When friends were informed that my holiday itinerary included a visit to Nicaragua, the outpouring of concern and disbelief was immediate. “Have you gone mad?! You’ll never come back alive!!!”, some vehemently bellowed, while the more, shall we say, polite were content to raise their eyebrows and wonder aloud, “Isn’t there some sort of civil war going on down there in Nicaragua?”. Alas, despite the fact that a decade of peace has passed since the end of this bloody conflict, the war still resonates in most peoples’ minds and scares them off from visiting the largest country in Central America. This is quite unfortunate, as Nicaragua has of late been becoming more and more popular with intrepid travellers, most notably with the backpacker set whose sense for sniffing out the “next big thing” in travel destinations is unparalleled. In fact, Nicaragua is widely touted to be the “next Costa Rica”, if travel magazines are to be believed.
Along with the northern city of Leon, the Nicaragua Tourism Board has devoted its marketing efforts to promoting colonial town of Granada as one of the must-see destinations, and it is easy to understand why. This ancient town on the shores of mighty Lake Nicaragua (aka Lago Cocibolca) is full of history and Spanish colonial charm and is one of the oldest European settlements in the western hemisphere. Today, Granada is considered to be the capital of tourism in Nicaragua, and a burgeoning network of bars, restaurants and hostels have sprung up to cater to the increasing number of tourists. In addition, a large-scale refurbishment and re-painting of the Cathedral and other colonial buildings in pleasing pastel shades has made it the most visually arresting town in all of the country, somewhat reminiscent of Antigua in Guatemala.
Activities-wise, an entire day could be spent walking around town taking in the scenery, observing locals going about their daily lives, and exploring the different churches and museums. The historic Convento de San Francisco ($2 fee) has an appealing baby blue facade and has been converted into a pre-Colombian museum containing impressive murals depicting various stages of the colonization and liberation of Nicaragua from the Spanish. With the sun shining down in full force, an attractive option is to sit on one of Parque Central’s benches under shaded trees. The massive Cathedral is located at the eastern edge of the park, while the Plaza de la Independencia is immediately to the north.
For lunch, I walked over to one of the small food kiosks in the park. The smiling native behind the counter urged me to be adventurous and try vigoron, a dish which consists of pickled cabbage, tomatoes and onions with yuca and fried pork skins (chicharon), and is the closest thing to fast food in Nicaraguan culture. Sensing my hesitance, she offered a small sample which tasted quite delicious, thus I agreed and happily ate my dirt-cheap $2 lunch – and yes, that’s including a soda. On the other extreme of the dining spectrum, several upscale restaurants have opened recently as well. On the night we decided to splurge, we had dinner at El Zaguan, a hip family-owned restaurant just a block away from Parque Central serving primarily steak and seafood entrees. I also tasted the best fruit punch in Nicaragua at El Zaguan, so much so that I downed two of them even before my parillada (an assortment of grilled chicken, beef, and pork guaranteed to sate the appetite of the hungriest man alive) arrived.
The next morning, I headed over to the lakefront, about a 1km walk from Parque Central. It is usually pretty quiet and a nice place to relax. Some “tour guides” do try and offer you their services, but a persistent “No” is often enough to get rid of them. A few hundred meters south, the Complejo Turistico (Tourist Complex) is jampacked on weekends with Nicaraguan families on their beach getaways. While the waters appear to be brackish (I personally would not go in) and the sand dark brownish in color, a good time can still be had having a beer at one of the complex’s bars.
Outside of town, there are numerous activities and places to visit which are an easy ride away, owing to Granada’s superb location. A mere hour’s drive away is the town of Masaya, whose claim to fame is the active cone of Santiago at the Masaya Volcano National Park ($4 entrance fee). The inside of this big smoking crater can be observed from a viewing platform, which spares you from all the hours of strenuous hiking that is usually required. If you’ve always wanted to get an up close and personal look at an active volcano’s crater, then this is certainly the once-in-a-lifetime chance to do it! The town proper of Masaya has two crafts markets which overflow with wood carvings, leather goods, wood-and-bead jewelry, hemp tapestries and other unique crafts, making it the best shopping destination in Nicaragua. Most of the products are made locally in Masaya and nearby towns. The vendors expect you to bargain, thus what would seem like outrageous initial prices are just starting points for negotiation. Don’t be surprised to end up spending only around a quarter or half as much for your purchase. That being said, the combination of high-quality crafts and low prices might stimulate you to overspend. Beware!
Also within a 15-mile radius are the towns collectively known as the “Pueblos Blancos”, or White Towns – NIndiri, Niquinohomo, Masatepe, Catarina, Diria, and Diriomo – which get their name from the traditional whitewash used on the houses. There’s not much to see in these towns, so we just went to Catarina whose main draw is El Mirador, a lookout point that stares right down at the crater lake of the Apoyo Lagoon, or Laguna de Apoyo, one of the most pristine lagoons in the country. The lagoon, created when a volcano erupted hundreds of thousands of years ago, has tempting sky blue waters usually great for swimming, but a bit too cold for most of my group’s taste.
I decided to spend an afternoon on a leisurely boat tour of the 365 small islands, called isletas, on Lake Nicaragua. These isletas are scattered about the lake and are believed to have been formed from one of the explosions of Volcan Mombacho. Home to over a thousand fishermen, most of these islands have now become weekend vacation homes for the upper class and foreigners – weekend rentals are a big business, and hey, they throw in a boat for free to ferry you to and from the mainland. According to our tour guide, rates start at roughly 10,000 cordobas (1 US$ = 18 cordobas) for the weekend. As our boat made its way back to the shore at sundown, I was treated to a spectacular sunset – the orange-streaked sky with the huge profile of Volcan Mombacho in the background.
With the rapid rise of tourism (over 700,000 foreign visitors in 2005) in Nicaragua, Granada is sure to be a much-talked about place in the years to come. Its well-preserved colonial architecture, cobblestone streets, tranquil atmosphere, ideal geographic location and many interesting activities make Granada a truly worthwhile destination, and these are the reasons why you should visit the picturesque, lakeside town of Granada in Nicaragua – regardless of your friends and families’ opinions.