As colonial tile roofs and jewel-colored homes rose to meet us, the sun shrank behind the looming Mombacho Volcano and it became clear – we weren’t in Costa Rica anymore.
After a rainy, three-hour drive from Liberia, Guanacaste, we had finally crossed the border hassle-free and arrived at our destination: Granada, Nicaragua – the country’s oldest city. On the shores of Lake Nicaragua, this is a city shrouded in history and brimming with culture.
I had been craving a cultural immersion for some time now, something a little more challenging than surfing and sipping mojitos on Costa Rica’s north Pacific coast. With just a few days left before my Costa Rican tourist visa expired, a weekend trip to Granada seemed like the perfect excuse to both renew my passport and experience a different part of Central America.
Founded by the conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524, Granada would be the oldest city in Nicaragua if it didn’t battle for the same title with the northwestern city of León, which was actually founded in the same year, also by the same guy (Córdoba is also considered one of the founders of Nicaragua itself.)
The city has done an impeccable job in reconstruction and maintenance over the years – the main Catedral de Granada has been destroyed and rebuilt multiple times, most recently in 1915. The Spanish government also helped with financing much of the city’s reconstruction, including sponsoring the recent project to turn the main drag, Calle Calzada, into a cobblestone, pedestrian-only pathway. With such meticulous preservation, the city retains its quaint colonial feel and the brightly colored chapels remain steeped in history.
I awoke on the first morning to a heaping plate of the local staple, gallo pinto, scrambled eggs, fried cheese and plantains – a savory kick-start to a day of sightseeing in Granada. We hit the pavement on foot, the best way to get a close look at the elegant houses that line Granada’s city streets.
Each worn wooden entryway is slightly different than the next, and the pastel painted homes contain open-air, European-style courtyards, often featuring elaborate gardens, water fountains and swimming pools. Kids play dodgeball in the streets and old men sip piping cups of coffee in front porch rocking chairs, chatting with neighbors.
European backpackers and American tourist families seem to blend easily with the locals. Calle Calzada and its cluster of Irish pubs, Mexican restaurants and souvenir shops cater to travelers from around the world. But, wander several blocks south and you’ll stumble upon the buzzing Mercado Municipal, where local street vendors sell everything from knockoff Nikes and car parts to eggs and local cheeses.
The melting pot of modern Granada echoes the city’s rich history. Back in the colonial times, Granada achieved more grandeur than other cities due to its location on Lake Nicaragua, which connected it to commercial ports on the Atlantic Ocean. The city flourished as an important trading hub, sending goods throughout Central America from its shores. With its strategic port location, Granada grew with Spanish and other European influences shaping the same architecture, design and population of today.
Today, Granada’s allure of church bells and Catholic processions in the streets blend with the international bohemianism of hip bars and European-style cafes. Always bustling with activity, Granada is a place where culture, charm and custom thrive, a can’t-miss experience in Central America.
What to do
Walk: First and foremost, break out your camera and explore Granada’s picturesque streets on foot. Look down as you’re walking – the eccentric styles and prints are fabulously intricate and no two are alike. Be sure to visit the main square or Parque Central, which sits in the shadow of the lemon-hued Catedral de Granada and boasts tiny peddler stalls of scrumptious street food and inexpensive handicrafts.
Ride: On the Western edge of the Parque Central near the Hotel Plaza Colon, you’ll notice a row of horse drawn carriages waiting to whisk you off on a city tour. For around $15, a driver will trot with you down some of Granada’s streets you might not reach on foot – an informative and interesting way to see the city (roughly one hour). The driver will be happy to take you to any church, museum or sightseeing spot on your list.
Pray: The golden yellow, classic colonial Catedral de Granada sits at the end of Calle Calzada on the east end of Parque Central. Originally built in 1583, the cathedral has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the years – most recently in 1915. Admire its stained-glass windows and towering chapels as you stroll around the central plaza and explore the many street stalls selling a variety of local snacks and souvenirs.
Shop: One block south of the Parque Central, the Mercado Municipal is as authentic as they come. If you can work your way past the gritty street stalls, you’ll find everything from shampoo to sneakers. Jammed full of locals, the market isn’t as touristy as the main center and is relatively dingy once you’re in the thick of things. It’s worth a visit, but avid market-goers might want to check out the nearby handicraft hub of Masaya, a short cab ride away. Located one block south of the central plaza, Granada, Nicaragua.
Pay respects: If you’re taking a horse-drawn carriage city tour, ask your driver to stop at the Cementario de Granada. Hauntingly beautiful, this sprawling cemetery dates back to the late 19th century and houses the tombs and mausoleums of some of Granada’s wealthiest families including several former Nicaraguan presidents. One popular highlight is the stone Chapel of Spirits (Capilla de Animas), a to-scale replica of the famous French version.
Island hop: One of the most popular and worthwhile activities in Granada is a two-hour tour of Las Isletas – a series of 365 (so they say) tiny volcanic islands off Granada’s shore in Lake Nicaragua formed by an ancient eruption of the Mombacho Volcano (now inactive for centuries). Book with one of many tour companies or simply head down to the lake yourself and hire a boat yourself. The tour shouldn’t cost more than $15 unless you stop for lunch on one of the tiny island restaurants. Skip lunch on the lake and eat in town – the island restaurants are pricy in comparison and menus are limited. Cruise around in a panga or kayak and check out the beautiful island vacation homes of some of Nicaragua’s most famous families. With most islands only big enough for a single home, hotel or restaurant (one even boasts an old, cerca-1974, Spanish fortress), the Isletas display a fascinating and tranquil way of life.
