Nicaragua might be one of the least visited countries throughout Central America, but not for much longer. Sandwiched between Costa Rica and Honduras, this picturesque country is steadily increasing in popularity with more travellers visiting year on year. With so much to offer, and importantly on a such reasonable budget compared to Nica’s neighbouring Costa Rica, it’s without a doubt that this hidden gem of a country should be included on everyone’s bucket list!
Although the international airport is actually located in Managua, Granada is the city that most travellers use as a base during their visit to Nicaragua. One of the oldest cities in Central America, Granada shouldn’t be over looked. This small town oozes charm as you wander cobbled streets lined with buildings in every pastel hue imaginable. Make sure you allow at least two days to take in Granada’s highlights.
My visit to Granada was part of the ‘Essence of Nicaragua’ tour that I joined with G-Adventures in Dec 2014. We travelled through Nicaragua visiting Granada, Leon, Ometepe, and San Juan del Sur.
Read more about my G-Adventures tour here.
Created by a volcano eruption some 20,000 years ago, Las Isletas consists of around 365 small islands. Some 1200 locals, most of whom are fisherman, live on a handful of the islands. Other islands are privately owned, accommodate hotels and rentals, or remain uninhabited and bare no more than palm trees and a rugged view out to the picturesque lake.
For $30, join a boat trip taking you through the maze of islands, including a stop at a 17th century Spanish fortress which sits alone on one of the islands. Keep an eye out for the monkeys who can be spotted on several of islands, along with an abundance of birdlife too!
Grab yourself a drink from the small café in this pretty little park in the heart of Granada, and watch everyday life unfold in front of you as you relax under one of the many shady palm trees (or mango trees), On one side of the park you’ll find colourful horse-drawn carriages that line the pavement ready to whisk tourists off on a tour of the city. A scattering of market stalls line another side of the park, selling all the usual souvenir trinkets including ceramics, jewellery and bags. On the Eastern side of the park sits The Cathedral of Granada, a huge yellow church that leads onto Calle La Calzada, a buzzing street of cafes, bars and restaurants.
Dating back to the 1530’s, this historical church has been exposed to a fair share damage resulting in the church being destroyed and rebuilt a number of times. Despite the crumbling exterior, locals still actively use the church and visitors are welcome inside. Open daily from 11:00 – 17:30 with a small $1 entry fee, you can climb the Bell Tower via it’s narrow and windy stairwell. You’ll be rewarded with a breath taking 360-degree view of the city rooftops and iconic monuments.
Grab a paddle, put on a life jacket and set off to explore Lake Nicaragua by kayak. Tours are a little pricey at around $30 per person so shop around if this is something you are keen to do whilst in town.
Sometimes wandering the streets and accidentally getting lost is the best way to discover a city, but if you are short on time or fancy learning more about the history and culture of the city, then join a guided tour. Visits to the local churches, museums and parks will be included. Tours start from around $20 per person and can easily be arranged by most hotels and hostels for you.
A short walk from the Parque Central, it’s worth venturing down the bustling Calle El Comercio, which leads down to the Mercado Municipal, Granada’s main market. Perhaps more a local market than for tourists, here you’ll find everything from meats, spices, clothing, homeware to everyday essentials. Although the market is a little run down it’s still definitely worth a visit. You’ll find many market stalls that line the street, but keep an eye out for the covered indoor section where you’ll find most of the fresh food for sale that no doubt ends up on most locals plate for dinner.
Another great way to see the city is by classic horse and cart. We took a ride from the Parque Central to Lake Nicaragua to join our boat trip out to Las Isletas. You’ll find plenty of horse and carts lined up around the parque square offering one hour tours from $15.
Spanning 54 km sq, Masaya National Park has two volcanoes and five craters. Start your trip at the visitor’s centre and learn about the history of Masaya, before you get up close and personal with an active volcano. Pop on your gas mask as you see the craters spew smoke and gas, and then hike to the top of the volcano for stunning views over the craters.
A trip to Masaya can easily be done in half day. Tours from Granada will cost $35 and will include a visit to the Masaya Artesan Market and the San Juan de Orient pottery workshop. Alternatively, make your own way there, pay the $4 entry fee and join a guided tour by one of the national parks volcano experts for a mere $10. Night tours are also available.
