San Juan del Sur did a great job captivating my heart. So well, in fact, that I felt a little bad for Granada and the reputation that preceded it. But the city had potential, from expertly preserved colonial architecture to refined eateries that expanded beyond the typical dishes of gallo pinto.
Historically, Granada was the first European city to be settled in mainland America. The city can be accessed from the Atlantic through Lake Nicaragua and the San Juan River, making it a prime port location during the Spanish Conquest. The majority of the gold and silver discovered throughout this time shipped back to Spain through Granada. These transports eventually made the city a target for English, French, and Dutch pirates, who would ransack the city on numerous occasions.
Over the years, Granada and the more northwestern city of León shared political and social rivalries. Granada identified itself as a right-wing culture that attracted the wealthy residents of Nicaragua. León contains a large university population of liberals and artists who found common ground in a revolutionary style of thought. The rivalries today no longer exist to the magnitude seen in the past, yet you can find shadows of them in the cultures and architecture. Granada retains its conservatism and grandeur through Spanish colonial architecture, while León showcases the artistic and revolutionary influences through street art and local ruins sites.
I worried that Granada’s proud traditionalism would be too focused on status for my taste, but I found something different. I say this vaguely for a reason: I found some things that I loved, and others that I could have done without.
My love for colors, cobblestones, and weathered buildings all came together and gave me the streets of Granada. On any given day, the streets teemed with horse-drawn carriages and colectivo vans that were packed with commuters. Locals posted up in rocking chairs to watch the flow of traffic, both motorized and on foot. This scene mixed typical Latin American city life with the backdrop of well-preserved conservative style. The courtyard cafés and local restaurants lived up to their hype, despite their pricier rates (with respect to Nicaragua, that is). I found several eateries that killed it on ambiance and filled my stomach with tasty entrees.
Then there were the areas where I wished that Granada could do better. Steve and I could not walk anywhere in the city without getting constantly solicited for tours, restaurants, and merchandise. I don’t mind a general proclamation of information, but this soliciting involved us being consistently approached. It’s exactly the type of tourism that I generally try to avoid.
Granada also presented a seedy element that forced me to rethink my otherwise favorable review. One of the restaurants encouraged tourists to withhold donations for child street beggars. Why deny the kids with fake limps? Those tiny faces are able to make more begging than their parents could on any given day in the street. Some parents opt to have their kids skip school in order to bring home a solid chunk of change. Most of these kids go on to get involved in drugs and prostitution, which had a palpable night presence in the downtown area. Just don’t participate, there are better ways to help out.
Good or bad, Granada works as a picturesque and centralized hub for plenty of activities.
What I Hit
Granada brought us several activities to choose from, but we heard that many of them are worth skipping. We did the best we could to weed through the duds. Despite a few flops, there are several activities worth checking out on your visit.
Take a Boat Tour of the Isletas – Success
Steve and I needed something chill that counted as a tourist activity. We found what we were looking for with La Bella Del Mar. This two-story barge cruised around the Isletas in Lake Nicaragua, right at the bottom of the Mombacho Volcano. Admission cost $15 each, which included a pick-up from our bed and breakfast.
The boat comes stocked with drinks, appetizers, and sandwiches for purchase. Bring your bathing suit, as the captain makes a swim stop. You can take a water slide down into the water, or you can add some adventure to the otherwise relaxing trip by jumping off the top story. I’ve gone skydiving before, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that I didn’t feel my fear of heights.
The tour ended at O’Shea’s and included a complimentary macúa, the national drink of Nicaragua. This excursion wasn’t anything crazy, but it didn’t need to be in order to make for an awesome afternoon.
See Lava at Masaya Volcano – Flop
How could this possibly be a flop? Quite easily, when 90 percent of the excursion is spent sitting in a cramped van. The tour company picked us up and drove us to Masaya, but the whole process involved over two hours of time in a sweaty, stinky van with only 15 minutes at the top of the volcano. Don’t get me wrong, observing lava in an active volcano makes for an awesome bucket list item. But I probably would have passed the $20 trip up after seeing that it meant pushing each other out of the way in order to observe a far-away sliver of magma.
I really need to get on that photography class so that I could bring back something less pathetic than this shot. I’ll leave it here as proof that I actually witnessed activity in a volcano. To set up a tour, talk to your hotel or hostel to see if they find you a reliable company.
