Nicaragua is one of the fastest emerging travel destinations in Central America, with some experts going so far as to dub it “the next Costa Rica.”
The comparisons refer primarily to the rich potential for eco-tourism in the country where there are rainforests teeming with plant and animal life, large nature reserves, dozens of volcanoes and freshwater lakes, undeveloped beaches and a smattering of hippie surf towns.
But Nicaragua has something its famous neighbour does not — the colonial city of Granada.
Founded by Spaniards in 1524, Granada is the oldest city in the New World and its baroque architecture, sense of history and vibrant culture make it a must-see for any traveller to Central America.
At Granada’s heart is a lively central plaza crammed with musicians, food venders and stalls selling a wide variety of goods.
This central square is a busy meeting place at almost any time of day, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit surprised by what I saw when I gazed out my hotel window early on my first morning in Granada.
The second floor windows of the Hotel Plaza Colon provide a commanding view of Granada’s central square and as I stood there watching, I saw a family of four riding on one bicycle, a man galloping a horse down the middle of the city’s main arterial road and a woman precariously balancing a huge basket of baked goods on a bicycle she was manoeuvering down the edge of the road leading to the square.
At that moment, I recommitted myself to not getting a rental car and attempting to navigate Granada’s hectic streets on my own.
Outside the front door of my hotel, I purchased some fresh roasted cashews from a street vendor and boarded a horse-drawn carriage for a slow tour of the city.
Horse-drawn carriages have lined the streets surrounding the central plaza since Victorian times and they are still one of the best ways to tour the city.
As I sat back and relaxed, the driver manoeuvred the carriage around the narrow streets fighting with cars, horse carts and cyclists along the way.
Occasionally he would speak in Spanish while pointing to one of the city’s significant historical sites. I am pretty sure he was providing wonderful descriptions of the various buildings and their history, but my poor command of the language meant that most of it went right over my head.
We passed colourful old colonial houses and other important structures like the Guadeloupe Church and the Francisco Convent and as the carriage bounced along, I took a number of shaky photographs before deciding to sit back, relax and just enjoy the ride.
At one point, the driver pulled the buggy over, pointed to a cigar shop and indicated that I should get out and take a look inside. Usually when a tour guide takes you to a store it’s because they get a kickback from the store in question, but I got out and took a look anyways.
In this particular instance I was glad I hadn’t let my cynicism prevent me from going inside as directed.
At the back of the store was a cigar factory that offered free English-speaking tours explaining the process of making cigars — from cultivation to product assembly. It was quite fascinating and I lingered longer than I intended.
Back in the carriage, we continued the city tour taking in the colonial architecture and the bustle of the busy metropolis before returning to the central square to explore on foot.
As I exited the carriage, I noticed an open door on the southwest corner of the street opposite the central square.
The large yellow colonial building that sits on the corner belongs to the wealthy Pellas family, owners of Grupo Pellas, a conglomerate involved in banking, sugar, rum, beer and just about everything else in Nicaragua.
It’s a rare thing, but on this morning the Pellas family home was opened for a tour, so I wandered inside for a look at the beautifully restored colonial home — stopping on its second floor balcony to take in the excellent view.
I spent some time later in the day wandering around the square — poking my head inside the magnificent cathedral and meandering into little shops and restaurants along the side streets.
Inside a leather goods shop, I was able to watch workers making beautiful high quality belts, purses and wallets by hand.
As I sat at a sidewalk café not far from the square, I couldn’t help admiring the oldest city in the New World. Apart from its obvious beauty, Granada stands today as a tribute to the resilience of the Nicaraguan people.
The city has been built and rebuilt — pillaged multiple times by pirates and buccaneers and almost completely destroyed by the American despot William Walker, who left a sign in its smoldering ruins that said simply: “Here was Granada.”
The tyrants are long gone, but the city has lived on as a reminder of the opulence of the old Spanish Empire and an ever-evolving trade centre that is becoming one of the top spots to explore in Nicaragua.
If you go
• There are no direct flights from Alberta to Nicaragua, but one-stop flights are available with several carriers starting at about $800 per person including taxes from Calgary.
• Granada’s location makes it a great base for exploring other parts of Nicaragua and many of the B&Bs and hotels offer a long menu of day trips. The city is about an hour’s drive from the International Airport in Managua and you can get to Granada by public bus for under $1 or by taxi for about $45. You can hire an English-speaking driver and a private car to explore for under $100 per day.
• The nicer hotels in Granada are found along the central square. Most are restored colonial manors that have been converted into hotels. I stayed at the Hotel Plaza Colon (hotelplazacolon.com), a restored manor that is one of the top-rated hotels in Granada with a lovely inner courtyard and pool. Rates start at $104 per night, including taxes and breakfast. Another nice accommodation nearby is Hotel Dario, which starts at $80 per night.
• February is a good month to visit Granada if you like poetry. Granada’s international poetry festival takes place in mid-February annually and is one of the top festivals of its kind in the world. Granada poet José Coronel Urtecho once said: “Every Nicaraguan is a poet until proven otherwise.”
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. Follow Debbie’s travels at www.wanderwoman.ca. If you have an interesting travel story you would like to share, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.