La Gran Sultana: Granada, Nicaragua
Updated: Nov 25, 2019
Shimmering like a colonial oasis on the north-east end of Lake Nicaragua, Granada is one of many hidden treasures opening its doors to the inquisitive traveler
Article by Brent Robillard & Photography by Caroline Bergeron
Mention Nicaragua during a conversation about vacation destinations and you might draw a few looks. Even before its recent turbulence, Nicaragua was primarily a destination for hipsters and a prescient surfer crowd. All inclusive resorts, the mainstay for most North Americans visiting the Caribbean, are few and far between in Nicaragua. At its height in 2016, the country welcomed 1.5 million visitors who contributed $640 million (or 6%) to its GDP. Neighbouring Costa Rica, by comparison draws 25% more year over year, who drop close to $4 billion in hard currency.
Nonetheless, tourism was the nation’s fastest growing sector until last year.
Prior to our first trip in 2007, more than one friend asked, “Isn’t it a little dangerous?”
My answer then was simple, “Not as dangerous as Mexico.”
However, after more than one hundred and fifty years of war, dictatorships, and civil strife, Nicaragua had established itself in the world’s consciousness as a place of violence and repression. Who could blame them for their trepidation?
Still, in the intervening decade between our first trip and our last (we travelled there 7 times) was a period of unparalleled peace and prosperity for Nicaragua. Next to Costa Rica, it was considered by those in the know to be the safest destination in Central America. As I write this, Nicaragua continues to be mired in political and civil strife that began a little more than a year ago—though the violence has largely subsided. Canada and many other nations have downgraded their travel warnings as of last December, and traveler forums report that, outside Managua, the country has largely returned to normal. Yet, as the conflict plays itself out, it is the average citizen who suffers most—those nascent entrepreneurs who had flung open their arms and invested all they had in tourism.
This is the second article in a short series on Nicaragua we will be publishing this Spring in the hope that a lasting peace soon finds its way back to the country.
Granada, La Gran Sultana
Without a doubt, Granada is one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful cities and its most popular destinations. So what better way to start than here?
Founded in 1524 by conquistador Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, Granada is also the oldest city in Nicaragua. For centuries, it remained of key strategic importance to the Spanish, and to the English and Americans who successively invaded it. It has, among other things, the distinction of having been raided by Captain Henry Morgan in 1665. Before the creation of the Panama Canal, Granada ruled over Lake Nicaragua and the Atlantic sea route of Rio San Juan. As such, the city is a haven of antiquity and architecture. The beating heart of Nicaragua’s tourism revival.
1. Stroll through the Parque Central (Parque de Colon) and La Calzada
The historic centre of this Spanish colonial city is a pedestrian paradise, whose streets are broad and laid out in an easily navigable checkerboard design. The buildings in this area are well-maintained and freshly painted in vivid pastels.
The Parque Central, in the thrum of the old town offers everything a traveler needs: hotels, restaurants, shops, and attractions. It is bordered to the west by Avenida Vega where brightly decorated horse-and-carriages line the sidewalk, offering lazy city tours; and to the east by the enormous neo-classical cathedral, painted an unmistakable canary yellow.
If you are looking for souvenirs, the Parque Central is the right spot for everything from handmade jewellery to pottery, T-shirts to art. Vendors on the northern end of the park have kiosks that range from simple tables to more established huts. Adjacent to the artisans on the south end are a couple of open-air patios under the shade of ficus and mango trees. It is the perfect location for a drink and the chance to people watch, soak in the city’s vibe, and relax in the moderate relief from the heat.
Next to the cathedral is William Walker’s residence, which is painted a sombre red to represent the blood he spilt here in 1855. There are also fine art galleries, restaurants, and grand hotels under the arcades and scattered around the square.
At the heart of the park is a recently renovated fountain and a large domed gazebo which make the perfect backdrop for photos.
If it is food and lodging you are after, amble down La Calzada and take your pick. Patios abound, tranquil courtyards await.
2. Visit the city’s churches
Granada Cathedral is just steps from the Parque Central. Although a church has stood here since the 16th century, the current neo-classical incarnation was completed in 1915. The interior is austere and sparsely decorated but has soaring ceilings and a spacious nave. There is also a beatific depiction of the Virgin Mary surrounded by silver and backed in deep blue tiles that is worth seeing.
Outside the cathedral is recognisable from afar by its yellow walls and its distinctive dome and spires.
One block north east is the blue and white Antiguo Convento de San Francisco. Not really a church or convent at all anymore, this little museum is my favourite in Granada. Unlike other Central American countries, or Mexico, Nicaragua does not have any major pre-Columbian sites; however, here in the Antiguo Convento there is a series of ancient stone statues which were originally discovered on Zapatera Island. This is a quiet museum with beautiful views over the city and lake.
Originally built in 1534, the Iglesia de la Merced, just two blocks west of the Parque Central, was destroyed by pirates in 1655. The church was reconstructed in 1783 with its current baroque facade. However the interior was restored in the late 1800s after further damage was done by William Walker’s retreating troops. Though not in the same condition as the Cathedral, La Merced is possibly Granada’s most beautiful church. Even in its present state, it has a sort of faded glory about it. Most come here for the bell tower views. It costs a dollar to walk up the winding narrow staircase, but you have access to an unmatched 360-degree vista.
