One approach to Latin America is to track down places with names inherited from Spain, the great Hispanic coloniser. Granada is a case in point. Everyone knows of the Andalucian city and its iconic Alhambra, but until a few weeks ago I had no idea that it had a clone in Nicaragua, and a very beautiful one at that.
Granada (NIC) was founded in 1524, just 32 years after the last Moorish ruler of Granada (SP), Boabdil, rode over the Sierra Nevada into the sunset, surrendering all power to the ambitious Castilians. The founder of Granada (NIC) was the conquistador, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, whose surname Cordoba (from the Spanish city barely 100 miles from Granada), ended up as Nicaragua’s currency. Like Costa Rica’s colon which is named after Cristobal Colon (AKA Columbus).
Anyway, back to the 21st century, Granada (NIC) is a handsome, colonial-style city singing with colour and sprawling along the shore of Lake Nicaragua. Naturally, as this is seismically vulnerable Nicaragua, it’s overlooked by a volcano – Volcan Mombacho (yet another Malcolm Lowry-esque case of Under the Volcano; see my post on Ometepe here).
For visitors, one of Granada’s greatest advantages is that it’s only 45 minutes by car from Managua airport, so you can skip the challenging capital which, following a massive earthquake in 1972, was haphazardly rebuilt with zero beauty. After our long haul from London via Miami (and yes, thanks USA for the stressful ‘welcome’ to anyone merely in transit), we were only too happy to jump in a cab and head through the night to our charming hotel, Casa San Francisco.
Flinging open the bedroom window in the morning, I was greeted by a cobalt blue sky, tiled roofs and a cascade of crimson bougainvillea – it could so easily have been Granada (SP). In fact I eventually discovered that although the city looks authentically Spanish-colonial, it was entirely rebuilt in the late 19th century after being burned to the ground by the American filibuster, William Walker.
It’s hard to believe, as the centre is a harmonious grid of mostly one-storey houses painted in zingy colours and with overhanging, tiled roofs – as typical as they come for Central America. Cloud-shrouded Mombacho is a semi-permanent backdrop (above). Not surprisingly, the town is turning out to be a popular hub for American and Canadian retirees, volunteers or Trump-escapees.
Bars, cafés, shops, art-galleries, hotels and restaurants are concentrated in the streets around the Parque Central (above), the leafy main square towered over by a neo-classical cathedral. This too is where locals hang out for a drink or sell handicrafts to a growing influx of visitors.
Horse-drawn carriages await clients though some horses looked horribly scrawny. At one point, bizarrely, we crossed paths with two healthy nags roaming outside our hotel. Looking for a stable?
A block west of the square a gaggle of (official) money-changers flick great wads of cash. The US dollar and the local cordoba are used virtually interchangeably so you end up keeping a stash of cordobas for small purchases, local transport etc, and dollars for anything remotely touristy. Cards are fairly widely accepted, though hard cash is the rule.
South of here stretches the chaotic market-street where tropical fruit and veg wins hands down – papayas and oranges were visibly in season.
The trick in this city is to avoid the pedestrianised Calle La Calzada which runs off the eastern side of the main square. This is where American retirees slump in front of beers or cocktails long into the night, and fast-talking Nicaraguan waiters try hard to lure you to their tables. But it’s not all bad and in fact the street improves as you approach the lake.
Here I was amazed to find an enticing leather shop full of chic, quality designs, all designed by a serene Danish woman and made by Nicaraguans in a workshop at the back. So grab a bag at Soy Nica!
Foodwise we struck lucky just minutes from our hotel at Miss Dell’s Kitchen (above), opened only a few weeks earlier, where doors opened to the balmy night and the venerable church of San Francisco. I loved the huge paintings of cockerels in the whitewashed interior as much as the delicious chowder and a fishy cataplana (not quite authentic Portuguese, but close) cooked by the American chef-owner, a chatty escapee from Martha’s Vineyard. Count on $40 for a meal for two including some wine.
For a nightcap away from the North American throng, there’s the Hacienda bar on the raised terrace opposite San Francisco – packed with Granada hipsters who come for the local Toña beer or a lengthy cocktail menu. A no-no breakfast-lunch place nearby, be warned, is Kathy’s Waffle, highly praised in guide-books but turned out to be over-priced and mediocre.
Budget lunches became a habit at Cafetin Claudia, a welcoming family eatery on Avenida Guzman, just north of the main square. For a mere $3 they serve a generous, home-cooked comida casera (lunch special) with smiles all round plus, if you’re in luck, a couple of earnest musicians.
And finally – to the volcano! You don’t have to struggle up Mombacho but can take a rather touristy night-tour to Masaya, an active volcano with a spectacular burning crater. It’s mesmerising to watch this terrestrial beast – long may it rumble.