Alex Benasuli explores the colonial streets of GRANADA in Nicaragua, and is utterly enchanted by its colourful 17th century architecture, crumbling courtyard gardens, elaborate Moorish villas and unique frontier-like spirit.
If Barcelona, San Francisco and Bangkok are not quite cutting it for you anymore, plan a city break in the Spanish-built former capital of Nicaragua, Costa Rica’s edgy northern neighbour, and you will undoubtedly leave charmed by the oldest inhabited city in continental Latin America. Nestled between Lake Nicaragua and towering, dormant Mombacho Volcano, Granada blends history, culture and nature together with a burgeoning boutique hotel and restaurant scene, in one compact and individual destination.
Straddling the Caribbean and the Pacific, Nicaragua may not be the first place you’d normally consider for a fun, sun-filled vacation. Indeed, if you mention Nicaragua to friends you may get a mixed response. Some may be confused and require prompting as to where it actually is. Others might be slightly aghast, wary of the country’s violent 1980s revolution and subsequent economic collapse, which rendered Nicaragua a virtual no-go zone for decades. However, for those in the know, Nicaragua elicits nodding heads and deeply approving oohs and ahhs, because in recent years, after a generation as a forgotten backwater, the largest country in Central America is having its long-awaited moment and has become something of a travel hotspot, its affordability increasing its allure. Nicaragua is now hip, appearing on list after list amongst those in the know as one of the hottest new destinations on the planet. Surfers flock to its hundreds of kilometres of ruggedly pristine Pacific coastline. Meanwhile the country’s Caribbean side offers white powdery sand beaches, calmer waters and a more tropical temperament.
Boasting many of the same attractions as Costa Rica in terms of beaches and nature, but with a fraction of the tourist numbers, Nicaragua is a veritable paradise for the intrepid traveller in search of unspoilt natural environments, and warm hospitable people, its generation of criollos (people of Spanish descent), and mestizos (people of mixed European and Indigenous descent) contributing much to its conservative yet colourful character. Located in the middle of the country, Granada is indisputably the best place to immerse oneself in this beautiful, enchanting and welcoming land.
Getting to Granada is relatively easy from Europe or North America, courtesy of a host of American carriers which fly direct from Houston, Atlanta and Miami – the latter being little more than two hours away. Forty-five minutes-drive from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, the vibrant colours, arresting architecture and energetic street life of Granada have made it the metropolitan star of the nation’s growing tourist industry, drawing rising numbers of adventurous visitors to its characterful streets, which positively ooze laid back charm.
Alongside Antigua in Guatemala, Granada was, for centuries since the Spanish conquest in the 16th century, one of the most important cities in Central America, a flourishing center of commerce, culture and government, and a showcase of New World riches. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the legendary Spanish conquistador, decimated the thriving indigenous population and founded Granada in 1524, which is considered to be one of the first European cities in mainland America. Named after the medieval Andalusian Granada in Spain, Nicaragua’s Granada was historically known as “La Gran Sultana”, an ode to the distinctly Moorish appearance of the city, with its prevalence of wrought iron detailing, oriental lines and concealed open air inside courtyards.
Granada is one of the first cities in the Americas to have been laid out in a grid system, making it relatively easy to navigate on foot. The best place to start soaking up the city’s compact center is Parque Central or central park, which provides a snapshot of daily life in Granada. This tree-filled green space in the heart of Granada is a colourful tableau of local life, flanked on all sides by historic, low slung predominantly white and cream buildings, complete with multiple arches and decorative flourishes. The bright yellow neo-classical Granada Cathedral, originally built in 1583 and rebuilt in 1856, dominates. Palm, ficus and mango trees surround a central fountain. Children play while seniors sit on park benches exchanging gossip. Locals come from neighbouring towns to sell indigenous crafts. Street food aficionados will love vigorón – a mélange of chicharrón (fried pork rinds), mashed yucca and pickled cabbage served on a plantain leaf – and quesillos, essentially a Nicaraguan cheesy tortilla, served with pickled onions and sour cream. Late afternoon and during sunset, after the heat of the day has past, is when Parque Central really comes alive, morphing into a veritable merry-go-round of colours, sounds, smells and sights, reminiscent of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
On the western side of Parque Central, brightly painted horse-drawn carriages congregate, offering tours of Granada. While most drivers are reasonably knowledgeable of their city’s history, some vetting may be in order, particularly if an English-speaking guide is required. Traversing the narrow streets by horse-drawn carriage is the perfect way to get the lay of the land before exploring the city on foot.
