San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Oyanka, The Princess Who Became a Mountain

Around the year 1550, in the Valley of Sébaco, whose name in Nahuatl means “Serpent Woman,” a nation of Matagalpa indigenous people was ruled by the cacique Yamboa.

The indigenous people had their own language, distinct from other native tongues, and dedicated themselves to agriculture, hunting and fishing. They cultivated corn, beans, cocoa, tobacco and cotton, as well as various fruits for their daily diet.

They also worked with gold, and discovered deposits of this precious metal in a cave in the mountains north of their settlement. It is believed that this secret cave connected the shores of Matagalpa’s Rio Grande to the mountains of Estelí. The indigenous people jealously guarded this secret, especially when they became aware that the Spaniards were looking for gold with unrestrained ambition.

When Spanish soldiers began arriving, the cacique Yamboa cordially received them.

The Spaniards discovered that some of the female relatives of the cacique wore necklaces containing gold nuggets the size of tamarind seeds. Some of the Spaniards traded for some of the smaller gold nuggets in exchange for flashy cloth and other objects, such as iron knives.

The cacique also offered gifts of gold nuggets to the Spanish king; the legend speaks of several leather bags full of gold nuggets.

For this reason, they are referred to as “royal tamarinds.”

But the gifts only awakened the ambitions of the conquistadores, who arrived more aggressively the next time and erected a protective shelter or garrison for the soldiers very near the indigenous settlement. The indigenous people resented being forced to hand over the gold, leading to several skirmishes and deaths on both sides.

Meanwhile, in Cordoba, Spain, there lived a family whose father, Joseph Lopes de Cantarero, a lieutenant in the Spanish Armada, had been sent to a Nicaraguan province and had been reportedly killed in combat with the indigenous people. When his widow, María Tinoco de Alburquerque, received the news, their son, José, was only 13. She could not foresee a future for her son with the loss of his father’s salary, so she made the decision to take her son to a Franciscan monastery.

José was both congenial and smart. During his years at the monastery, he learned Latin, geography, history, public speaking, scripture and theology. Yet he decided the priesthood was not for him. He was ambitious and wanted to go to the place where his father had died and seek out adventures in that mysterious land, known at that time as the West Indies.

At 19, José embarked on a journey to the New World. He finally arrived in León by his 20th birthday, before enlisting as a clerk for the garrison leaving for Sebaco.

José learned that his father had been killed due to the greed of another captain, who had snatched pieces of gold from some of the indigenous women. The indigenous people had retaliated by killing some of the soldiers that the captain had ordered to protect him.

The captain, too, had later died searching for more gold.

In the process of investigating his father’s death, José befriended the cacique Yamboa and his daughter, Oyanka. He spent several months trying to establish this relationship, to learn the language of the Matagalpa people and to teach Oyanka Spanish.

The two eventually fell in love. She was seventeen, with bronze skin, amber eyes, fine-featured, sexy and had beautiful, long hair. He fell for her, but also had ambitions to get rich. José finally convinced Oyanka to secretly promise to show him where her father extracted the gold from the cave.

Without letting anyone know, José and Oyanka walked two hours from the settlement at Sébaco towards the mountains in the vicinity of Estelí. José and Oyanka entered the secret cave with an Ocote pine torch.

José could not believe the amount of gold in the cave. Large nuggets were within arm’s reach. With little effort, he dislodged what seemed to be big golden buttons the size of tamarind seeds. He placed seven of them in his sack and thanked his girlfriend. The couple returned late to the village.

Oyanka’s father, however, had discovered that his daughter had gone missing and in which direction she and José had been seen leaving town. He deduced that they had gone to the secret cave and sorrowfully ordered their capture.

At the same time, the cacique had learned that another group of indigenous people, the Yarince of the Caribe, were planning to attack his village. So he sent message to the Yarinces that if they would not attack, he would send them gold nuggets and a young high-ranking Spanish man whose ransom they could negotiate in the future with the Spanish crown in Cartagena of the Indies.

Heartbroken by the news, Oyanka stopped eating and told her father she could not live without José. She said that she would fall into a deep sleep and would not awaken until her father returned her beloved Spanish boyfriend.

Legend has it that Oyanka fell into a p rofound sleep, and was eventually transformed into stone. Today she can still be seen from her village of Sebaco … perhaps for eternity.

Eddy Kühl, one of Matagalpa’s leading historians, is a member of the NicaraguanAcademy of Geography and History. He can be reached at


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