One of the key things I wanted to do while in Estelí was visit Don Alberto Gutiérrez, a bit of a recluse who has spent the last 40 years carving all sorts of designs into the stones on his farm in the Tisey-Estanzuela Nature Reserve just outside of town.
Once again, I arranged a day trip through Treehuggers, and was up bright and early to catch the bus at 6:30am out to the small community of La Garnacha. Not sure the horn blasts were really required as we traveled along – the mariachi music was loud enough to wake anyone up within a 2km radius!
I was met off the bus by another 19-year old guide, Reynaldo, who is in his second year studying Civil Engineering at University, and we headed off on foot to “El Jalacate”, Don Alberto’s farm. It was a beautiful walk of about 3 kms – the last kilometre very much downhill!
We arrived at a wooden house and Reynaldo called out to Don Alberto to let him know we had arrived. But Don Alberto had the radio cranked up in the kitchen and didn’t hear us so eventually Reynaldo went in and pulled him out.
Let me tell you – Don Alberto is quite the character! And at 76, an incredibly spritely and talkative one who wasted no time in getting me to sign his visitors book while proudly telling me that he’s had more than 30,000 visitors over the years from more than 40 countries around the world.
At the beginning of our walk, Don Alberto showed me the tools he has used for the past 40 years to make his carvings. Essentially a stone hammer and hand-made chisels (at least one of which is made out of re-bar).
As we continued, he pointed out and told me a little about several of the individual stones he’d carved along the way, the most recent (the day before I visited) being the Cacique, or “chief”.
He explained that the inspiration for the carvings comes in dreams and he works 3 hours/day to bring those dreams to reality. Given his experience, he can now knock out something like the Cacique in about this amount of time.
After a short, but not simple, walk through the forest, we came to his masterpiece – a stone wall almost 100 metres long into which he’d carved a huge array of images.
There are common themes running through his stone carvings. One such theme is religious imagery, including this impressive scene depicting the birth of Christ and including 3 crosses representing the 3 Kings and the star of David.
Another is the depiction of animals and hunters – he has a particular soft spot for lions and elephants!
But there are other, more random images thrown in as well, including a library of books, a helicopter (acknowledgement of the many recent wars Nicaragua has had to endure), and a figure of who appears to be Atlas, seemingly holding up part of the wall on his back.
It is impressive work, and the sheer scale of it – especially given the tools he works with – is incredible. He’s even built benches for his guests to sit on and admire the view, and as we walked along, he was constantly brushing bits of leaf litter off the carvings and clearing any obstructions on the path.
The equally interesting thing for me though, was that although he knows his guests come to see the carvings, he seemed to be more interested in talking about his farm and his efforts to plant and nurture the life that surrounds this work. He was constantly pointing out different trees and orchids (there are hundreds of them – unfortunately I was a few weeks early to see all the flowers, but they were starting to bud), talking to me about the seeds he’d planted and how quickly (or slowly) what he’d planted would grow. He seems to have a particular fascination with cypress trees and has specifically carved holes in his stone wall so he can grow orchids within the carvings.
As we walked along, he handed me sweet lemons (I didn’t think such a thing existed – they were yum!), mandarins, and bright red seeds that he’d found on the ground from one of the trees. The idea was that I could plant them later to grow my own – I didn’t tell him about Australia’s strict quarantine regulations.
So happy to have made the trip out to visit this incredible place (the farm really is beautiful) and meet such an eccentric character while he is still around!
Booking a day trip through Treehuggers costs USD$15, though I could have easily done the trip by myself without a guide. Nomadic Matt gives good instructions on how to reach Don Alberto’s farm. While Don Alberto doesn’t charge for the visit, it is customary to leave him with a tip.
If you do the day trip through Treehuggers – make sure you take a book (or something to do) for downtime. The bus back to Estelí doesn’t leave until 3:40pm and aside from visiting Don Alberto, there is a short tour of La Garnacha and very short walks to a couple of viewpoints, but that’s it.