There are seven main churches in Granada. Apart from the cathedral, Iglesia La Merced, dating back to 1534, is probably the most worth visiting. While the mix of neo classical and baroque design is noteworthy, it is the view from the bell tower that’s the showstopper. Providing stunning views across the entire city, and with the ever present watchful Mombacho Volcano in the distance on one side and Lake Nicaragua on another, visiting La Merced is not be missed.
Back on street level, Granada’s fascinating past and pulsing present coexist seamlessly. Street after street of buildings, painted every colour of the rainbow, add joy and light-heartedness to the city’s period architecture. Every church, square and corner has a different story to tell. At various points in time, Granada was the capital of Nicaragua and one of the wealthiest cities in Central America. Hence gracious homes, grand civic buildings and impressive religious landmarks abound. However, Granada was also invaded and burned to the ground by pirates and foreign mercenaries and rebuilt a number of times. Despite this, there is scarcely a building newer than the early 1900s. Refreshingly, global retail chains are virtually non-existent in Granada. It is this authenticity and throwback to the past, yet at the same time being a living, breathing and bustling town, that makes Granada so appealing and unique. Granada’s location, between a towering dormant volcano and an expansive lake, also makes it the ideal staging post from which to embark upon the multitude of nature-oriented eco and adventure trips on offer.
Mombacho Volcano, rising to almost 1,400 metres, is visible from almost everywhere in Granada. Although not extinct, it last erupted in 1570, so chances are you will be safe. There is a visitor center at the peak, from where guides can be hired to lead hikes, ranging from easy/moderate to the four-hour Puma trail which is challenging yet exhilarating. The peak lies within a mystical cloud forest national park that occupies much of the volcano’s sides and top. It can be blazing hot and sunny in Granada – and most of the way up coffee plantations and fruit farms mark the ascent to Mombacho’s peak – but wet and cool at the top, so plan accordingly. When the clouds part, revealing dramatic views of the valley below, towards Granada and Lake Nicaragua beyond, the sight is nothing short of breath taking. On the day I hiked around the peak there were more clouds than views, but I still loved it.
A trip to Mombacho can be combined with a sedate tour of a coffee plantation or adrenaline-charged zip-lining across the top of the forest canopy. Zip-lining entails mounting platforms built on to trees or perches at different heights, being strapped into a harness attached to a cable, and then effectively flying up to a few hundred metres from platform to platform. I need not have been as nervous as I was. The attendants were professional, my safety being of paramount importance to them. The experience was nothing short of thrilling.
At some point Lake Nicaragua (or Lake Cocibolca, as it’s also known) will also beckon, since it literally sits at the base of Granada. However, this is no ordinary lake. For starters, it is massive. To put it into context, Lake Nicaragua, is the largest freshwater lake in Central America and the twentieth largest in the world, covering an area of more than 3,000 square miles. It has a various unique eco systems and is even home to rare freshwater sharks. In many ways the lake is more like an ocean, with water as far as the eye can see, prone to wind driven rough seas and violent storms. It is from the expanse of the lake, and the various river systems that feed into it from both the Caribbean and the Pacific, that pirates preyed upon and plundered Granada in the city’s past.
Close to Granada and the low-lying areas of Mombacho, is an area of Lake Nicaragua known as Las Isletas. Here, more than 360 tiny islands were formed when Mombacho blew its cone thousands of years ago. Today this shoreline-hugging archipelago offers a natural paradise of calm waters and wetlands, all teeming with fish and bird life. I never before fancied myself as a bird watcher, but after a few days staying on one of Las Isletas’ private islands I soon became one. Watching flocks of herons, ospreys and cormorants taking flight, swooping down for fish, and hanging out in their natural habitat, with the silhouette of Mombacho Volcano in the background, was a highlight of my vacation. An afternoon spent on the water weaving through Las Isletas, either on a motorboat with a guide or in a kayak, is also highly recommended.
