products now have an international reputation for quality and creativity. You can visit many of the potters in their individual workshops, the most famous of which is Helio Gutiérrez, 1 block west of the second entrance and 300m (984 ft.) south (tel. 505/2558-0338). Another ceramics artist worth a visit is Francisco Calero, a half-block east of Taller Escuela de Cerámica (tel. 505/2558-0300). To see a selection of work, try Cooperativa Quetzal-Coatl, 25m (82 ft.) inside first entrance to the town. It is open daily from 8am to 5pm. The village itself is just across the highway from Catarina.
Continue south, and you'll reach the twin villages of Diriá and Diriomo, which face each other on the highway. Diriá has an excellent hilltop view, and some trails from here lead down to the shore of Laguna de Apoyo. This was the most important settlement to the Chorotega tribe, and though the town is now somewhat sleepy and laid-back, it comes alive for the annual festivals. The mirador is located south of the 17th-century church, east of the cemetery. Here, you'll find some bars and snack joints. Incidentally, the bell tower is a considerable distance from the colonial church because of the constant fear of an earthquake (the last one was in 2000 and caused significant damage). The central park has some interesting statues, including one of the Indian chief Diriangén. The best place to eat in town is an open-air establishment called Cafetería La Plaza (tel. 505/2557-0207) at the north side of the church.
Across the main road, Diriomo is famous for its black magic and brujas (witches) who will read your fortune, or at least give you the right directions back to Masaya. Nicaraguans come from far and wide seeking charms and potions for a myriad of problems. Even if your only problem is an insatiable sweet tooth, though, you are in the right place. Cajetas are a traditional Nicaraguan sweet and Diriomo is the epicenter of a sugary operation. Sweet houses such as La Casa de las Cajetas, opposite the church (tel. 505/2557-0015), and Hortensia González, 2 blocks north of Enitel (no phone), conduct tours as well as tastings of these delicious confections made from sugar, rice, fruit, and milk. Diriomo's church is an interesting mix of neoclassical and Tuscan architecture with handsome interior cedar posts. Unfortunately, it has suffered considerable earthquake damage. In the mood for armadillo? El Aguacate, 120m (394 ft.) north of the town entrance on the highway (no phone), is a restaurant famous for this exotic dish known locally as cuzuco.
Niquinohomo, which is Chorotega for Valley of the Warriors, is fittingly the birthplace of Sandino. A grand, bronze statue of the father of the Sandinistas stands in his honor near the town entrance. The town retains its Indo-colonial charm, though it must be said not much happens here. Its most interesting features are a majestic, 17th-century church called Parroquia Santa Ana and a handful of stores selling the local craft specialty: bamboo lamps shaped as pineapples. Close to the northwest corner of the town plaza is Sandino's childhood home, now a small, poorly maintained museum and library (no phone; free admission; open weekdays 9am-noon and 2-6pm).
This sleepy village is the country's rocking-chair capital and is highly regarded for its excellent mahogany and wicker carpentry. There are lots of roadside stores selling beds, dressers, dining tables and chairs, and wicker cots. Your only problem will be getting all this stuff home. The old railway station at the town entrance is now an emporium displaying everything imaginable that can be made from wood. Here, you can also catch a rickshaw taxi tour of the town for C60. Stop for a late lunch at Mi Teruño Masatepino (tel. 505/8887-4949), a charming open-air eatery just south of town on the highway close to Pio XII. Here, you can try the local specialty, tripe soup, known as sopa de mondongo, or for the brave-hearted, sopa de iguana (no translation required). This excellent restaurant also specializes in local drinks such as posol and tiste, and brews their own home-grown coffee.
Continue west 8km (5 miles) after Masatepe, and you'll reach the largest of the Pueblos Blancos, San Marcos, a thriving university town and birthplace of Sandino's nemesis Anastasio Somoza García (his family owned a bakery here and a coffee farm in the outskirts). The town is home to one of the oldest pre-Columbian settlements, and recent excavations have unearthed ceramics that date back to 2500 B.C. The plaza is the raucous scene of one of the best regional festivals -- Tope de las Imágenes de San Marcos -- held on April 24. The simple church has an interesting interior with a tropical-themed fresco above the altar and ceiling murals.
Family getting bored with all this shopping? Take them to Nicaragua's version of Disneyland: Hertylandia KIDS (tel. 505/2532-2155), 1km (1/2 mile) outside Jinotepe. It's a small amusement park with some very rudimentary rides, a giant pool, and a garden setting. It is open Wednesday through Sunday from 9am to 6pm. Admission is C90 adults, with an additional C30 per ride.
Diriamba does not have much to boast about except a famously good-looking and friendly populace and an elegant church with beautiful dome and interior woodwork. The town also throws one of the best street parties in the country on the last week in September to celebrate San Sebastián. Masked dancers reenact a famous colonial-era play known as El Güegüence to much hilarity. There is also an interesting little museum, Museo Ecológico Trópico Seco, 4 blocks east of Enel (tel. 505/2534-2129; www.adeca.org.ni/museo_eco), that explores the area from an environmental point of view. It is open weekdays 8am to noon and 2 to 5pm, and admission is free.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.