I just got back from a weekend in Granada. It’s a beautiful old colonial city in Nicaragua, named after the original Granada in Spain. I took the “chicken bus” to Rivas (1 hour, 17 cordobas, about 50 US cents) then got another bus to Granada (2 hours, 31 cordobas, about $1). When I heard the phrase chicken bus, I imagined something far worse than what it was. It’s just a local bus with music blaring, windows down, frequent stops, and vendors hoping on and off selling snacks. It’s just a local bus rather than a directo tourista bus with AC etc. I didn’t see any chickens (or other live animals for that matter) on the “chicken bus.”
Upon arrival, I asked where the centro was and was pointed straight on through a busy market set up in stalls on both sides of the street. I eyed the fruits, vegetables, clothes, toys and gadgets as I walked by, but didn’t stop due to the sweat dripping from my forehead.
I was ready to put my small backpack down. I asked a couple more people about the centro and was pointed ahead. I found a bank and exchanged money with an elderly woman seated low behind a shoulder-height glass window. When I neared the park, a sales lady in a polo came up to me, offering a one-day-only special boat tour of las isletas. Usually it’s $15 but because other people had already agreed to the tour, I could go for $10. I was intrigued by the fresh water lake with bull sharks and the hundreds of small islands. I said maybe and went back to find my hostel.
The Hostal al Memento is in an old colonial home with a colorful courtyard garden in the center. Modern western music and lots of comfy seating filled the front half. I was shown to the 11-bed dorm room and happy to be given a single bed rather than one of the bunks. I stuffed my things in a locker and decided yes, I would like to go on the boat tour. It’s the rainy season and today it ISN’T raining and isn’t supposed to rain so it should be a good day for a boat ride. I hurried to gather up what I would need and headed out to find their office. I got some snacks at “Quick Stop” on the way and was hurrying down the road when the sales lady spotted me. She led me to the office and I paid for the tour. Then I had a sudden realization—was there swimming involved in this tour?! I asked: yes, you can go swimming. I said I would be RIGHT back, I would go get my swimsuit. It was only a couple of blocks. The girl looked dubiously at me and said it would be better if they picked me up at my hostel (meaning PLEASE do not take the time to come back here!) I smiled and hurried off to grab my suit. The van arrived promptly and we picked up another couple before heading to the lake.
Upon arrival, we walked through a restaurant to the side of a canal where tons of boats were parked, our guide, Julia introduced us to the driver and we took off, passing lots of lush green trees hanging over the canal. White herons were a stark contrast to the dark shadows below the branches.
Julia pointed out a boulder in a tree, hanging bird nests and the home of the richest family in Nicaragua. Apparently it’s popular for rich families to buy an island and build a getaway. The islands were squared off with boulder walls along the edges. They were smaller than I’d expected.
As we motored along through the pleasant waterways, the clouds grew darker. A loud clap of thunder echoed through the trees and after a minute or two, it was pouring. We pulled into a restaurant on an island where we were meant to swim and waited for the storm to calm down a bit. It wasn’t exactly the sunny swimming/boating weather we’d all hoped for! We talked through the typical traveler pleasantries as we sipped our various drinks: cocktails, sodas, coffee for me. The girl next to me was also from the Bay Area, also spent time in the South, and also was living abroad. Small world!
The rain slowed to a sputter and we loaded back onto the boat. We visited a monkey island where 5 or 6 spider monkeys had been dropped off several years ago. They were fat from potato chips and other snacks from visitors. We drove back through the ominous clouds, past the volcano and back to the restaurant.
Back at the hotel, I went fairly directly to dinner, with a detour into the massive yellow church on the square, Catedral de Granada, built in 1583. It’s amazing how just a step inside the door is a different world from the park outside with its live band interrupted by enchilada, sunglasses, and cool drink vendors shouting about their goods. The church was immense with beautiful columns and archways. Thick wooden benches sat in neat rows, all reverently facing a beautiful statue of Mother Mary and Baby Jesus up at the front altar. The floors were beautiful antique tiles. Something about most religious places just speaks to me. There’s a sort of quiet stillness and simultaneous thick presence of faithful beliefs in the air. I slowly padded through the side halls and mini cathedrals, admiring the various statues and shrines. There was a women’s group at one end giving each other some sort of inspirational talk and cheering each other on. No one woman was in charge, which was a beautiful sort of community. I quietly slipped back out the front side door, feeling rather invisible- no one spoke to me and nothing changed inside or out with my presence (as it should be).
