With my rudimentary Spanish, I hadn’t understood why a local suggested wearing long pants to the night’s festival. “Because of the fireworks,” she had said (I thought). The recommendation seemed odd considering the stifling heat and humidity. But a few hours later, I was glad I complied. Standing in a frenzied crowd in front of the cathedral in the main plaza of León, Nicaragua, balls of fire from roman candles shot past me, and I was thankful for the extra coverage.
The throng was gathered around three men who danced around the square wearing wooden, box-like contraptions on their heads with roman candles protruding from all sides like quills on a porcupine. A long fuse linked the pyrotechnics, which blasted into the crowd from all angles. The three men were a glowing blur of fire and sparks, all brilliantly mirrored in the wet pavement from a recent rain. The entire plaza was a riot of flashes, shrieks, smoke, marching band clatter, and the gut-rumbling booms of larger rockets.
León’s unique la Gritería Chiquita (“Small Shouting”) festival gets off to a surprisingly low-key start each 14th of August at dusk. Mass is held in the majestic Spanish Colonial cathedral, which is flanked by imposing statues of the town’s namesake lion. The somber start befits a festival that began as a symbol of penitence after a local priest’s prayers were allegedly answered in 1947 when nearby volcano Cerro Negro was threatening certain doom. León survived, and a colorful festival was born.