The last big settlement on the road southeast to El Rama (or south to San Carlos and the Río San Juan), Juigalpa is a prosperous city of 70,000 cattle ranchers and farmers. Juigalpa bears the traces of its indigenous roots in elaborate statuary and other archaeological pieces still being discovered in the mountains east of town. Juigalpa in Aztec means “great city” or “spawning grounds of the black snails.” Its first inhabitants were likely the Chontal, displaced from the Rivas area by the stronger Nicaraos. They resisted the Spanish occupation fiercely in the 16th century, rising up no fewer than 14 times to attack the installations of the colonial government.
Upon Nicaragua’s independence, the land that comprised Chontales and Boaco was controlled by Granada. In 1858, the Department of Chontales was formed. In the 18th and 19th centuries, travelers bound for the gold mines of Santo Domingo and La Libertad crossed Lake Cocibolca, landed in Puerto Díaz, and spent a night in Juigalpa before proceeding.
Museo Arqueológico Gregorio Aguilar Barea
Juigalpa’s most interesting attraction is the Museo Arqueológico Gregorio Aguilar Barea (from the central park, 2.5 blocks east, tel. 505/2512-0784, Mon.-Fri. 8am-noon and 2pm-4pm, Sat. 8am-noon, less than $1), an airplane-hangar-like building housing a collection of more than a hundred examples of pre-Columbian statuary uncovered in the folds of the Amerrisque mountain range. Ranging 1-7 meters tall, the pieces are reminiscent of totem poles, elaborately carved in high- and low-relief, with representations of zoomorphic figures and humans (the latter often clutching knives or axes in their hands, or presenting their arms folded across their chests). The statues, thought to be 1,000 years old, were the work of the Chontal people, driven to the east side of Lake Cocibolca by the more powerful Nicaraos some 1,500 years ago.
Unlike the Nahuatl and Nicarao, relatively little is known about the Chontal culture and its statues, more of which are continually being discovered in the Amerrisque range. The museum was built in 1952 by the well-loved former mayor of Juigalpa, Gregorio Aguilar Barea. It also exhibits Nicaraguan coins from across two centuries, gold figurines, original paintings by the museum’s namesake, and several historical paintings and photographs. The building has an open front, so even if the gate to the museum is locked, all the statues can be seen from the street.
The view from Parque Palo Solo (at the north end of town) is elevated above the surrounding streets, giving the impression of looking over the bulwark of a fortress. The fortress feeling isn’t entirely accidental: Juigalpa was built at the top of the hill to offer it some means of defense from the Miskito and Zambo peoples who once raided it from those same mountains 200 years ago. The park was built by Mayor Aguilar Barea in the 1960s and named after the one tall tree that dominated its center. The tree has since been replaced by a fountain adorned with images of the mainstays of the Chontales economy: corn and cattle. A restaurant at the edge of the park serves fancy lunches and dinners.
Juigalpa’s parque central (in the center of town) is a green, orderly, and clean place, whose statue of a boy shining shoes was made by a former mayor who spent his early years earning money as a shoe-shine boy. The statue bears the inscription: “Hard work dignifies a man.” The walls around the base of the park are covered in lovely mosaics. In front of the park sits the town’s simple Catedral de Juigalpa, constructed in 1648. Stop in for a look at its pretty stained-glass windows.
For the best view in town, visit the Mirador Sandino de Tamanes, a newer park located on the edge of town. To the east, there are breathtaking views of nearby mountain ranges. To the west, a huge silhouette of Sandino frames a birds-eye view of the city. This is a nice place to sit on a bench and have a quiet moment along with the whispering couples with whom you will most likely share the space.
Zoológico Thomas Bell
Zoológico Thomas Bell (tel. 505/2512-0861, Tues-Sun. 9am-noon and 1pm-5pm, $1) is a popular attraction for local tourists, especially during Juigalpa’s fiestas patronales. Here you will find an impressive collection of native animals as well as animals from around the world. With a focus on conservation and saving local endangered species, the zoo is home to 58 local species, including different species of macaws, parrots, and toucans. You can also see jaguars, the peccary (a pig-like mammal), and wild cats.
It is difficult for the zoo to maintain the budget it needs to properly maintain the animals, so keep in mind that you won’t find the standards you are used to in North America zoos. Due to lack of resources, the animals are sometimes underfed, and access to specialized veterinary attention can be difficult.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.