Revered for its colonial architecture, its streets are lined with buildings distinguished from each other by their successive shades of pastel hues. Palms rise amidst a sea of red tile roofs against the backdrop of lake shores and volcanoes. There are baroque and Moorish aesthetic influences interspersed throughout the cityscape.
Welcome to Granada, Nicaragua. The air is humid and hot, enveloping visitors with the unmistakable sense of stepping into a tropical Spain. The surrounding natural beauty has also inspired artists, poets, and writers well before the Spanish founded it in 1524. Combine these charming features with the relaxed air of the Nicaraguan people – one of the happiest in the world – and you have quite possibly the most laid-back and accessible city in Central America, fully imbued with color and culture.
It’s not surprising that people hail here from all over the world, and many can’t bring themselves to leave. As a result, the city is a hub for expats, which only adds to its cosmopolitan feel. As you will see, Granada provides an even draw for culture vultures and outdoor enthusiasts. If it’s not on your itinerary yet, by the time you finish this guide it will be.
From port city to a legacy of piracy
Similar to places in Central America like Panama City, Granada’s strategic location made it a prime spot for explorers, conquistadors and pirates. Dating back to the 16th century, the city was an important trade post and port for Spanish transport of silver and gold from the Americas. Naturally, it didn’t take long before other imperialist nations caught wind of its economic importance, and the French, English, and Dutch successively attempted to claim it for their own. Add a few stints of plunder by pirates – Captain Morgan himself is known to have paid the city a visit – and you have quite a city with quite a calamitous story behind it.
While it’s colonial history gains it a lot of notoriety, the surrounding region bears a heritage that extends far before Spanish conquest. There is a rich cultural background of indigenous peoples worth learning about during your visit as well. Nicaragua has its share of quirky museums dedicated to recounting indigenous lore and ways of life, so familiarizing yourself with it tends to be equal parts informative and intriguing. In Granada, prioritize a visit to Convento y Museo San Francisco, which discloses much about the peoples that inhabited this place both before and after colonialism took hold.
A city steeped in culture
For the culture vultures among you, Granada is one of the more elegant and refined cities in Central America. With a sizable population of over 100,000 and the aforementioned large expat community, Granada is home to an array of appealing eateries, museums, galleries, markets and more.
Today, the heart of the city is its main drag, Calle la Calzada. Lined with cafes, restaurants, and shops, perusing this pedestrian street is key to getting a sense of life in Granada. We recommend grabbing a few cold Toñas, and enjoying an evening on Calle la Calzada as the heat of day breaks, amidst myriad street performers, locals, and other travelers. From Calle la Calzada, several of the city’s main attractions are within walking distance.
In typical Latin American fashion Granada’s key architectural gems include its three impressive churches: the significant Cathedral Iglesia Guadalupe – located on Calzada, the ornate Iglesia la Merced, and the canary yellow Catedral de Granada. If you only choose one to visit, make it the latter as it opens to Granada’s sprawling Parque Central.
This plaza market is exceptionally vibrant and colorful, replete with vendors selling a wild array of handcrafted goods, tropical birds, regional fruits and Nicaraguan sweets amidst flowing stone fountains and beneath the shade of ancient trees. Explore it during the daytime alongside families of farmers, horse drawn carts, and children weaving in and out of the crowds. A visit to the lively Parque Central is enough to ignite all the senses.
The lay of the land
For the outdoor enthusiasts among you, the surrounding district is the site of volcanoes, lakes, lagoons, and cloud forests. Take a boat tour of Lake Nicaragua, known colloquially as Cocibolca, in a semi-covered pancha boat. It’s the largest in Nicaragua and among the biggest in the world. What makes this experience worthwhile is that it gives you a glimpse into Las Isletas, where monkeys and other animals have laid their claim to some of the smaller islands.
The volcanic Isla Zapatera is probably the most well-known of Las Isletas. It’s a protected area rich with wildlife, in addition to being home to one of the oldest collections of ancient petroglyphs in the world. Each journey around the lake holds different possibilities. Whatever you do, ensure you rent kayaks at the shores of Cocibolca and embark on a journey around the peaceful waters.
In the district’s surrounding areas, you’ll also encounter tropical forests comprised of lush flora. Consider hiking the dormant Mombacho Volcano and visiting one of the coffee plantations situated on the mountainside for a taste of Nicaragua’s burgeoning eco-tourism industry. The handpicked coffee itself certainly isn’t half bad either.
Our final piece of advice
Before leaving Granada, take the 20-minute drive northwest to the indigenous handcrafts market in Masaya. Here, you’ll find beautiful blankets and hammocks at great prices, woven in bright patterns and designs. On the way to Masaya, be sure to stop at the pristine Laguna de Apoyo. The crystal clear blue waters of this volcanic crater are enticing enough to swim in, while tourists and locals alike frequent the central lookout point on whenever its sunny, and even when it’s not.
Between its dynamic geography and cultural allure, Granada offers its own brand of effervescence. Indeed, no trip to the land of lakes and volcanoes could fully do this beautiful country justice without including at least a few days of lingering here. Who knows, maybe like many others, you won’t want to leave.
Want to see the beauty of Nicaragua and its surrounding countries? Check out this 17-day Central American Journey.
Photo Credits (top to bottom): Intrepid Travel x3, iStock, Intrepid Travel, iStock x2