DIRIOMO—Nestled at the base of the towering Mombacho Volcano, the unassuming and hushed streets of Diriomo belie this town’s bewitching appeal to foreign tourists.
Long known to Nicaraguans as a center for supernatural activity, this small town—one of famous Pueblos Blancos—is home to several dozen brujas and brujos, or witches and witchdoctors, who continue the esoteric practices of their ancestors. They claim they can predict the future and employ curative plants and volcanic rock for concoctions that promise to heal any ailment. While these witches practice the occult arts, many of them now refer to themselves as “healers” or “seers.”
As word spreads of the mystical practices that have given this town its reputation for magical prowess, the witches and their potions are starting to conjure up their own authentic brand of witchcraft tourism.
“This is the place in the country for witches,” said Marta Vasconcelos, director of tourism and culture for Diriomo’s municipal government. “Witchcraft has always been popular in Nicaragua, but it is also generating more tourism from abroad. We have visitors from all over Central and South America, the U.S. and Europe.”
It’s a nascent but growing attraction. Vasconcelos says the town receives only 15 to 20 foreign visitors per month, but that’s that more than double the amount of tourists who used to trek to Diriomo seeking insight from the sages.
The town’s slowly growing reputation has also inspired charlatans, Vasconcelos says. “Many taxi drivers greet visitors who get off the bus with offers of palm reading or transport to a bruja. But a lot of that isn’t real. There are only a handful of real witches.”
Diriomo appears like any small town in Nicaragua that’s off the tourism path. Yet this quiet town has an almost palpable aura of mystery in the air. No signs related to witchcraft are posted; visitors who want to visit a witch must ask local residents or taxi drivers for directions. But the good ones are well-known figures in town; any local resident can point tourists towards the houses where the good and bad witches live.
The townspeople say there are two types of witches practicing conflicting types of magic behind the walls of Diriomo’s quaint, colonial-style homes.
“There is white magic and black magic here,” says Vasconcelos. “There are witches who do good and witches who do evil.”
The difference between the two becomes apparently clear just by walking around town. Those who allegedly practice black magic decline to open the doors of their dark and dilapidated homes without a fee, while those who claim to practice white magic (the ones who call themselves “healers”) invite guests into their lively colored homes with doors wide open.
William Mena, a white-magic curer, invites all visitors into his house with a smile. Though he practices witchcraft, his home is adorned with Catholic crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary.
Mena, 66, takes pride in showing visitors newspaper articles that prove he predicted Nicaragua’s 1972 earthquake, the U.S. capture of Osama Bin Laden, the victories of various political leaders, and the 2004 Red Sox World Series win.
The success of these predictions—visions that he says came to him through contact with angels— has drawn tourists from every corner of the globe to visit him in his humble home.
“I have seen so many tourists after my predictions came true, and journalists have come to interview me,” he says. “Diriomo is commercial now, with a tourism industry building around witches.”
Mena’s latest predictions? Mombacho Volcano will erupt in December 2015, extraterrestrial life will visit Earth in 2022, and the magnetic poles of the world will reverse in 2025.
Apart from his acclaimed foresight, Mena, a professor of biology, plant life and alternative medicine, also uses his sixth sense to cure people of illness and rid them of hexes.
“When doctors can’t heal someone, I tell the person not to worry because I can. I’ve cured everything from liver problems to sexual diseases. And I’ve conducted four exorcisms,” said Mena, who has been in the business for 40 years.
Mena claims he once used snake, crocodile and liver oils to cure a patient with Bell’s palsy, and has rid others of demonic possession by making a cross gesture.
Mena’s son, Eusebio, 25, says many of his father’s patients are victims of curses put on them by Diriomo’s black-magic witches.
“Many people feel a change in attitude because of bad energy, and they ask for help to figure out what is causing it,” Eusebio says. “In these cases, sometimes my dad will find a doll under the ground with pins in it that is causing the bad energy.”
Eusebio says dolls are commonly used in spells by both white- and black-magic witches, who collect a person’s hair and a photograph, place pins in meridian points on the dolls, then burry the dolls somewhere and pray for their wish in a daily ritual.
“Once, a father wanted his daughter to come back to Nicaragua from living abroad, and making a doll with her energy worked. It’s amazing, but it works,” Eusebio said.
Diriomo has always attracted those with a knack for tapping into the mystical realm, Mena says:
“Since pre-Columbian times, people realized the value of the volcanic rocks, the lagoon, the tall trees, and many of the curative plants found here,” the curer says. “This was a ceremonial center in the past where they did sacrifices and had an exchange system for splint rocks.”
Andrea Peña, 65, a longtime white-magic witch, says she is seeing many more foreigners visiting town and seeking out witches.
“I use herbs, cards, and read palms,” she says, sitting among rows of hanging heads of garlic, which serve as protection from bad spirits in her makeshift office inside her home. “I can see the future, heal illnesses and do whatever God wants me to.”
Sessions with Peña range in cost depending on the person’s illness, she says. The average is 500- 700 cordobas (about $20-$28).
Though Christianity condemns witchcraft, healers like Mena and Peña, both of whom profess to be Catholic, have the support of Diriomo’s Catholic Church—unlike their black-magic counterparts.
“Curanderos (healers) are OK. They are not from the devil because they heal people,” says a local priest. An altar boy accompanying the priest joins the conversation, saying he is studying to be a curer to follow in the path of his grandmother.
In a town with colorful legends featuring vomiting frogs under the spell of black magic, and a woman who turns into a monkey at night, there is plenty of folklore to support the witchcraft tourism industry. And many locals think their town’s nascent attraction will continue to charm foreign visitors.
“I’m seeing more and more people who want to see witches,” says taxi driver Alejandro Fernandez. “They ask about it right when they get off the bus, so they must be coming here just for that.”
(Editor’s note: The Nicaragua Dispatch misquoted Marta Vasconcelos in paragraph 4. She said “This is the place in the country for witches,” not “This is the only place in the country where there are witches.” Editor’s mistake. Her quote has been fixed.)