Share a Liter of Toña (Again) on La Calzada – Success
There were some activities that made their way from San Juan del Sur to Granada, and booze was certainly one of them. We once again found liters of Toña for 55 córdoba. We enjoyed these at several of the bars along La Calzada, but our favorite spot was the outdoor seating at O’Shea’s. Don’t worry, we didn’t skip out on the macúas or Flor de Caña, as those also found their way to Granada.
Enjoy Cheap and Delicious Ice Cream (Again) – Success
Remember Eskimo? Well, the 30-córdoba cono doble can also be found in Granada. I fed my addiction further with my go-to order of coffee and coconut. Eventually I decided that we needed to try out Gelatería Granada. Though pricier than Eskimo at 70 córdoba, it certainly delivered on quality.
Stroll Through the Streets – Success
I have already given my spiel on how much I love the photo-friendly architecture of Granada, and the pictures speak for themselves. Steve and I lead each other on a “free walking tour” over the course of two or three days. I’m sure that someone could do their research and come up with a solid route, but we just walked around and chatted while taking pictures.
Don’t miss out on the people watching at Parque Central and La Calzada. I particularly liked doing this over a drink, though alcohol is not essential to your entertainment. Be sure to check out the street performers at night on La Calzada, particularly the break dancers.
Visit Laguna de Apoyo – Success
If you need a break from the city, I would highly recommend making the trek to Laguna de Apoyo. Set in the base of a volcanic crater, it is the cleanest and deepest lake in Nicaragua. You won’t need more than a couple of nights out there to unwind in the tranquil environment. Activities include kayaking, relaxing on the shore, hiking around the crater, and even scuba diving.
There are plenty of resorts to choose from, but we stayed with The Peace Project. This organization mentors students from impoverished communities who otherwise would not have certain opportunities available to them. They aim to improve the quality of life and well-being of individuals within those communities.
The Peace Project partners with Volcanic Divers, a scuba operation that donates profits towards the cause. Steve did a 2-tank dive with them and it was an incredibly unique experience. The lake does not contain thermoclines due to the thermal vents with sulfuric gasses that are heated by magma. Ash makes up a large portion of the bottom surface, which feels almost fur-like in consistency when touched. Laguna de Apoyo contains endemic fish that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
We took a colectivo from Granada to Managua (10 córdoba each) and asked to get off across the street from the large Laguna de Apoyo sign. From there, we grabbed a taxi (100 córdoba total) to take us to The Peace Project. Make sure to grab their phone number to arrange a ride back, taxis are scarce around the lake.
Check Out a Private Hospital
I decided to check this out for everyone in order to go the extra mile as a blogger. I contracted a rash on my legs a week earlier in Costa Rica from the oils on a cashew plant. The rash caused by the oils manifest in a similar manner to those caused by poison ivy. My allergic reaction escalated and further rashes appeared on other parts of my body. It eventually got to the point where I could not self-treat any longer, as the reaction had spread to my face. Everything hit the fan on my first full day in Granada.
By the time we had made our way to the Hospital Privado Cruz Azul, I no longer looked like myself. I have photos of this, and you can check out those gems, along with the full story, here (coming soon!). Feel free to laugh with me as you read it, as the story has a happy ending.
What I Missed
Granada Colonial Home Tours: I heard about this after I had already left Granada. This would have been a great way to pass some time in town. A quick Google search turned up a listing on TripAdvisor, but keep an eye out for flyers.
Mercado Municipal: We walked through this at one point in time on pure chance, but we did not take our time to check anything out. I have heard mixed reviews on this market, but expect it to be targeted for the locals.
Horse-Drawn Carriage Tour: These $15 tours were fully in Spanish, with the driver speaking over his shoulder. I knew we wouldn’t be able to fully understand the history of Granada in this manner, so we opted to skip out on this one. We ended up seeing a lot of the city on foot.
Climb La Merced’s Tower, Other Church Tours: We didn’t have enough energy for this $1 tour. The hospital visit definitely took the wind out of our sails, and we weren’t going to force ourselves to do more than we could handle. I was bummed to miss this, as I heard that the view was worth a visit.