There is no shortage of truly one-of-a-kind mini excursions which one can take from Granada. Thirty minutes or so in the opposite direction from Lake Nicaragua, lies the otherworldly Laguna de Apoyo, part of a national park with steep forested slopes giving way to a multitude of access points for swimming. This natural wonder is essentially a freshwater lake in the caldera of an ancient extinct volcano that suffered a massive eruption some 20,000 years ago. Approximately 6km in diameter and 175m deep, the lagoon is about 150m lower than the level of the surrounding plateau, and its warm and mineral-infused waters reputedly possess healing and medicinal qualities. There are aquatic ecosystems at the bottom that have yet to be documented. The lake was first filled by underground sources and continues to be replenished naturally, its waters now having been an important part of indigenous culture for millennia. An afternoon spent on the shores of Laguna de Apoyo is an exceptionally blissful experience.
For a bird’s eye view of Laguna de Apoyo, make for the town of Catarina, famed for beautiful handcrafted polished wood furniture and the best tropical plant nurseries in the country. The 180-degree vantage point from the town reveals the full majesty of Laguna de Apoyo in all her glory. To see the bright blue waters ringed by the rim of the former volcano is spectacular. Even if you want to pass on the swimming beaches below, the view from Catarina alone is worth a visit.
Twenty-five km southeast from Managua, is one of Nicaragua’s most active volcanoes and the country’s most visited sights. Masaya is one the few places in the world today where you can drive up to the rim of an active volcano and see fluid red and orange basaltic lava gurgling away. A tour of Masaya Volcano at night is invariably a highlight of any visit to Nicaragua. Dusk comes early in Nicaragua, so if you arrive at the entrance to Masaya Volcano National Park at 5pm, you will be back in Granada in time for dinner.
Whilst the natural setting of Granada and its environs sets the city apart as a standout destination for both naturalists and adventure junkies alike, it is the recent opening of a variety of new designer boutique hotels and restaurants that has propelled Granada on to so many travel hot lists. Whilst compared to its surroundings Granada may seem busy, it is at its heart a very relaxed city, tempered by the tropical climate and a languid pace of life. Relaxing in the interior courtyard of your bijou hotel or rented house, sipping a freshly squeezed fruit juice or cold Toña beer, is essentially what a vacation in Granada is all about. Once the midday heat has subsided, it is time to again explore the enticing, historic metropolis, and uncover new neighbourhoods and local watering holes without any particular agenda. This is the beauty of visiting Granada – going off-piste, being a little foot loose and fancy-free and expecting the unexpected. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. On the contrary, Granada will surely captivate you, like it did me.
I had few expectations of my trip to Granada, but boy was I blown away by the city’s intense charm and beauty, as well as the sheer wealth of activities on offer. Visiting the 17th century former capital of Nicaragua had the wanderlust excitement of backpacking, tempered with hip and comfy lodgings. My time spent in Granada left me yearning for more trips like that – less shop, spend and luxury, and more adventure, heart and soul. Granada and Nicaragua, I will be back.
HOTEL PLAZA COLÓN
Before the proliferation of boutique properties opened in Granada, Hotel Plaza Colón was arguably the best place to rest one’s head in the heart of the highly walkable old quarter, and even today, it remains one of the only full-service hotels in town, occupying a prime position on one side of Granada’s Parque Central. Behind the hotel are Granada’s best museums, oldest churches and monasteries.
Hotel Plaza Colón was previously a private colonial-era mansion, and thankfully the hotel remains faithful to its historic roots, complete with creaking wooden floorboards and antique ceiling fans. A good-sized swimming pool occupies much of the central courtyard, surrounded by shady verandas and lounging nooks, and provides a welcome oasis from the city’s heat and noise.
The hotel’s 27 bedrooms of high ceilings, whitewashed walls and tiled or polished wooden floors retain the grand proportions of its former incarnation, are furnished with colonial furniture and hung with original contemporary paintings. It’s well worth paying a little extra for a room overlooking Parque Central, since these come with broad balconies and cedar wood rocking chairs – perfect for front row views onto Granada’s lively scene. Friendly staff and a delicious breakfast buffet serve to make staying here even sweeter.