Full day tours to Masaya will usually include an afternoon visit at the Masaya Artesan Market, a stop at the Laguna de Apoyo viewpoint, and finally a visit to the San Juan de Oriente, a local pottery and ceramics workshop.
Although the markets were brimming with ceramics, woodcrafts, cigars and leather works, we chose not to visit due to the hordes of tourists that passed through everyday. You’ll easily find your souvenir nik naks at other local market stalls throughout the city so I’d suggest you save yourself a visit. FYI, I picked up my beautiful little vase at one of the small markets stall in Parque Central.
In the run up to my trip I thought about learning Spanish several times, and on reflection wish this was something I had found time for. Claudia (my travel buddy for this trip) flew out a week before me to join a combined homestay and spanish language course that was arranged back in her native Netherlands. She stayed in an old colonial house right in the centre of Granada with huge open rooms, based around a beautiful traditional open courtyard. I did get the opotunity to see the incrediable house and this is something that I would have loved to have done!
Safe to say I did pick up the odd phrase or two (“La cuenta por favor”), but to be able to engage with the locals properly would have been priceless. With a huge choice of schools scattered across the town offering weekly, daily or even hourly classes, there’s something for everyone.
Casa Xalteva are currently number one rated on Trip Advisor and offer group classes ($160), private classes ($200) and are also able to arrange homestay experiences too ($110). Claudia booked her homestay / Spanish schooling via a local company called Travel Active which are based in her native Holland. Travel Active are a great example of a company who run international learning trips for a truely one-to-one experience.
Hike the muddy paths up Mombacho Volcano, one of the most prominent volcanoes in Nicaragua. At the windy summit, see four dormant craters, all covered in dense cloud forest. If you are lucky you may even be able to capture a view of Granada, las Isletas, Laguna de Apoyo, and Lake Nicaragua is the distance. Tours start from $35 per person and take around 5 hours.
Travel less than half an hour from Granada to the picturesque Laguna de Apoyo. The warm clean waters of this former volcano crater is nature’s giant bathtub, filled by natural springs and rain water from the past 20,000 or so years. Hike the forested trails in the surrounding hills. See hummingbirds, monkeys, and toucans. Slip into the mild waters and enjoy a peaceful swim. How many people can boast they swam in a volcano? Tours start from $15 per person.
Warning: Extreme case of drooling may occur for any chocoholics! Join a two hour chocolate workshop ($21) to make your own yummy chocolate, or join a full day tour to visit the nearby cacao plantations which also includes a spot of horse riding ($89 up to 3 ppl / $75 over 4 ppl). Visit the Choco Museo’s website here.
For the best breakfast in town, head over to Kathy’s Waffle House! This popular café located two blocks from the Parque Central has a generous menu offering large portions of waffles, pancakes, omelettes, eggs and fruits – you’ll be spoilt for choice! Open from 07:00 – 14:00 for breakfast and lunch. Reservations can be made.
Built in a former Spanish colonial home with tables set around a lush courtyard, The Garden Cafe has a scrummy menu with some wonderful choices for breakfast, lunch and dinner. So wonderful, that we actually visited the café twice during our stay! A small shop can be found at the front of the café selling a variety of handmade items including jewellery, bags and foods – all made by talented locals from Nicaragua.
During November 28th until December 7th, the city is engulfed with people celebrating the festival of the Immaculate Conception. I happened to arrive late at night during the festival to find the city was chaotic as people of all ages lined the streets watching, singing, dancing and cheering. There was an endless parade of floats, bobbing up and down the street, followed by what looked like half the population of the city who were all there to honour Granada’s patron saint.
Affordable accommodation can easily be found throughout the city. Choose from hostels, guesthouses, hotels or even a homestay for a truly authentic experience. My first night was spent at the El Momento hostel. Centrally located, clean, with a shared kitchen, book exchange and trendy ipads at reception (boy have hostels changed since the days I went backpacking!), my private en-suite room was a bargain at $18 per night.
In contrast to that, I then spent three nights at the Hotel Chilamates where I joined my G-Adventure tour group. This isn’t usually the type of hotel I’d book when travelling but accommodation is pre arranged as part of the tour so this was unfortunately out of hands. Prices start from $57 for a single room and $73 for a double room in low season. The hotel did offer large spacious rooms with a lovely pool set down the quiet backstreets, however the location wasn’t ideal being just over 1 km out from the city centre.