By Aída Araya Photo by Andres Madrigal
We check out the beautiful colonial city of Granada and the San Juan del Sur bay.
To visit Nicaragua today is to be a witness to the positive political and social changes that have taken place in recent years. Slowly and discretely, our neighboring country is grabbing the reins of freedom and development.
A decent road network leads travelers easily to richly varied – and little explored – natural attractions.
You’ll find beautiful beaches, gorgeous lakes, perfectly preserved colonial towns and a warm, effervescent populace. It would seem that Nicaragua lacks only governmental initiative to turn tourism into the country’s main source of income and development.
We were invited to visit the department of Granada and the municipality of San Juan del Sur. As such, we have undertaken the task to absorb details from our trip in order to encourage our readers to visit.
This marvelous city was founded in 1524 by the Spanish conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba. Today, nearly five centuries later, Granada is one of the oldest and best preserved colonial cities in the Americas.
Lake Cocibolca, also called Lake Nicaragua, laps up against the eastern edge of town. At the end of the 18th century, this lake was the main route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The gentle waters at Granada made the city ideal for a port. This, together with a large community of landowners and sugarcane and coffee farmers, helped the area become the most important waterway in Central America.
Today, Granada is a springboard to the attractions in southern Nicaragua, like Masaya, Leon, Managua, lakes, volcanoes and more.
Granada is best explored on foot. In the city center, you’ll be less than a kilometer away from the main architectural jewels (and there are many), accommodations, a wide range of restaurants, plenty of nightlife and the lake. And, unlike many other more touristy colonial cities, Granada is also a showcase for Nicaraguan customs.
Head to the Central Park to enjoy some delicious quesillo, or the more substantial vigorón, along with a refreshing glass of cacao or grama beverage. Sit amid the Nicaraguan people and experience their hospitality and camaraderie. Or simply enjoy the cool evenings and outdoor restaurants along La Calzada while local families congregate in the doorways of their beautiful homes, sitting in rocking chairs, taking it all in.
What to do
Many churches founded in the colonial era have been preserved or rebuilt after military attacks, fires and the weathering effects of time.
La Catedral: Granada’s cathedral was destroyed in 1856 and rebuilt in 1905. You’ll see an eclectic blend of architectural styles here, which come together to make this Granada’s most majestic church. Its position on the eastern flank of the Central Park adds to the ambiance.
La Merced: This colonial church boasts a baroque facade that was built in 1783. For about one dollar, you can climb one of the bell towers and get a breathtaking view of Granada’s Spanish-tile rooftops. It is located two blocks west of the Central Park.
Jalteva (or Xalteva): Originally one of the first churches in Granada, it was rebuilt in 1890. Some of the corner walls were built in 1751. Be sure to stroll through Xalteva Park, located in front of the church. Xalteva is located four blocks west of the Central Park.
Convento San Francisco: Friar Bartolomé de las Casas preached in this church, which dates to 1529. De las Casas was one of the first priests sent by the Spanish Crown to Christianize the indigenous in America. Be sure to visit the museum here, which has a small but interesting collection of religious images, statues, paintings, and other relics. Located one block north and one block east of the Central Park.
Guadalupe: Built in 1626. Due to its proximity to the lake, this building served both as a church and a fort during the colonial era, as it had to repel armed attacks. It is located at the end of La Calzada, towards the lake.
Lake Cocibolca and the Isletas
Latin America’s second largest freshwater lake, Lake Cocibolca, aka Lake Nicaragua, is also known locally as the Mar Dulce, or freshwater sea. It’s big enough to experience some gnarly waves, and is the only freshwater lake with sharks.
The Isletas are small islands formed when Mombacho Volcano blew its top millenia ago.
When the mountain exploded, it threw huge rocks into the lake, and today there are over 350 islets. Hire a boat and explore the tropical jungle on the islands as you navigate canals. If you think you’ve found paradise, and if your pockets are deep enough, some of the islets are even for sale. Along the way you can check out William Walker’s fort, or eat some fresh fish at one of the island restaurants.
Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve
Heading ten kilometers south out of Granada, you’ll find the entrance to this nature reserve. Access is steep, as the volcano rises to 1,150 meters above sea level, and you’ll likely need a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Alternatively, you can jump in one of the sturdy pickups that bring people to the top. The park has four volcano craters, each formed during a different eruptive phase. Four tours of varying intensity are available. You’ll pass through cloud forest, foothill forest and trees stunted by the volcano’s activity. Geothermal features like fumaroles and steam vents lie throughout the park. Don’t miss the view of Granada and Lake Cocibolca and the isletas. You’ll find the viewpoint when you descend from the trail that goes to the fumaroles. Note that some of the more difficult trails must be tackled with a guide. These might take around four hours. The reserve is closed on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, unless there is a reservation for at least 10 people. www.mombacho.org
Where to Stay
Granada offers lodging for all tastes and budgets. You’ll find bunks in a hostel for $5, and luxurious hacienda-style hotels that climb over $200 a night. Most hotels are in converted colonial houses and include breakfast.
Traditional Nicaragua fare can be had at the food stalls around the Central Park. Try one of the famous raspados (shaved ice with fruit). La Calzada offers a wide range of cuisines and some more sophisticated kitchens.
We recommend: Restaurante Néctar on La Calzada (light food); the busy Italian restaurant La Mona Lisa at the end of La Calzada (try their kiln-fired pizzas); and El Tercer Ojo, located alongside the Convento San Francisco. El Tercer Ojo offers generous portions of delicious Indian-Mediterranean cuisine, including vegetarian options.
Tours: Granada is located near many attractions. For more information on tours and activities, check out www.vapues.com
Quick Facts: Nicaragua
Population: Around 5.5 million.
Language: Spanish is the official language. English and indigenous languages are spoken on the Caribbean coast.
Currency: Cordoba. The exchange rate is currently around 21 cordobas per US dollar. Many businesses have prices both in dollars and cordobas.
Climate: The area between the lakes and the western Pacific is dry and hot. The central mountain region is cooler and wetter. The Caribbean coast is tropical and wet.
By air: Nicaragua has several local airports and Augusto César Sandino International Airport in Managua.
By bus: Ticabus travels to Nicaragua from all Central American countries. Their buses have air conditioning, restroom, TV and reclining seats. www.ticabus.com
San Juan del Sur
For centuries, the main activity was fishing in this scenic, horseshoe-shaped bay. Today, the tourism boom is starting in San Juan del Sur, but I’d describe it as more of a small Mediterranean town than a traditional Central American beach community.
Located 60 km west of Granada, and just 24 km from the Costa Rican border, San Juan del Sur is a tourism boomtown. Nearby, however, you can find some great beaches with less people, like Maderos and Marsella, both of which are great for surfing. The beaches Majagual and Tola are more laid back and perfect for relaxing. You can also check out the Reserva La Flor, which is a nesting site for several species of sea turtles. Other popular activities include scuba diving, snorkeling, and cruising the bay.
Where to stay:
We recommend the following four options:
Where to eat:
The La Cascada Restaurant, at Pelican Eyes Hotel and Resort, is a delightful fusion of international and Nicaraguan cuisines. Fresh, local ingredients and excellent service round out this option. www.piedrasyolas.com
If you’re looking for something more casual, check out Barrio Cafe’s international menu and famous breakfasts. An original restaurant/bar/cafe located in downtown San Juan del Sur. Amid a rustic yet casual environment, you’ll find a wonderful variety of international cuisine. They open daily at 7:30 am with their famous breakfasts. Don’t miss their daily specials and dinners, too. The bar comes alive at night. www.barriocafesanjuan.com
Restaurante El Timón, located right on the beach for over three decades, specializes in seafood, Nicaraguan food and international cuisine. www.eltimonsjs.com
Hotel Azul Pitahaya
Hotel Plaza Colón
Pelican Eyes Hotel & Resort
(505) 8887 2856 / 8962 8110
Restaurante El Timón
Restaurante El Granadino
(505) 8461-3093 / 22664779
Discover exotic Costa Ballena. Contact us for special rates per person, per night, taxes and breakfast included, double occupancy.
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