ISLETA EL ESPINO
There is something to be said about being able to enjoy pristine nature on a tropical island while at the same time being no more than a 30-minute combined boat and taxi ride away from the historic colonial city of Granada. A small, off-grid eco-friendly hotel powered by the sun, that takes great pride in its integration within its natural surroundings not to mention its relationship with the local community, Isleta el Espino is a more laid-back and chilled accommodation option amongst the Isletas of Granada.
Thoughtfully designed using native materials, while supporting local artisans and community-run crafts projects, Isleta el Espino has five guest rooms each featuring a private deck and offering spectacular lake views, and the lodge features a swimming pool, yoga platform, free kayaks, spa services and an intimate bar. A small team of local women, led by a warm grandmotherly type, prepare all meals, with freshly caught fish featuring prominently on the changing daily menu, and delicious smoothies made from home-grown produce including dragon fruit, mango and passion fruit. Homemade granola, yogurt, jams and bread are served every morning. They even make their own dark chocolate! Words cannot adequately describe the soothing effect of having the silhouette of Mombacho Volcano constantly in front of you.
Just a 15-minute boat ride southeast of Granada, and consisting of around 365 small tropical islands formed 20,000 years ago by a massive volcanic explosion, Las Isletas de Granada is a unique place where prominent Nicaraguan have vacation homes and a local fishing community makes its living. Of the vast array of accommodation on offer across the islands, 9-bedroom Jicaro Lodge – winner of National Geographic’s Lodges of the World award – is almost certainly the most exclusive option.
Almost all the lodge’s buildings are made from recycled wood, and the property prides itself on its low environmental impact credentials. Coconut palms and mango trees naturally help to conceal private lakeside casitas and a yoga sala. An open-air spa lies below a lush forest canopy. A gorgeous infinity pool and a variety of exposed and covered lounge areas, many boasting views over the water towards the volcano, provide plenty of nooks and crannies in which to cosy up, unwind and relax. Staff look after guests’ every need with care and humility.
Either stay onsite and enjoy the many wonders of the property and rich eco habitat of Las Isletas, or use the lodge as a staging point for all the wonderful day trips that make up the wider Granada area.
Whereas Tribal tends towards maximalism, the city’s other boutique hotel triumph veers towards a more pared-back yet still classy design ethos. At Los Patios, its Danish owners have skilfully combined minimalist Scandinavian design with traditional Nicaraguan ambiance, creating an altogether sleek and inviting place to base oneself in the heart of Granada.
Opened in 2011 and situated on a quiet residential street about 15 minutes-walk from Granada’s landmark cathedral, once inside the bright blue hotel, it feels like the building goes on and on, as one walks from one airy patio to another – the multiple outdoor spaces giving Los Patios its name.
Sleek concrete-framed sofas, book-lined shelves and cosy seating abound, nicely juxtaposing order with relaxation. French doors from the library lead to a patio with swinging hammock-style chairs that’s open to the sky. Five bedrooms are spread out throughout the property, giving guests privacy and space. High ceilings, made from local cane, give all rooms a light and open feel. Bathrooms are modern are generously proportioned with Hansgrohe fittings, walk-in showers and concrete-topped vanities. Los Patios’ best room is undoubtedly the spacious second floor Balcony Suite, which boasts views from its private terrace over the Granada’s rooftops towards Lake Nicaragua and Mombacho volcano.
One property more than any other has helped to put Granada on the tourist map. The brainchild of New York restaurateur Jean-Marc Houmard and his business partner Yvan Cussigh, and feeling a little like their own, personal holiday retreat, Tribal is tucked away on a quiet residential street, a stone’s throw from the main square. A riot of colour, the hotel’s design aesthetic can best be described as global ethnic chic, inspired by their travels to India, Bali, Thailand, Morocco, Turkey and Kenya. Contemporary art works and photographs are liberally distributed throughout. The furniture and pottery has been made by local artisans. Fashion and fine art magazines beg to be flicked through.
The five eclectically-decorated bedrooms and two junior suites surround an open-air patio with a photogenic, compact splash pool at its center. Whilst rooms are intimate all have an indoor/outdoor feel, with private terraces, air-con and queen-sized beds.
