The old colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua sits on the shores of the behemoth Lake Nicaragua, the same lake that houses the splendiferous Isla de Ometepe. Granada and Ometepe seem worlds apart, though: with its pastel colonial buildings and cobbled pedestrian streets, Granada feels like a European city set to a soundtrack of salsa and merengue.
Granada is one of the most-visited cities in Nicaragua, not only because of its old world charm but also because of its location. Granada is a hop, skip, and a jump from the airport, Ometepe, San Juan del Sur, Masaya, two volcanoes, and dozens of other prime Nicaraguan tourist attractions.
A Nighttime Visit to Masaya Volcano
When my brother and I arrived in Granada for his last night in the country, we were immediately swept up in one of these attractions. Our hostel offered nightly trips to nearby Masaya volcano, an active crater featuring a bubbling lava pit. We joined our hostel’s tour group and clambered into a packed van just as the sun was setting.
The tour was short but incredible. At night Masaya volcano is open for visitors to drive straight up the rim. A park ranger allows a certain number of people in to the rim area for fifteen minutes at a time, so waiting in a line for entry is part of the trip. When our van finally made it to the top we poured out of the van in a rush, eager to spend every second of our fifteen minutes staring at lava.
It was my first time seeing lava and it was incredible. We watched in awe from several angles as tongues of lava popped up into the air and fell back into the rush at the bottom. The most amazing part was that despite the distance we could hear the lava gurgling and flowing from where we stood. The sound was mesmerizing.
Fifteen minutes seemed to pass in fifteen seconds and we were soon back in the truck, chattering excitedly about lava, volcanoes, and all the crazy miracles of this planet.
Enter Randi (And Free Food!)
My brother left for the airport the next morning. I wasn’t alone for long: my dear friend Randi flew in to visit me the same afternoon.
Randi arrived and we immediately set out to explore Granada’s charming colonial streets.
As we wandered we stumbled upon an incredible thing: a traditional Nicaraguan Easter cuisine cooking contest. A dozen or so chefs were set up in a corral in the middle of the street, busily preparing their home region’s traditional Easter dish. We quickly realized that once the judging was complete, the corral would be opened to the public for taste-testing!
Our plans immediately changed: we needed to hang out and taste-test this free food. In the meantime we were entertained by traditional Nicaraguan dancing and musical acts.
We were ecstatic when the corral finally opened and joined the crowds rushing in to try the free food. It was both excellent and bizarre. Apparently soups and stews are an important Easter tradition in Nicaragua, despite the stifling Granada heat. We sweated our way through multiple bowls of soup as well as some plantains and rices. Some dishes were delicious and others were less so, but all of it was fascinating. I left stuffed for free and feeling plenty pleased with our evening!
One day Randi and I took a three hour afternoon boat tour of Las Isletas, a group of 365 tiny islands off the coast of the city. Our tour was led by an extremely enthusiastic and quirky woman who told us about the history of Granada and Las Isletas in a combination of rapid-fire speech and operatic song.
One of the first islands we visited was the site of an old fortress. While explaining the history of the island, our guide whipped out a traditional Nicaraguan outfit and dressed up one of the women in our tour group. She looked fabulous.
The tour only became sillier from there. We soon stopped at “Monkey Island,” a tiny island owned by a local vet. The vet rescued a few injured spider monkeys from the wild and brought them to live on this minuscule piece of land. The monkeys spend every day swinging in the branches and waiting for tourists to bring them bananas.
This was the moment Randi had been waiting for. Armed with bananas and determination, she leaned off the front of the boat as our driver circled us around the island. After ten minutes of failed attempts, she began to fear the worst: the monkeys seemed uninterested in her banana.
Sensing her disappointment, our tour guide stepped in to save the day. She taught each of us on the boat a song about the monkeys on the island, and we sang it at the top of our lungs until one approached Randi and took her banana.
It was weird.
The rest of the tour was beautiful but slightly less interesting. Many of the Isletas are owned by rich Westerners or Nicaragua’s elite, so they are outfitted with beautiful, enormous homes and private docks. We stopped by one more private island to take a dip in the lake and sip a cocktail. Then we climbed back in the boat and listened to our tour guide sing as we sailed back to Granada.
The Cathedral Sunset
One of the popular things to do in Granada is watch the sunset from the cathedral on the main square. We had tried to do this for several days in a row but had unfortunately arrived too late each time: though you can stay as long as you like once you’re inside, they close the doors to entry after a certain time. On Randi’s last night in Granada we finally succeeded. We paid a few dollars to climb up to the roof of the building and watch the sun dip below the line of red-stone rooftops around us. It was worth the wait. Another day in Nicaragua, another gorgeous sunset.