Haggle: You won’t want to miss out on the myriad vendors selling knickknacks and handicrafts throughout Granada’s street markets. Locals sell Nicaraguan T-shirts for under $5, woven bracelets and stone-crafted jewelry among other cute gifts to take home. Those seeking a more authentic experience will be pleased to know Granada is home to one of the best selections of antiques in Central America. Don’t miss these rare treasure troves:
El Anticuario:Step back in time in Felicia Sandino’s historic haven, El Anticuario. Piled high with intricately carved wooden doors, aged bronze statues and worn mahogany trunks, Sandino’s shop feels more like a museum than retail store. El Anticuario’s courtyard is full of treasures – the rest of Sandino’s passion since she began collecting antiques in 1993. Each item is hand-selected and harbors its own piece of Nicaragua’s rich history. Sandino and her knowledgeable staff are friendly, helpful and known to give good deals when buying multiple items. El Anticuario, Calle Atravesada, Parque Sandino, 1 ½ cuadras al sur. 505-2552-4457. email@example.com.
Harold’s Antiques:Harold Sandino, brother of Felicia, keeps it in the family at his equally beautiful antique shop west of the city center. The pair has been in the collecting business for decades now and both El Anticuario and Harold’s Antiques are treasure troves waiting to be discovered. Ask at your hotel for directions. 505-8982-0597, 505-2550-0366, firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to eat
Granada’s tourist boom and bohemian expat community have given way to countless restaurants that feature everything from local Nicaraguenese cuisine to international Asian, Mexican and European dishes. With local Victoria and Tona beers averaging $1.20 at a bar and a full-fledged steak dinner at around $10, you won’t break the bank sampling some of the region’s best dining.
El Zaguan:The best steak, hands down. Serving up mouth-watering local cuisine in a friendly, steakhouse atmosphere, El Zaguan deserves its reputation as one of the best dining spots in Granada. Tables are always full of tourists and locals hungry for the “Tipico la gran sultana,” a juicy tenderloin served with a heaping plate of fried cheese, plantains, mashed beans and cabbage salad for roughly 360 cordoba ($15). Each dish comes with a salad appetizer and warm bread freshly baked in the wood-fired oven. The menu includes other dishes such as pasta, chicken and “guapote,” a bass caught in the lake and served whole. Calle La Calzada, one block behind the Cathedral, Granada, Nicaragua. 505-2552-2522.
El Tercer Ojo: El Tercer Ojo or “The Third Eye,” is an eclectic fusion restaurant born from Granada’s bohemian expat community. With tables draped in flowing scarfs, Buddha statues lining the walls and Hindu paintings adorning the walls, El Tercer Ojo brings guests into another world. The menu is wonderfully diverse and features specials such as 2-for-1 sushi on Saturdays and a happy hour that runs until 8 p.m. Snack on appetizers like a mixed meat, cheese and olive plate or mozzarella, tomato and basil served on a tostada. Entrees include a variety of sweet and savory crepes, sushi, meats, pastas and seafood dishes. Average entrée between $7-$11. Calle Arsenal, Granada, Nicaragua. 505-2552-6451.
Euro Café: Located on the northwest corner of the Parque Central, Euro Café is a reliable stop for strong coffee drinks, smoothies and healthy snacks. Bring your computer and sit in the courtyard as you sip a coffee and sample a vegetarian panini or hummus and pita plate. A great choice for lunch. Northwest Corner of Parque Central, next to Hotel Colonial, Granada, Nicaragua. 505-2552-2146.
Where to stay
From $5-a-night hostel dorm rooms to luxurious 4-star boutique hotels, Granada has plenty of accommodations for every budget and taste.
Los Patios Hotel:Just outside the bustle of the main square, Los Patios Hotel is an oasis of tranquility located down the quiet street of Calle Corrales. Mediterranean design elements blend with traces of Granada’s rich Spanish colonial architecture in this one-of-a-kind, 5-room boutique hotel. Open-air patios feature large Moroccan lounge cushions, a lap pool and secluded spa – the perfect place to relax and unwind. One highlight is the breakfast (included) of gallo pinto (rice and beans), eggs, fried cheese and plantains or order the a European spread of various cheeses, breads, jams, crepes and eggs. Both come with fresh fruit, freshly squeezed orange juice and a choice of coffee or tea. Rooms start at $90/night. 525 Calle Corrales, Granada, Nicaragua. 505-2552-0641, email@example.com, www.lospatiosgranada.com.
Hotel Casa San Francisco: Still comfortable and slightly easier on your wallet is Hotel Casa San Francisco. Centrally located just off the main plaza near the San Francisco Church, Hotel Casa San Francisco is a well-priced, nine-room boutique hotel tastefully decorated with a cozy, homelike atmosphere. Rooms feature a private balcony, air-conditioning and safety deposit box. Rooms start at $65. Diagonal from the San Francisco Convent, Calle Corral #207, Granada, Nicaragua. 505-2552-8235, www.hotelcasasanfrancisco.com.