A Destination Guide to Magical Granada, Nicaragua
Ok, so the affordable child care (and in-house cleaning services at our hotel-apartment) definitely had something to do with my productive burst of creativity (and Granada's affordability certainly motivates many of the expats and retirees who move there). But mostly, I was inspired by the quasi-magical-realist setting.
There were parrots and turtles in our yard, monkeys in the trees of the islands that floated in Lake Cocibolca, and horses and carriages in the street. There were religious parades during Lent and the nine-day Purisima celebration devoted to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and cultural events such as the Poetry Festival throughout the year. And while I had to contend with frequent power outages and internet blackouts, I took those as signs to go take a walk, buy bananas from a lace-apron-wearing market vendor who spotted me if I left the house without cash, drink fresh-squeezed watermelon juice at Cafe Sonrisa, or climb the bell tower of Merced church to take aerial photos of the tile roofs of the town with Mombacho volcano looming in the distance.
Granada is an incredible place to visit, both small-town (once, when I left our apartment without my daughter, one of the neighbors shouted "look, she forgot the baby!") and cosmopolitan, attracting poets, artists, and visitors who use the city as a base to visit the rest of Nicaragua. A Spanish colonial city with sherbet-colored houses, churches, shops and restaurants, Granada is situated between two volcanoes on the waterfront of vast Lake Cocibolca. There, one can kayak, waterski, or hop a boat to tour some of the 365 islands within. The town is a manicured slice of architectural history surrounded by a lush wilderness, and that contrast adds up to Granada's unique beauty.
Town CenterThe heart of tourists' Granada is the Parque Central, in front of the papaya-colored Catedral. This is where bands play during the poetry festival, and it's the start of the cobblestoned, pedestrian Calzada street, also known as "Calle Gringo"because its restaurants and shops attract foreign visitors. (Off of it you'll find quieter establishments such as El Zaguan, a beloved steakhouse that often hosts live music on weekends.)
Beyond the center, you can divide the town into neighborhoods that grew around the churches. The Convent of San Francisco, home to an architectural museum of pre-Colombian statues, is surrounded by restaurants (including the beloved but notorious Kathy's Waffle House, which draws residents of Managua to drive in for brunch), El Tercer Ojo, The Garden Cafe and El Pizzaiol; as well as Pure, a yoga studio, spa, and gym that's home to a massive turtle who lives in the interior courtyard.
At the other end of town, far from the crowds, is Xalteva church, which is opposite Espressionista, an elegant cafe in a beautifully restored old home, that serves meals and desserts made with local produce.
And in between is Merced, which boasts a bell tower visitors can climb, and still bears burn marks from the time American filibuster William Walker set fire to the town in 1856. To see an image of the man himself (who once declared himself President for Life of Nicaragua), head to Cafe Sonrisa on Calle Xalteva, which is run by deaf-mute staff who also manage the workshop that produces colorful handmade hammocks next door.
Calle Xalteva is the main drag; veer off it to find the chaotic, claustrophobic, but endlessly fascinating Mercado, where locals go to buy everything from Disney princess dresses to handmade pinatas (and the bags of hard candy to fill them).
The churches aren't the only notable architectural structures in Granada, which is known for its Spanish colonial houses with tiled roofs and arched doorways. They have relatively few exterior windows, to keep out the heat and dust of the streets, but are built around interior courtyards that often feature lush gardens or, post-renovation, a swimming pool. To see beautifully restored interiors, check into La Gran Francia (or have dinner in the restaurant and drinks on the balcony), or stay at La Bocona or book a service in their spa.
The Lake FrontLake Cocibolca is so large that the Spanish invaders called it "El Mar Dulce,"or "the Sweet Sea."A zen scene of water lilies, rocky islands, and egrets balancing on one leg, it's an instantly calming place to visit. When the heat of the city becomes too much, opt for a breezy seafood lunch at the Terraza La Playa or a drink at Henry's Iguana Bar before setting off in a lancha for a tour
Day TripsRent a bike from Bici Maximo, or hire a car and driver and pick a volcano to climb. Masaya is barren and post-apocalyptic with smoke rising from the molten lava at its core and plenty of hiking trails from which to take in the spooky scene that the Spaniards called "La Boca del Infierno"or "The Mouth of Hell."Mombacho, on the other hand, is lush and green, with Cafe Las Flores coffee plantation for touring, zipline canopy tours over the treetops and clouds, and three different trails for hikers looking to explore the tropical forest. Also within day trip distance is the Apoyo Lagoon, the water-filled crater of an inactive volcano which is an ideal place to swim and sun if you're exhausted from an explosive trip.
For more information on Nicaragua, go to vianica.com.
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Eleni N. Gage (@elenigage)is the author of The Ladies of Managua (St. Martin's Press) and a journalist who writes regularly for publications including Travel+Leisure, The New York Times, T: The New York Times Travel Magazine, Dwell, Elle, Elle Decor, Real Simple, Parade, and The American Scholar. Currently Executive Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings and formerly beauty editor at People, Eleni graduated with an AB in Folklore and Mythology from Harvard University and an MFA from Columbia University. She lives in New York City with her husband and their two young children.
Photo of Eleni Gage by Emilio Baltodano; photos of Granada by Eleni Gage.