three nights in lovely granada

Sunday, January 1:  After visiting the Mirador de Catarina on our way from León (nicaragua’s laguna de apoyo & a wasted trip to volcán masaya), we drove onward to Granada and met Erick to let us into our fabulous Airbnb apartment. It was an old colonial home with an open-air plan. There was only a gate locking in our car with about 5 locks on it. It had no real front door or windows, but was open in many spots to the sky. The kitchen was nice, and it had a comfortable living area, a swimming pool, two large bedrooms and 2 1/2 baths.

By far, it was the best placed we stayed in Nicaragua. Every other place had been too cramped for the four of us, but this place had plenty of space to spread out.

After settling in, we all four walked a couple of blocks to Pan de Vida, where we ordered two pizzas, one vegetarian and one with meat. Mike asked a couple at a long picnic table if we could join them; it was a kind of communal dining place, it seemed. Adam was stressed out by us intruding on the couple and said he felt he was going to be sick any minute, so Alex ran back with him to the apartment. Alex returned to the apartment to join us after dropping Adam at the apartment. With all the locks, and only one set of keys, it was very difficult for one of us to leave without the others.

The restaurant had an open-air courtyard. I enjoyed watching the people with a glass of vino blanco. Mike and Alex had passionfruit juice.

Adam seemed to be better when we returned to the apartment. Alex said Adam was just stressed out and felt bad from drinking water from the faucet in Granada.

Steps: 4,347; Miles 1.84.

Monday, January 2, 2023:  This morning we took a stroll around the historical center of the Granada Department. With an estimated population of 104,980 in 2021, it is Nicaragua’s 9th most populous city. Granada is one of the country’s most important cities, both historically and politically. It has a rich colonial heritage as seen in its architecture and layout.

The city is also known as La Gran Sultana, reflecting its Moorish and Andalusian appearance, unlike its sister city and historical rival León, which displays its Castilian heritage.

Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Fernandez de Córdoba, making it one of the oldest cities in the New World. Because it sits on Lago de Nicaragua (Lake Nicaragua), which is navigable to the sea via the Rió San Juan, it was a trade center from its inception. The city became wealthy, but vulnerable. Pirates sacked the city three times between 1665-1670.

After independence from Spain, Granada challenged the colonial capital León for leadership of the new nation. Because of the challenges, León enlisted the services of mercenary William Walker and his band of “filibusterers.” Walker sacked Granada, declared himself president, and launched a conquest of Central America. After a number of embarrassing defeats, he fell into retreat, setting Granada on fire and leaving a sign in the ashes: “Here was Granada.” The city rebuilt and, though its power has waned, it has become an important tourist center.

In our wanderings, we saw the Cathedral, but would have to return another day when it was open. We walked around the interior of another church, Iglesia Merced, and tried to climb the tower, but it closed for siesta just as we got there.

We dipped into various hotels and cafés to see the lush interior courtyards. Colorful mosaics decorated the pedestrian streets. We enjoyed some fresh fruit juices on a shaded porch: pineapple, melon, papaya and watermelon. It was a relief to sit in the shade to escape Granada’s intense heat.

We wandered through a small market in the main square, Parque Central, which sold tee shirts and other souvenirs. We found colorful paintings, and were surprised by the paintings of young men and women sitting on toilets, which seemed to be everywhere.

A white obelisk at Plaza de la Independencia said: “A Las Glorias de 1821. Honor a los Heroes 1811.” It is dedicated to the heroes of the 1821 struggle for independence.

Choco Museo

We enjoyed a great mini tour at a chocolate museum: Choco Museo. After teaching us everything about the process of chocolate-making, our guide had us do a little jig while we crushed coffee beans. We chanted: “Baté, baté, chocolate” (mix, mix, mix the chocolate), while scissoring our knees back and forth. We must be the most spastic, uncoordinated family in the world! It was so silly, and so much fun. 🙂

According to a dial, when chocolate was used for trading, as a type of currency, it cost 1,000 beans for a woman (mujer). A rabbit was 30 beans and a slave was 500.

The Mayas were the first to discover the delicious secrets of cacao around 2000 B.C. They cultivated trees in their own gardens for daily consumption. Everyone, regardless of status, could enjoy a chocolate drink. They invented the preparation.

We learned a lot about cacao:

  • The cacao tree grows in warm and humid tropical regions of the world. Its fruits, cacao pods, grow directly from its trunk.
  • Cacao leaves are very large. On the jungle floor, they keep the tree moist, key to its health, and feed it with essential nutrients.
  • The cacao flower is beautiful, attracting midges to pollinate it. It takes 3 months for a flower to turn into a ripe cacao pod.
  • The cacao pod is the fruit of the cacao tree. It is shaped like a football and its color may vary from yellow to red or green. Each pod contains an average of 40 beans.
  • The cacao bean is the seed of the cacao pod. Each cacao bean has a thin shell. The inside part, called “nibs” is the raw material of chocolate making.

We also learned about the process of making chocolate:

  • The harvest: When ripe, cacao pods are cut from the tree and kept together on the floor. Each pod is cut in half by machete, making sure not to cut any beans inside. The sweet white pulp and cacao beans inside the pod are separated in a plastic bag for the fermentation process. The shell of the pod is full of fiber but is usually used as fertilizer.
  • Fermentation lasts about six days. The white pulp and cacao beans are placed in wooden boxes and covered with banana leaves and jute bags to conserve rising temperatures (up to 50°C). The beans turn from purple to brown and the flavor of cacao develops in the seed.
  • The drying process takes generally five days, followed by a quality control process of cacao beans, using a guillotine.