Cigar and Chocolate Factory Tours: We wandered in and determined that it felt like a tourist trap. I have heard mixed reviews on whether or not these are successes or flops.
Kayaking Around the Isletas: There are guided kayak tours for 2 to 3 hours for around $25 or $30 a person. We skipped this in favor of La Bella Del Mar.
Masaya Artisan Market: Travelers can make their way over to Masaya from Laguna de Apoyo, but we weren’t able to squeeze in the time to haggle at the market. I have heard mixed reviews, some found it to be a blast while others didn’t find enough variety to make the trip worth it.
Centro Cultural Convento San Francisco: Once a church and convent, this center is now home to a museum about Granada’s history. I grabbed some pictures of the buildings from the outside, but opted to skip out on going inside, which would have been a $2 or $3 admission fee.
Get a Workout: I heard great things about Pure Gym and Spa, located on Calle Corrales (north of Calle Libertad and La Calzada). They have yoga, boot camp, kickboxing, HIIT training, and other classes. Daily passes are $5 and weekly passes are $15.
Cafetín Claudia: The best comida típica in town, don’t miss out on the cacao drink, you won’t be sorry. Breakfast and lunch only. (80 to 100 córdoba/$2.75 to $3.50, cash only, Spanish only)
Any Local Restaurant: In fact, I recommend any local joint in lieu of the more expensive gringo restaurants. Pro tip: if it is crowded with locals, then it’s good. (80 to 100 córdoba/$2.75 to $3.50, cash only, Spanish only)
Café de los Sueños: Gringo café on La Calzada with a great ambiance. The sandwiches and smoothies were delicious. (200 to 300 córdoba/$7 to $10)
El Camello: This restaurant recently rebooted as a Texas rib house, so don’t trust the bad reviews. We had our “splurge” dinner here over excellent ribs and mixed drinks. (400 to 600 córdoba/$14 to $20)
The Garden Café: Another gringo café, this time with a courtyard. We only stopped in for smoothies but I felt tempted by the healthy-looking salads and wraps. (300 to córdoba/$10 to $15)
Drunken Street Hotdogs: Yep, this happened again in Granada. I found a stand outside of the Cathedral at about midnight. (30 to 50 córdoba/$1 to $1.75, cash only, Spanish only)
Casa del Agua: Located just south of the Cathedral, this bed and breakfast may be the best deal for what you get. Casa del Agua boasts a beautiful property with quaint rooms that give you a taste of colonial living. Gerry’s Irish hospitality gets support from local ladies who give it a Nicaraguan flavor. You can expect chocolate banana crepe-like pancakes each morning, served with a cup of coffee or tea.
- Standard Double, Front of House (sleeps 2, ensuite bathroom): $38 per room
- Standard Double, Back of House (sleeps 2, ensuite bathroom): $34 per room
- Other options range from $46 to $52 per room
See that bathroom below? It’s called ‘El Harry Potter’. Bet you can’t figure that one out.
To/From San Juan del Sur :
Shuttle: We took the door-to-door shuttle from The Surfing Donkey between SJDS and Granada: $15 per person. There is a Surfing Donkey in Granada, feel free to contact them to make the reciprocal trip.
Chicken Bus: Make sure to pay when getting off the bus and not to a “helpful” middleman. Arrive early to ensure that you get a seat: 50 to 80 córdoba ($1.72 to $2.75) per person.
- Granada-Rivas: 30 córdoba, Rivas-SJDS: 20 córdoba OR colectivo taxi: 50 córdoba
Private Taxi: I heard that unless you have prime bargaining skills, this would cost roughly $80 total. Shuttles may be cheaper, but could be $20 to $50 per person.
Mini-Bus: Make sure to pay when getting off the bus and not to a “helpful” middleman. Arrive early to ensure that you get a seat: 85 to 105 córdoba (~$3 to $4) per person
- Granada-Managua UCA: 25 to 35 córdoba, Managua UCA-León: 60 to 70 córdoba
While I loved the street life and variety of eateries, I found that many activities were duds. The city also has some improvements to make in terms of soliciting and street begging. Maybe this is the growing pains of a developing destination, as Nicaragua is just coming onto the international scene as a tourist destination. Regardless of the issues, we had a cumulatively positive experience in the city.
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