White t-shirt and blue jeans-clad staff are on hand to spoil guests with expertly made cocktails and nibbles, served to sultan-like divans and loungers that adorn the public spaces. Cussigh literally lives around the corner and is onsite almost all the time – his attention to detail and panache as a host ensures that guests are always in excellent hands.
When the Mayans discovered nutrient-rich chocolate 2,000 years ago – and made it available to all classes of its society, rich and poor alike – little did they know that it would become a coveted, worldwide superfood. Providing amusement for the whole family, plus, of course, chocolate lovers, Granada’s ChocoMuseo offers an immersive overview of the history, cultivation and production of cacao and chocolate. At one of the museum’s workshops, visitors can also participate in the complete chocolate-making process, including roasting and grinding cacao, and making chocolate bars and drinks. A café and gift store complete the sweet experience.
CASA TRES MUNDOS
Founded in 1986 by Austrian actor and author Dietmar Schönherr, and Nicaraguan poet, priest and politician Ernesto Cardenal, the Fundación Casa de los Tres Mundos is an international cultural center that initiates, supports and promotes cultural projects in Nicaragua and Central America via artistic, musical and educational activities. The foundation also finances and coordinates an integrative rural development project in Malacatoya. Housed in the historic 1720 Casa de los Leones building, with a beautiful neoclassical façade, at the entrance, a board lists forthcoming special events including poetry readings, classical ballet, folkloric dance and free movies. The entrance fee also includes access to the mansion.
CONVENTO Y MUSEO SAN FRANCISCO
Almost certainly Granada’s most striking building and fronted by a stunning pale blue façade, Iglesia San Francisco was originally constructed in 1585, was subsequently burned to the ground by pirates, and was later rebuilt by William Walker in 1868. In 1989 the historic monastery was restored, and is now home to a beautiful museum which chronicles Granada’s religious history. Museum highlights include top-notch Primitivist art and the Zapatera statuary, two regiments of black-basalt statues looming above large men, carved between AD 800 and 1200, then left behind on the ritual volcanic island of Isla Zapatera in Lake Nicaragua.
Calle Cervantes, Granada
IGLESIA LA MERCED
Probably the most beautiful church in Granada, La Merced is just a few blocks to the west of Parque Central. Originally completed in 1539 but rebuilt a number of times since, La Merced is fronted by a beautiful, if slightly crumbling baroque façade dating back to 1781-1783. Inside, a simple although somewhat austere mostly white interior houses a number of religious icons, including an important image of the Virgen de Fatima. The adjacent bell tower offers impressive 360-degree views over Granada’s tiled rooftops towards Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua. Visit Iglesia La Merced at sunset for the most sublime light.
Calle Real & Avenida 14 de Septiembre, Granada
Granada’s main square is a verdant oasis in the middle of the city. Surrounded on all sides by historical buildings, and dominated at the east side by the city’s main Cathedral de Granada, this central plaza is the perfect place from which to orient oneself. It is also one of the best places to watch the world go by and be immersed in Central American daily life, either from a park bench or one of the many cafés that ring the perimeter. The horse and carriages that congregate at one end of the park are an excellent way to quickly see Granada’s main sights.
Ave Vega, Granada
MANSION DE CHOCOLAT
Located in the center of Granada and housed in the city’s largest surviving intact colonial mansion and former presidential residence, Mansion De Chocolat is an eclectic, sprawling chocolate-themed hotel complete with a “Choco Spa”, extensive gardens, courtyards, a good-sized swimming pool and a rooftop yoga studio. Large shared balconies provide residents with an ideal vantage point from which to experience spectacular sunsets over Mombacho Volcano. Mansion De Chocolat’s extensive, all-you-can-eat chocolate-themed buffet breakfast spread is well worth the indulgence at least once, and if you pay an extra five dollars you can stay on and use the pool all day.
