Granada: Nicaragua’s Tropical Gem

Nestled on the shores of Lake Nicaragua against the stunning backdrop of the Mombacho volcano, a Central American treasure sits, welcoming visitors into the maze of its colored streets. Granada is a tropical gem, providing a perfect weekend getaway for two and serving as a center of Nicaraguan life. It’s as steeped in culture as it is in history, as appealing to outdoor enthusiasts as it is to adventurous urbanites. Start your journey to Granada in true nica fashion, squished on a local “chicken bus,” hopefully sitting in a window seat so that you can still enjoy the movement of fresh air as the bus fills up. Indulge your adventurous spirit and buy a bag of mangoes, generously salted and drenched in condensed milk, from one of the vendors who periodically gets on the bus and walks up and down the aisle, shouting their product and price as if they were auctioneers.

As your journey comes to an end, you will pull up to Granada’s Parque Central, the center of the city’s movement and a beautiful starting point for some aimless meandering. Amidst gurgling stone fountains, wonderfully hedged trees, and a picturesque pink gazebo, you can sit on a bench and observe the children, horse carts, and families of Granada. The park also hosts several stands selling multicolored knick-knacks, be they tank tops or pottery, as well as kiosks, at which you can indulge in traditional Nicaraguan dishes like vigorón (pork skin on cabbage on yucca). The fried pork skin, common in traditional dishes, is not usually available by itself, but if you cajole the friendly kiosk chefs they might sneak you a bag and a delighted smile.

This alluring park is punctuated by Granada’s most stunning monument: the canary yellow Catedral de Granada. Standing upon its steps, one can see Granada begin to  unfold, taking in all the beauty of its red-tiled roofs and palm trees, with a lake glistening its body at the sun in one direction and a volcano hiding its head amongst the clouds in another. The colorful architecture, steeped in the sticky heat of the tropics, and the central street of restaurants, bars, and cafes evokes a distant and distorted memory of Spanish Andalucia. You will not be able to help yourself from relaxing and smiling in this fantasy town.

Bathed in the glow of the setting sun, there are few things more beautiful than the mosaic streets of the colonial town. Once the sun’s luster fades behind Mombacho’s stony facade, you can watch the nightcrawlers come to life while seated at one of the restaurants of Calle La Calzada. Sip on your Toña–one of the nation’s only two beers–or rum and coke, as you enjoy the sounds, sights, and smells of the mariachi bands, acrobats, and street vendors. Granada has no lack of delicious restaurants, ranging from a Spanish bodega serving one-dollar mojitos to a slightly more upscale El Zaguán, famous for its tenderloin.

Once you arrive at a happier and more relaxed level of inebriation and your stomach is contentedly digesting a delicious meal, make your way to the many bars that begin to come to life close to midnight. A personal favorite is Reilly’s, an Irish pub that may seem like an unlikely spot for an authentic night out but in fact gets quite crowded and lively. They play American and Latin pop hits deep into the night, and  local couples populate the dance floor, wearing their love and joy on their faces. The  pub’s stone laden terrace for dancing is open to the night sky, a perfect ambiance in which to sway the night away in the arms of a lover.

Take your next full day to explore the rest of Granada’s treasures. The Convento San Francisco is the best place to learn about the tumultuous history of the city, its legacy, and its art. A late morning tour of Lake Granada’s isletas is a must, as the boat ride offers an almost dream-like peek into the lives of local fishers, billionaires, and expatriates. The tour takes you first through a canal where you will see local families hard at work, paddling through the water, necks protected from the irrepressible sun with wet cloths as they string up the many species of fish they caught that morning. Moving out into the broader lake, sit back and enjoy the view of Granada’s center from afar, its cathedrals shimmering in the sun and Volcan Mombacho standing gracefully in the distance.

An explosion from many years ago formed the 365 little islands that dot the lake, atop which the richest families of Nicaragua and wealthy foreigners have built beautiful vacation homes, impressive to behold from your little boat.

The tour also features a centuries-old Spanish fort, reminiscent of the city’s tumultuous history with explorers, businessmen, and pirates. The highlight of the isletas may very well be the Isleta de Monos, on which friendly spider monkeys spend their mornings waiting for food from passing boats and their afternoons napping atop tree branches, conversing with the birds. Your tour guide will end the show with a stop at one of the many isletas masquerading as restaurants. These little sanctuaries usually include a bar, a pool, and a lovely set of hammocks from which the calm view can be fully appreciated with a beer in hand.

Spend your afternoon enjoying the rest of the city, be it in the many spas that offer a variety of relaxing treatments, the chocolate museum at which you can take a free sampling tour or your own chocolate-making classes, or the hidden art galleries that surprisingly host a marvelous range of paintings and ceramics. Regardless of where you might wander, the neoclassical colors of the town will delight you, the tranquil and laid back demeanor of its people will charm you, and the many faces of Nicaragua’s beauty, culture, geography, and vibrancy, will captivate you. In fact, you may find yourself wishing to stay forever.