The city of Granada has preserved its history and colonial-style buildings.
I happened to arrive in Nicaragua’s oldest city on Sept. 14, a day before the anniversary of Central American independence.
Upon checking into my hotel, La Gran Francia, a two-story building dating back nearly 500 years, the receptionist warned me that the next morning might get a bit festive. If I heard celebrating, he said, don’t be alarmed. It’s just the holiday in action, he said.
It seemed an odd warning — but only until the next morning arrived.
If you go
Granada is about 30 miles southeast of Managua and can be reached as cheaply as about $1 by bus or about $40 in a taxi.
More information: http://www.visitnicaragua.us
Curtains drawn tight and just a glint of golden light seeping through, I awoke to the sharp crack of drums. And then the roar of a crowd. And the bleating of horns and heaving of tubas. Had I slept strangely late and missed all the fun?
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I fumbled for a clock and found that, nope, it was 7 a.m. — prime time in Nicaragua, apparently, for celebrating Central American independence (from Spain in 1821). I wiped the sleep from my eyes, found some coffee and walked down the block to join the fun in Granada’s historic square.
The whole town seemed to be there: boys in polo shirts, men already selling shaved ice from metal carts, teenage girls in matching green-and-white cheerleading outfits and women wearing long dresses and holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun.
The boys with the drums that had woken me sat dressed in red-and-white uniforms at the edge of the town’s handsome, historic cathedral, painted mustard yellow and receiving a steady flow of visitors.
By noon, the party was finished. But Granada’s historic charms didn’t end with the celebration; they endured around the clock.
One of the oldest European-settled cities in the Americas, Granada was founded by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba (who named the town for his home in Spain) on the shores of Lake Nicaragua in 1524. The city grew into a center of trade and opulence as a conservative ruling class came to dominate the city.
The city clings tightly to those roots. Though relatively small, with a population of about 120,000, Granada remains among the most essential and vibrant examples of Central American history. Granada boasts generations-old buildings of stucco and cement painted vivid rainbow hues: sherbet orange, lime green, deep grape and beyond.
Without a modern construction boom to its name, much of Granada dates to the 1800s, including, for instance, both the hotels where I stayed: La Gran Francia and Mansion de Chocolate, which was built in 1860 as the home of former president Evaristo Carazo.
Even the city buses — former school buses imported from the United States — have been painted and refurbished to contribute to the worn-in vibe: trimmed with red and green and adorned with a colorful beach scene, New York Yankees logo, Bible verse or the Playboy bunny.
Not that I was missing it, but I asked a woman working at the hotel whether there was anything modern in the town.
“Maybe the supermarket with the sliding automatic doors,” she said.
I asked if there was a movie theater.
“The one here is very antique,” she said. “It is better to watch at home.”
Granada is a relaxed, easygoing place, with life centered on the cathedral square, where you’ll see far more locals than tourists socializing, getting their shoes shined and cooling off with shaved ice.
The streets surrounding it are a swarm of horses, scooters, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians and bicycles that are just as likely to carry two or three people as one. (Three people on a bike is possible with one person on the handlebars and another on the crossbar).
Granada adds up to the sweet spot between hardscrabble and historic, with just enough tourism infrastructure to ensure that the hotels and restaurants make for a comfortable stay (while also offering world-class chocolate, coffee and rum).
The country gets about a sixth of the visitors of Costa Rica to the south, which keeps it far from being overrun by tourism. Granada is a tourist center for its proximity to attractions that include the Apoyo lagoon nature reserve, Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua (which includes Ometepe, an island featuring two more volcanoes). But even spending just a couple of days in Granada on the way to the coast is worth the effort. It’s a great walking city, both for the history and for contemporary life.