For dinner, I found the Garden Café, also in an old colonial home with a nice garden in the central courtyard. I had the best meal of my trip so far: fried cheese, chicken skewers, corn tortillas, a little salad, rice, salsa, and salsa. Did I say fried cheese?! There was friend cheese. Que rico!
The next day, I woke up fairly early, ready to trek around town, checking out the various old churches, five marked in pink highlighter on my photocopied map. I walked down the main street, lined on both sides with restaurants that had tables spilling out over the sidewalk and into the street. Potted trees and plants lined the edge of the tables all the way down the road, marking the one lane for traffic in the center. The buildings were great colors and very scenic. Most shops seemed to still be waking up on a sleepy Sunday morning.
At the end of the street, Guadalupe Church sits on a sort of peninsula of sidewalk with a fountain and large tree out front. The church was built in 1626. It is grey with towers on the front corners framing a central peaked roof housing Mary and a couple of other statues. I’d read there was a nice view from the roof, but it was closed.
I went back up the next street instead, past colorful homes and smaller churches with mass in session. I wound my way over to the block-long Convento y Museo de San Francisco, originally build in 1585. A nice white façade with bells and wooden doors marked the front of the also-closed church. The museum was open, but I decided I needed water and maybe lunch before I could take that on.
I had tacos and decided to try for the roof of Iglesia La Merced before returning. It’s supposed to be a true highlight of the city. I made my way down a nearly deserted street and turned to the small square in front of the church, only to find more closed bold wooden doors. This church built in 1534 had my favorite façade, in fading peach and dark grey with nice details around the doors, columns, and roof. A tall clock tower stood in the corner and more arches and domes could be seen on the roof I wanted to be on.
Somehow I didn’t catch onto the trend and I made my way up the same street to Iglesia de Xalteva, a 19th century church in dark mustard with white details. People rested on its front steps and in the small park across the street.
I went to Mi Museo, a museum of ancient ceramics and archeology. It was listed as free, but actually cost $5. All of the plaques were in Spanish so I decided if I was going to go to a museum, I’d prefer the larger San Francisco.
I found the Museo de Chocolate next door, which IS free. I read all of the intriguing facts while I sipped my sample cup of chocolate tea. Mayas grew chocolate in the yards of their homes and used it for rituals and drinking as a warm frothy beverage. Then the Aztecs took over the Mayas and used chocolate for drinking, rituals, and currency. When the Spanish invaded, they discovered chocolate. Later many European countries started new colonies specifically to produce more chocolate. Slaves were brought in specifically as more laborers to cultivate cacao. Later the industrial revolution made it easier to mass produce chocolate. Before I left, I bought a bag of chocolate tea. You just have to boil it, strain it, and add cinnamon and honey. YUM.
I had dinner in the same restaurant as the previous night- pork, grilled cheese, ripe juicy sweet plantains, gallo pinto, and a small salad.
In the morning, hostel noises woke me up early so I made my way to the Cementerio de Granada. Lots of tombs, statues, crosses and altars sat above the ground with pathways between them. Bushes and palm trees grew between them. Lots of workers were busy keeping the grounds clean. It was really beautiful- both the crisp white shapes and the love and care put into them.
Back in town I went to the Choco Museo again for a CHOCOLATE MASSAGE. I would have to say it was more like a mask because a lot of the treatment time was spent on drying, but it was still an enjoyable novelty. The treatment also got me a free pass to the pool for the rest of the day, which I was only too happy to use, even in the rain. Ducks also enjoyed the pool, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the landscaping and iguana on the patio too. I stayed until the last second and rushed off to catch the bus to RIVAS! RIVAS! RIVAS! And make the connection back to San Juan del Sur.
I really enjoyed exploring Granada, even though it sounds like I was disappointed a lot- rain and closed churches weren’t ideal, but the city was still a good break from my bubble in SJDS and I enjoyed exploring the cobbled streets. Next time, I want to visit the active volcano nearby, go in the churches and San Francisco museum AND go to nearby Masaya, famed for its massive market full of GOODS. Something to look forward to…