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In search of real witches in Nicaragua

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    Andrea Peña is one of Diriomo's leading witches but she doesn't like to divulge what's in her tool box.Dave Seminara

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    Tourists travel to Diriomo, Nicaragua seeking out witches who claim to heal any ailment.Dave Seminara

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    Francisco Flores, sitting in his home office, where he has been practicing witchcraft for the last 15 years.Dave Seminara

Americans get dressed up for Halloween, take kids trick or treating, and tell tales about ghosts and witches. But in Nicaragua, some locals and curious tourists seek out real, live witches—or brujos, who claim to be able to cast spells on people and cure all sorts of ailments, including impotency, male pattern baldness and more.

Diriomo is a small town located about a half hour southwest of Granada, a city with an abundance of colonial charm. Marta Vasconcelos, director of tourism and culture for Diriomo’s municipal government, says a growing number of foreign visitors are coming to the town in search of real witches. Vasconcelos recently told a Nicaraguan news website that the number of foreign witch tourists visiting the town has more than doubled in recent years to about 15-20 per month.

“If your wife leaves you for another man, for example, I can help with that. When I’m finished, she will come back begging you for forgiveness. And I can also make anyone irresistible to members of the opposite sex.”

- Francisco Flores, witch

My search for real witches began at the Hotel Plaza Colon in Granada, where the young men I queried were curious about witchcraft and volunteered to accompany me to Diriomo, which is home to at least fifteen witches, free of charge.  But would the witches of Diriomo be willing to share their tradecraft with a nosy gringo? A local guide had told me that locals and tourists travel to Diriomo to consult witches, but when I asked him to introduce me to one he balked.

“They won’t talk to a journalist,” he said. “Witches don’t like to tell people how they operate.”

The warning only intensified my interest in visiting Diriomo, and I found kindred spirits in Victor and Carlos, two hotel employees in their early thirties, who said they wanted to accompany me to the town on their day off. We boarded a beat up old “chicken bus” appropriately called “El Brujo” (The Witch) because it services Diriomo, and other so-called Pueblos Blancos, named after the color of their pure white churches, and competed for space with a blind man playing a harmonica in the aisle for tips and a swarm of vendors hawking neon-colored drinks in plastic bags.

On the 45-minute ride out to Diriomo, we met a Nicaraguan man named Frank who said he’d introduce me to the best witch in town for $10. He had a prominent stab wound on his arm and vaguely implied that he’d been deported from the U.S., but I hired him anyway. El Brujo puttered into Diriomo’s main square, which faces an impressive cathedral across from a drinking establishment called Brujo’s Bar, and a group of brujo touts greeted the bus, hoping to bring passengers to a witch for a fee.

Diriomo is a quiet place that comes alive once per year for its annual “dicking festival” in which participants whack each other with dried bull penises. The four of us walked through the sleepy village, past small, brightly colored houses.  Frank led us to a modest house with a Nicaraguan flag and the name Andrea Peña emblazoned on an iron security gate. We followed him inside, walking through a large, high-ceilinged living room filled with rocking chairs and a collage of paintings, old photographs and Christian banners, into Andrea’s office.

Peña pulled back a red curtain behind her desk to close us off from a bedroom where a man was taking a siesta on an unmade bed. A heavyset woman with a sad face and a weary expression, she appeared to be about 60 and was wearing a sleeveless, powder blue house dress. Her office was crammed with papers, religious posters, ceramic butterflies, potions and assorted debris. Peña told us that a male witch in the village cured her of panic attacks many years ago. He saw that she had a “gift” of her own and decided to teach her the craft.

“People come from all over the world to see me,” she said. “Managua, Panama, Colombia, and even the United States. ”

She said that most of her clients came to her to cure various ailments, cast spells, or to divine the future.

“And how do you cure people?” I asked.

Peña opened up an old wooden chest that was filled with her own press clippings, photos, stained spiral notebooks and bottles, some of which looked like they once contained Brut 33 or Ice Blue Aqua Velva.

“I use all natural medicines,” she explained. “Plants, herbs and things like this. I give them a special bath with these things and I say prayers for them.”

Peña seemed guarded, unwilling to divulge any of her secrets, so we said our goodbyes and I happily told Frank that we no longer needed his services. A shirtless man in an oppressively hot little shop down the street told us that there were plenty of other witches to choose from, including one named Francisco Flores, who lived on the corner.

A kid with a crew cut ushered us inside Flores’s humble cinder block home and introduced us to his uncle Francisco, the witch. Flores, who appeared to be about 50, invited us to sit on rocking chairs across from him in a semi-outdoor living room that was protected from the street by a cinder block wall and was sealed off from the backyard with a pink curtain.  Unlike Peña, he seemed happy to talk to us about his craft, which he said he learned from his father about 15 years ago. Flores said that there are at least 15 witches in the village and claimed that he was one of the three best in town.

“If your wife leaves you for another man, for example, I can help with that,” he boasted. “When I’m finished, she will come back begging you for forgiveness. And I can also make anyone irresistible to members of the opposite sex.”

“How do you do that?” I asked, pulling my carved wooden rocking chair a little closer to his.

“I give them a bath with natural medicines and potions,” he said. “They get one bath per month for about six months.  And it works! It works even for people who are fat or ugly.”

Flores wouldn’t tell me what was in the baths and said they cost about $500-$1,000 each, as Carlos and Victor shot me disbelieving looks. He was sizing me up as a potential customer and figured that, as an American, I could probably afford an expensive bath.

“But if you want just one bath,” he ventured, noticing my hesitation, “It costs about 5,000 Córdoba. ($217.)”

“Can you cast negative spells on people?” I asked.

“I have a potion I make and if you can get them to drink it, it can really hurt them,” he said.

“But what if they won’t drink it?” I asked.

“That’s O.K.,” he said. “Usually, I go to people’s houses, late at night when they’re sleeping, and sprinkle the potion on their doorsteps. That works too.”

“What if they’re in the U.S.?” I asked.

“No problem,” he said. “All I need is their name and birthdate. And if you have a photo of them, that is very helpful.”

Flores bragged that he could also cure impotence and male pattern baldness and insisted that he had natural medicines that were even better than Viagra for kick starting one’s sex life.

“Let’s say I catch my wife in bed with another man,” I said, hoping to test his limits. “And I’d like him to get a terminal illness, or maybe get run over by a truck, for example.”

 “I could eliminate him within a day or two,” he replied. “But I don’t prefer to use my power to do things like that.”