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.