One of my favorite people that I met during my travels in Central America lives in the mountains of Northern Nicaragua. Alberto Gutierrez is a sweet, talkative, eccentric hermit who has spent the last thirty years creating a series of elaborate stone carvings in the cliffs near his home. He lives on a remote mountainside farm in the Tisey-Estanzuela Natural Reserve.
I learned about Alberto and his unique life’s work while I was studying Spanish in the nearby city of Esteli. I was determined to visit him and his artwork. However, reaching Alberto is no easy feat: a single oddly-timed bus runs up and back into Tisey each day, making a day trip nearly impossible. Moreover, the roads are so steep and uneven in Tisey that it’s impossible to walk, bike, or take a cab there.
Happily, my Spanish teacher offered to conduct one of our lessons in Tisey. Huzzah! My last day of class I piled in the car with Rafael and we set off in search of the infamous artist-slash-hermit.
The Journey to Tisey
Driving up into Tisey was a beautiful experience. The rolling hills of coffee and tobacco farms in Northern Nicaragua are stunning from above. We stopped at one mirador, or lookout, that gave us excellent views of Nicaragua, southern Honduras, and El Salvador. It was particularly awesome to see the line of enormous volcanoes that stretches up through Central America, including the one where I went volcano boarding!
Eventually, Rafael pulled over and we clambered out. We trudged down a rocky path to a small farm, where a handful of older Nicaraguans greeted us. They told us that Alberto was out for the moment, but that he would be back shortly and we could explore his work in the meantime.
Art with a View
We trudged forward on a path marked by stones through a lightly wooded area. As we progressed, we started to notice more and more signs of the artist: the occasional carved stone, a small painting on a tree showing the way.
Eventually we hit a staircase that rose exhaustively above us—it was difficult to believe that elderly Alberto had been climbing these steps day in and day out for the past thirty years. I was panting and groaning and regretting my decision to visit when we finally reached the top.
My regret immediately vanished.
The path spread before me, clinging to the cliff and overlooking the gorgeous rolling hills of northern Nicaragua. All along it the mountainside had been carved into a complicated mural of animals, biblical scenes, likenesses, cityscapes, words, and more. It was simultaneously both complex and chaotic and also simple and peaceful.
I wandered forward on the path in awe. The stone carvings stretched on for ages – at least fifty meters of solid art. It’s impossible to capture the scale of Alberto’s work with a photograph, so I recorded this video to attempt to convey the size and complexity:
Alberto Gutierrez, the Stone Carving Hermit
When it was time to head back, I was riddled with disappointment that we hadn’t met the man himself. Luckily, we found him waiting for us on the path back. He was a striking figure: tall, skinny, and slightly shabby, sporting an open button-down shirt and bushy, pure-white facial hair. He looked exactly how you would expect an eccentric, mountain-dwelling, cliff-sculpting hermit to look.
He immediately began speaking to us as if he’d known us for years. For somebody who lives such a secluded life in the mountains, he was surprisingly talkative. Between puffs on his cigarette, we learned about the history of his artwork, his process and methodology, and much more. He spoke in a excitable, confused Spanish that was difficult for me to follow but that oozed passion.
Finally, he began to tell us about the many, many visitors he has had over the years. In fact, he knew the exact number that I represented – something along the lines of 43,612. He recorded every new visitor in a series of logbooks that he kept in his little one-room home.
We followed him to his home so I could add my name to the long list of Alberto admirers. He showed us his pile of log books and a few pictures of himself with famous Nicaraguans. As we were leaving, I finally worked up the nerve to ask to take his picture. He was happy to oblige. For reasons I didn’t understand but definitely appreciated, he insisted on raising his hand like this for each photo.
I was extremely glad I visited. Not only was the stone art and the views awe-inspiring, but Alberto himself was a lovable, fascinating man. I always love talking to people who are deeply passionate about what they’re doing, and Alberto is extremely passionate about his art. If you’re ever in the area, I absolutely recommend searching out this fascinating hidden slice of Nicaragua!