EL TERCER OJO
Located in the middle of Calle La Calzada, Granada’s main bar and restaurant area, El Tercer Ojo offers well turned-out and innovative global cuisine focussing on Middle Eastern, Asian and Latin flavours. With indoor and outdoor and indoor seating, a lively bar and frequent live music, El Tercer Ojo is very much an evening entertainment complex. The bar, restaurant tables and lounge area are organised within a covered, al fresco courtyard, around the perimeter of which a number of bijou boutiques sell the wares of some of the city’s contemporary local designers.
Whilst El Tercer Ojo can get quite busy, there’s almost always plenty of room for everyone to chill!
RESTAURANTE EL ZAGUÁN
Though lacking a little in the ambience department, large yet somehow inviting El Zaguán, just behind the cathedral, undoubtedly serves the best piece of meat in town. Nicaragua is a major beef exporter and it is easy to understand why – the quality and tastiness of the nation’s meat is second to none. El Zaguán specialises in locally sourced melt-in-your-mouth steaks, flame-grilled before your eyes and served with a variety of sauces and sides. Some hearty chicken mains, rather tasty fish dishes and a good wine list round out the menu. Whilst El Zaguán is very old school it’s popular with tourists so do make reservations.
THE GARDEN CAFÉ
Particularly appealing for breakfast and lunch, and mostly serving healthy fare, The Garden Café is all about sustainability and creating a productive community for tourists, regulars and employees. Breakfast is a combination of Western and Nicaraguan staples, including nacatamal – traditional Nicaraguan cornmeal tamal filled with chicken or pork, rice, mint, potato and chilies, all steamed in a banana leaf. The lunch menu consists of salads, wraps and tasty sandwiches on artisan breads, together with a variety of fresh juices. Do try salpicón – a typical Nicaraguan home meal. Whilst The Garden Café’s food is incredibly tasty, it’s the setting amidst a lush garden-like interior patio that really makes the place special.
By far away and away the most cutting-edge eating option in Granada is Espressonista speciality coffee bar and restaurant, located in the residential district of Xalteva. Here multilingual Nicaraguan owner Andrés has created an eclectic and somewhat avant-garde space, that reflects both local and European inspirations. The restaurant serves excellent ceviche and fresh pastas together with heartier dishes like Ossobuco and daily specials. Desserts are worth the calories. Also serving some of best hand-crafted cocktails in town, Espressonista is an all-around winner, and the only eatery in town that offers such a sophisticated yet relaxed ambience that it wouldn’t be out of place in a Paris.
CAFÉ LAS FLORES
Since coffee came to Nicaragua in the mid 1800s it has played a significant role in the country’s economy and environment. Today coffee is a big deal in Nicaragua. Locally produced coffee has a medium to smooth body, oozes rich yet subtle flavours, has a balanced sweetness, and its nutty bouquet often exhibits notes of vanilla. Café Las Flores is one of Nicaragua’s finest coffee companies, established over three generations. Of the brand’s many countrywide outposts, the Granada location, next to Hotel Plaza Colón, serves excellent cakes as well as one of the best cups of coffee in the city.
With friendly staff, a warm and welcoming atmosphere, a daily happy hour offering two-for-one drinks and a great roof terrace affording patrons spectacular views across Granada, there are ample reasons why Bocadillos has a reputation for being one of the coolest places in town for regulars and visitors alike to drop anchor. Attached to boutique Hotel Casa San Francisco, Bocadillos has both inside and garden seating, plus café-style tables on the sidewalk if you just fancy a coffee. A nice variety of small plates are perfect for an afternoon snack or light dinner, whilst you’re unlikely to stop at just one of Bocadillos’ delicious signature cocktails, hand-crafted using freshly squeezed juices.
A little off the beaten track, anyone passing Ciudad Lounge might be forgiven for mistaking the venue for a shop, because almost everything is for sale. Name-checked by The New York Times as the “most exciting restaurant in Granada”, and run by husband and wife team Naomi and William (aka Chef Puro), inside the space is filled with an eclectic mix of timber tables and chairs, ceramic vases, sculptures and statues, with swathes of blood red fabric hanging off the backs of barstools. A restaurant, wine bar, rum tasting room and cigar lounge all rolled into one makes Ciudad Lounge perfect for dinner, a glass of vino or learning about Nicaragua’s premier rum, Flor de Caña.
