We schlepped with mud-caked shoes along the fog-shrouded ledge. The air hung heavy and pungent with the smell of damp earth as ferns and twisted vines closed in around us. Our host, a wiry old man with an endearing toothless grin, motioned us along as he effortlessly navigated the myriad of hand-carved sculptures engraved into the exposed rock. Rummaging his calloused hands over the sleek stone he recounted the story behind each piece. I didn’t understand a thing but I hung onto every word, captivated by the rise and fall of his melodic Spanish.
His name was Alberto Guitereze, better known as the elusive rock-carving hermit of Nicaragua.
More than three decades earlier he fled to the cloud forests seeking solace from a severe alcohol addiction. At 81 he lives off only what the land provides and carves beautiful images into the side of the mountain. Sometimes he even speaks to the sculptures he creates, or so the town locals warned.
Dodging broken branches and slipping over moss laden stones, we picked our way past Columbus’s ships, 4ft tall elephants and life size anacondas. I became mutely mesmerized by this man as he earnestly traced his gnarled fingers over the contours, darting them in and out of the crevices with an artist’s precision. His eyes still gleamed with mirth. I admired his unwavering passion in the face of three decades of denunciation from the residents of Esteli who were perturbed by his peculiar lifestyle. I hoped to absorb his dauntless spirit just by being in his presence, much like the tropical moisture seeping clammily into my skin.
As we eased our way over to an intricate carving of a crucifix, Alberto’s smile faded. He turned his gaze towards the dimly lit canopy over head. Squinting from the streams of light puncturing the lush foliage his face crinkled, bringing out deep lines carved by years of exposure to the elements. Pausing every so often to take a deep drag from his hand rolled cigarette, he allowed my friend to translate the story of how it all began. Apparently this was a story I needed to understand.
“God came to me in a dream and told me to start carving. So I did.”
Those words struck a cord. They were so final, so unapologetic. It was there on that mountain’s edge that I realized it didn’t matter what others thought. It was my dream, not theirs. Call it what you will, my inner voice or my own version of divine intervention. But whatever it was, it was telling me to travel. So I would.