Some interesting figures about chocolate:

  • One hectare of land > 1,000 cacao trees > 40,000 cacao pods > 1,000 kg of cacao > 10,000 chocolate bars

We had fun learning about the chocolate-making process and participating in the little jig.  Of course we also had to buy some products, including some cacao lotion for me and chocolate bars for all of us.

On our way back to our Airbnb, we popped into the Garden Cafe and determined we’d go there on Tuesday. After getting plenty hot walking around, we enjoyed lounging and swimming in the pool at our Airbnb.

Danny’s Isletas Boat Tour

In the afternoon, we went on Danny’s Isletas Boat Tour. On the tour, with Victor as our tour guide and Guadalupe as our boat captain, we enjoyed the beautiful nature of the islands of Granada, visiting the ancient Fort of San Pablo on an islet, as well as the Monkey Island. We saw three types of monkeys: capuchinos, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys. It was breezy, cool and refreshing, a nice escape from Granada’s heat.

Many of the islets are occupied. Some are privately owned and hold homes or vacation houses. Hotels and shops are established on some of the islands and boating tours are available.

The Fort of San Pablo on one islet was built in order to protect the city of Granada from pirates in the 18th century.

We saw a whole flock of egrets in one tree.

On the Isletas tour we could see Mombacho Volcano covered in cloud. Mombacho Volcano is 1345m and is the defining feature of Granada’s skyline. It is still active and puffs out smoke periodically.

We saw many of the homes and restaurants that occupy the islets. One spider monkey got very close to our boat and provided a good bit of entertainment. According to Victor: “Monkeys good in sex. Females mate 3 times a day for 8-25 minutes when in heat.” This comment got a lot of laughs.

Back in Granada

When we returned to Granada, we went to Pita Pita, a Mediterranean restaurant, for dinner. It was packed, so service was very slow. I enjoyed the special watermelon mojito. We all shared a delectable fried cauliflower with a tahini dipping sauce that I couldn’t get enough of. I think I ate most of the entire plate. I also enjoyed homemade beef lasagna with a green salad, most of which I had to take back to our apartment because I ate so much of the cauliflower! 🙂

Sadly, my FitBit was at the end of its life and quit charging, thus I could no longer measure my steps on our trip. 😦

Tuesday, January 3: We started our morning by going to the cool leather shop Soy Nica, where Alex bought a bag for his girlfriend Jandira and I bought a couple of bags for myself.

Soy Nica is a family-run business. Its leather goods are 100% handmade by local craftsmen using cow leather and skin. They never use plastic, carton, rubber, fabric, etc. Leathers come from Nicaraguan cows. I seem to remember the owner said he was from Denmark, and he, like Adam, never wants to return to Europe (America in Adam’s case). The designs are Scandinavian.

We dropped off our goods in the apartment and Mike and I went by ourselves to visit Granada Cathedral, which had been closed when we went by yesterday. Located right on the Central Plaza, the cathedral is a bright yellow neoclassical church originally built in 1583 and destroyed countless times since. This version was built in 1915.  The interior of the church features three naves and four chapels and extensive stained glass windows set into the dome. There were beautiful new-looking frescoes painted on the ceilings. We hoped to go up into the bell tower but we could never find an access point.

The Central Plaza was alive with activity, with vendors and live music. The Cathedral provides an iconic backdrop to the city’s cultural life.

We were finally able to go up the bell tower at Iglesia La Merced. Built in 1534, La Merced is one of the oldest cathedrals in Central America. It was razed by pirates in 1655 and rebuilt with its current baroque facade between 1781-1783. It was one of the most important churches in Granada until its main tower was destroyed in 1854 by William Walker’s forces; it was restored with the current elaborate interior and the rebuilding of the tower in 1862. Today Catholics come to see the Virgen de Fatima. La Merced has three interior naves and is located two blocks west of the Central Plaza, where it sits on a small corner plaza surrounding by other fascinating colonial buildings.

From the bell tower, we enjoyed expansive views over the small town of Granada.

We walked further down the street to see the rather dilapidated yet attractive colonial Iglesia de Xalteva, which houses La Virgen de la Asunción. It was rebuilt in the 1890s after being heavily damaged by an earthquake.

We strolled through some of the side streets where we enjoyed the colorful homes and their cool doors and birdcage windows. We could also see Volcán Mombacho.

We met Alex and Adam for lunch at the Garden Cafe, where we enjoyed fresh delicious fish tacos, sandwiches and limeade. I also bought a cute pair of earrings after browsing the cafe’s enticing shop.

Finally, the boys returned to the Airbnb while Mike and I did a quick walk through the Centro Cultural Museos de Convento San Francisco. Not quite as nice as the museum we loved in León, it was a sprawling building with numerous courtyards and art for sale. I especially loved the Nicaraguan paintings in the museum. I wish we’d had more time there, but we’d made plans to visit Laguna de Apoyo for the afternoon with the guys.

For our afternoon trip back to Laguna de Apoyo, you can read my previous post: nicaragua’s laguna de apoyo & a wasted trip to volcán masaya.

After our afternoon at the lagoon, we returned to the Airbnb, where the guys cooked up some steaks they’d bought at a butcher shop. I ate my leftover lasagna from Pita Pita.

Here’s a video of our time in Granada.

We started packing up everything for an early departure in the morning. We’d reserved a spot on the 9:00 a.m. ferry to Ometepe Island. We’d been told to be there an hour early, which meant we had to leave Granada by 6:45 a.m.