Pedestrian friendly Calle La Calzada is very much Granada’s main street, is closed off to automobile traffic and lined with restaurants and outdoor cafés. In the evenings the whole place springs to life, and literally everywhere fills up with locals and tourists alike, who come to relax, chat, eat, drink and watch the world go by. There are all sorts of venues on La Calzada, ranging from civilised and sedate to lively and loud, and even some which verge on rowdy. The bar restaurant at Toritos Hotel is worth checking-out, and becomes a bustling hub at the weekends, filled with visitors and Nicaraguans feasting on scrummy paella and drinking moreish Sangria (www.hotel-toritos.com/en/bar-restaurant).
Calle La Calzada, Granada
An atmospheric rooftop bar, pool club and hotel all rolled into one, set within an attractive colonial house, Encuentros attracts a cool mix of locals, tourists and expats all looking to have a boogie and let their hair down in a relaxed environment. Guest DJs preside over the weekends and provide a funky house music soundtrack. There are plenty of areas to chill for those wishing to have a less hectic night. Cocktails are tasty, reasonably priced and served quickly. And whilst the crowd at Encuentros tends to be a little younger, everyone is made to feel welcome and the atmosphere is fun and buzzy.
ROOTS & SOUL
Inspired by travelling, nature and surfing, and based in Amsterdam but sourced in Nicaragua, the throws and bags produced by Roots & Soul are the perfect travel companions during any trip. Drawn to Nicaragua by their passion for yoga, surfing and beach life, Roots & Soul’s founders, Bart and Flora, moved to Central America in 2013, leading them to discover the craftsmanship and beauty of the country’s artisan goods. In collaboration with local craftsmen, the duo started their business in 2014, and now produce throws, bags, espadrilles and a host of other travel apparel. Honouring the natural, organic roots of Nicaraguan goods, no two items are the same and everything is handmade.
Coming from a family of artists and having spent her childhood surrounded by creativity and eccentricity in Managua’s Museo-Galería Genesis artistic center, Shantall Lacayo learned the art of fashion design at Argentina’s Escuela de Moda, before becoming a 2010 contestant and finalist on Project Runway Latin America. Today Lacayo is a highly regarded designer in Nicaragua, and crafts clothing for modern, confident and strong women. From the street to the boardroom, Lacayo’s fun prints and pattern cut outs are evocative of life in her tropical home nation. Shop for Shantall Lacayo at her boutique at #2 Villa Fontana Norte Casa in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.
MOMBACHO CIGAR COMPANY
Nicaragua is currently the second largest cigar producer in the world, ahead of Cuba. Named after the prominent volcano overlooking the 500-year-old colonial city, and housed within a stunning, renovated colonial mansion, Mombacho produces and sells quality cigars, and is the only producer in the country to use 100 percent Nicaraguan tobacco. Mombacho’s cigars have won numerous awards, and the company prides itself on sustainable development and treating employees like family. The brand’s Granada headquarters is exquisite, and a tour of the grounds and cigar making process is fascinating, highly recommended and a must for cigar aficionados.
TÍO ANTONIO HAMACA
Located adjacent to Café de las Sonrisas (Smiles Coffee) in Xalteva, a few blocks from Parque Central, Tío Antonio specialises in producing hand-crafted, well-constructed hammocks in all shapes, sizes and a rainbow of colours. The shop is really an extension of his onsite factory, and visitors can receive a tour and an explanation of the hammock making process. Many of the staff of the neighbouring café as well as the hammock makers are deaf and/or mute, and it is refreshing to see a thriving business employing people with disabilities. The tiled floors and soaring wood beamed ceilings only add to the atmosphere of this rather special shop.
Made of Nicaraguan cowhide and pigskin, Soy Nica’s premium leather bags fuse Danish design with a taste of the tropics to great effect. Soy Nica only sources leather from free range cows, never removing imperfections like scars and bruises. Each piece has its own story and charm, as unique as the individual characters of the people who buy them. Available in totes, cross-body bags, backpacks, purses and everything in between, Soy Nica’s designs come in a vast array of colours, including bright orange, black and red. Buy Soy Nica at the Nicaraguan brand’s charming store on Calle La Calzada, in front of Carlos A. Bravo School.