Finally, a stroll down the pedestrian La Calzada will take you to the Iglesia Guadelupe, which looks more like a fortress than a church. In fact, William Walker used it as one during his one-year presidency. The church has been damaged and restored many times since its construction in 1626. Most recently it was restored in the 1960s. The interior is lined with Corinthian columns and hosts a stained-glass dedication to the Virgin of Guadelupe.
3. Walk through the municipal market
Be forewarned, you cannot be claustrophobic or directionally challenged if you enter the municipal market. This is a slice of the real Nicaragua. Not to be confused with Masaya’s famous artisan market, the Granada market is most definitely a local market. It is large and colourful and teeming with life.
Housed in a ramshackle building that has seen better days (now little more than a façade with tin roofing), the municipal market is a rabbit warren of labyrinthian proportions that offers everything from fresh meat and cheese to bulk bags of pinto beans and rice, hardware and shoes to knock off brand clothing and Chinese watches.
And people? People. They are everywhere. Squeezing melons, chopping yucca, cooking soup, bartering for deals and hocking their wares in with a rustic caterwaul. If you are searching for authenticity. This. Is. It. You will literally rub shoulders with la gente.
4. Enjoy a carriage ride
On the more touristy side, take a carriage ride from the Parque Central. This is a wonderful way to see the city up close. Most seat up to four and are pulled by two horses. There are two common routes of thirty or sixty minutes and they cost only $5 and $10 respectively. The carriages will clatter over cobblestones and take you as far as the lake. You will pass vibrantly coloured homes and shops along the way, but you will also see past the money tourism brings as you skirt the barrios.
5. Take a boat to the islands
The hotels in Granada book expensive tours to the islands, but if you can get yourself to the lake and Marina Mar Dulce by taxi, you can book a boat on your own for much less ($10/hour/person). These six-seat boats come with your own “captain” who will whisk you out on the warm waters to the more than 300 “isletas.” The islands are actually cast offs from neighbouring Mombacho, which threw the basalt rocks several kilometres during a 1570 eruption. They are now lushly vegetated in fertile soil and sport mango trees, ceiba, and Guanacaste. You’ll see all kinds of wildlife as well, such as egrets, herons, cormorants, and ospreys.
Boats take you in close to the Castillo San Pablo fortification on one of the islands, which was originally meant to protect the city. You’ll also pass obscene wealth, such as the Pellas residence. Being on the water also affords you great views of Mombacho and its blown top. A highlight for most is the Isla de los Monos, where the boat bobs in close to see four spider monkeys (not natural to the island) and their antics.
If you have more time:
Granada is conveniently located within 20 kilometres of several of Nicaragua's most interesting destinations, making a morning, or an afternoon, jaunt to any of them easy.
Masaya is a town of arts and theatre. It has two markets--the municipal market and El Mercado Viejo Craft Market. Do yourself a favour and dive into the municipal market. The choice is far greater, the prices much better, and the experience...priceless. Fifteen minutes by bus and 18 minutes by taxi/car. Bus is $1, taxi is $5.
Stare straight into the "mouth of hell." Masaya volcano is very active, belching smoke, sulfur, and sometimes rocks. The last time we were there, the lava was visible. Tie this into a day trip to the Masaya Market/Coyotepe. Entrance to the park is $5.
A fortress, a political prison, and now a property belonging to the Boy Scouts of America? This is an unforgettable--even harrowing--experience that will shed light on Nicaragua's troubled past. Visit while you are in Masaya. Entrance is about $1.
Catarina Mirador and Laguna Apoyo
Shop for souvenirs at the artisan kiosks, have a meal at one of the cliff-top restaurants, or walk the mountain trails. The view from this belvedere presents a commanding vista over Lago Apoyo, and on a good day, all the way to Granada and Lake Nicaragua. Thirty-five minutes by bus, twenty-five minutes by taxi/car. Bus is $2, taxi about $5-8.
Casa Sandino in Niquinohomo
Niquinohomo is the birthplace of Augusto Sandino--Nicaragua's Che Guevara. Here you can visit his former home, which is now a library and museum. Across the street is the beautiful Santa Ana Church, which is slowly falling into disrepair. Thirty-five minutes by bus, twenty-five minutes by taxi/car. Bus is $2, taxi is about $5-8.
Mombacho and Cafe de los Flores
Mombacho is the most famous of Nicaragua's Volcanoes. Only 10km from Granada, La Reserva Mombacho offers numerous activities, including hiking around the crater, zip-lining through the forest canopy, and visiting the Cafe de los Flores coffee plantation. Entrance to the park ranges from $4-$22, depending upon whether you walk, take the truck shuttle, or drive your own car.
San Juan del Oriente
This little village is famous for its colourful clay pottery. Be sure to visit a local artisan and take a turn at the pottery wheel for yourself. Thirty-five minutes by bus, twenty-five minutes by taxi/car. Bus is $2, taxi is $5-8.