Exploring Nicaragua’s Past at Convento de San Francisco

Exploring Nicaragua’s Past at Convento de San Francisco

In the heart of Granada’s city center, within the unassuming walls of the Convento de San Francisco adjoining the Iglesia de San Francisco, we discovered a fascinating collection of art and artifacts that date back to centuries past and tell the rich stories of Nicaragua’s colonial and pre-Columbian history.

Built in 1529, the convent was destroyed and rebuilt three times following a few pirate attacks and again after it was ransacked by Nicaragua’s former president, William Walker, an American lawyer, journalist, and adventurer whose deluded goal was to establish and personally control English-speaking colonies in Latin America.

Walking into the convent’s courtyard, we were immediately greeted by a cool breeze – instant relief from Granada’s intense sun and the palpable humidity. The courtyard walls are covered in beautiful murals depicting the story of Nicaragua’s conquest by the Spanish and the dispersion of Christianity to the indigenous peoples.

As we walked deeper within the convent past a room with a model displaying Granada’s modern-day layout, we eventually found ourselves in a large room full of statues dating from 800 to 1200 A.D.

A model of modern-day Granada
A model of modern-day Granada

Our guide explained that these statues were created by pre-Columbian peoples living on Zapatera and Ometepe islands in Lake Nicaragua. The human-like bodies of these statues are capped with the heads of animals such as eagles, jaguars, alligators, and monkeys that the indigenous peoples regarded as powerful deities.

But the most interesting artifacts and displays are the ones offering insight into the daily lives of Nicaragua’s earliest inhabitants. Here are a few examples…

Stone Slabs

The degree of smoothness on these multi-purpose stone slabs was indicative of the social class of the user. The smoother your slab, the higher up you were on the social ladder.

Burial Urn

In times past, the dead were wrapped in banana leaves and then buried in people’s front or back yards. After a few weeks, their decomposed bodies were exhumed, and their collected bones were deposited into urns like this one. Reminiscent of a pregnant lady’s stomach, these urns were used to symbolize our inevitable return to where we come from. The urns also held stone and ceramic objects that were believed to be used by the dead in the underworld.

Religious “Games”

El Juego del Comelagatoazte (The Comelazatoazte Game)

This religious ceremony was performed with two men on either end of an elevated seesaw-like device. The men would ride the contraption in up and down movements. Although this ceremony wasn’t performed on a specific date, I’m unaware of its purpose or significance.

El Juego del Volador (The Game of the Flyer)

This ceremony was practiced along Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast to celebrate the harvest and the elements. Placed in village plazas, the tops of these 8-meter poles featured a deity on loan from the local temple. Two to four children or men would be tied to ropes suspending from the poles, and they’d “fly” in circles around the pole while descending to the ground – a ritual symbolizing the natural elements descending to the earth. Dancers at the base of the pole would wait to receive the voladores. This religious ceremony was also practiced in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Check out this video for more insight into this ceremony.

While there are several other statues, artifacts, and paintings worth exploring at the convent, judging by the looks of the convent from the outside, we would’ve never guessed that there’s so much invaluable Nicaraguan culture and history preserved within. Overall, our visit there was a pleasant surprise.

View from the convent of the Granada Cathedral and Mombacho in the distance
View from the convent of the Granada Cathedral and Mombacho in the distance

PINNABLE

convento-de-san-francisco

Have you ever been to an unassuming museum or other site that completely surprised you upon exploring it?

  • Al

    Glad I found this article. We’re in Nica now for a few months and go to Granada weekly, so I think we’ll check out this out, thanks for posting!

    • Dana Carmel

      Hi Al – this is definitely a must-visit when in Granada. What a blessing to be in Nica for a few months! Which part are you in?

      • Al

        We’re house sitting in Laguna de Apoyo so we hope to get to town every week. We visited Granada in 2012 but not sure if this was open then.

  • Pingback: How to Spend a Weekend Brushing up on Nicaraguan History – Well Then Ask Ambassadors Chris and Sharon Campbell | Ace News Services()

  • Granada is a beautiful colonial city. I love those courtyards. They remind me of the Andalusian courtyards. Too bad that indigenous culture was wiped out.

    • Dana Carmel

      Totally agree, Eduardo. But fortunately some of their traditions have been preserved and are practiced by some locals throughout Central America and Mexico.

  • That game looked like an act out of a Cirque du Soleil performance.

    • Dana Carmel

      Haha – so true, Jill!

  • Amazing pictures as always, Dana! The history lesson once again from you was absolutely fantastic. My jaw dropped at that model of Granada…oh my gawd! That thing is huge! Now that see-saw device definitely grabbed my attention. Ummm….I’m thinking there had to be some serious chafing going on there ha, ha 🙂

    • Dana Carmel

      Haha – I didn’t think about that Mike, but that’s so true! Thanks for reading!

  • Really interesting insight the culture and history, those games are definitely very unique!

    • Dana Carmel

      This site definitely surprised me, Becky!

  • Very interesting piece of history Dana. It seems that they never forgot the dead.

    • Dana Carmel

      You’re right – they seemed to have a lot of reverence for their deceased loved ones.

  • The Comelazatoazte Game and The Game of the Flyer – strange but interesting.

    • Dana Carmel

      Yes – these ceremonies are definitely unique.

  • Sounds like a fun ritual! i’d love to try it! 🙂
    Good thing you entered the convent, i totally missed it!

    • Dana Carmel

      Yes – so glad we visited! And you’re a brave girl. Don’t think I could stomach that game – it’s way too high!

  • Hi Dana, what a simple and beautiful convento with wealth of amazing artifacts and history. And you beautifully capture them in your photos and narration. I found the story about the use of burial urn interesting. I have never heard of the practice of dead being exhumed to be “re-potted.” I’m fascinated with the game of the flyer. I like what it symbolizes and that it looks a lot of fun. Thanks for sharing the video. It was nice to see the actual game. Thanks for all the new things you taught me today.

    • Dana Carmel

      You’re very welcome – so happy you learned some new things from this post. Learning is such a key part of travel and I always learn so much from your posts as well. The video of the voladores definitely brings the pictures and the exhibit to life – very interesting!

  • The Game of the Flyer seems like a very interesting ritual. I doubt though if I would like it if I were the one tied up there!

    • Dana Carmel

      I definitely wouldn’t want to be at the top – I’m sure I’d pass out!

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