By Allison Warenik-Queenan
If you grew up in the early 1980s like I did, the first thoughts that probably come to mind when someone mentions the country of Nicaragua are Civil War, Sandinistas, and the Iran/Contra Affair. Perhaps the image of such past events still cloud the way we Americans see this beautiful and lush Central American country. So it makes sense that it is not as established of a tourist destination as its more popular neighbor, Costa Rica. However, the country I just arrived back from was as peaceful and friendly as any in the world, unspoiled by mass tourism and all-inclusive resorts and overrun with green landscapes, giant volcanoes, glistening lakes and fresh, locally grown food.
The Colonial-Era Cathedral de Granada
The colonial city of Granada, about a 40-minute drive from the capital city of Managua, is set inland on the shores of the giant Lake Nicaragua, under the shadow of one of Nicaragua’s quietly smoking volcanoes, Volcan Mombacho. Beautifully colored Spanish colonial architectural structures define Granada’s streets, with the magnificent yellow Cathedral de Granada topping the city’s Central Park, a town square full of food vendors, local artisans selling their wares and horses with carriages, the preferred method of getting around town. I stayed at the Hotel Spa Granada, a boutique hotel situated in the city’s oldest colonial mansion on the Calle Atravesada, At $50 U.S. dollars per night, my room consisted of a king-sized bed, a private bathroom, air-conditioning and included one free daily spa service (I got the much needed aromatherapy massage every evening). A bargain indeed.
The Volcan Mombacho overlooks the city of Granada
There are two main natural attractions in Granada that every traveler is encouraged to take on. First, a tour of Les Isletas. Hundreds of tiny islands, called Isletas, dot Lake Nicaragua off the shores of Granada. These Isletas were formed over 10,000 years ago when an explosion of the Volcan Mombacho created the current landscape of the city. Today, the islands are either inhabited by local fisherman or are privately owned by wealthy foreigners. They are each densely packed with tropical foliage, fauna and screeching monkeys. I was fortunate enough to have a private stay on an Isleta owned by a lovely French expat couple that my husband and I met in town. After being driven out to the island by electric powerboat, a family of local fisherman cooked us a wonderful lunch consisting of, naturally, their catch of the day cooked over an open flame, beans, rice, pico de gallo and plantains. Swimming in Lake Nicaragua, alone but for the fisherman in the distance, with volcanoes looming overhead, was truly one of the most relaxing experiences I had in a long time.
Local Fisherman catch lunch off the shores of a privately owned Isleta
Secondly, all visitors to Grenada must hike to the top of Volcan Mombacho. Being not much of a hiker or a climber, but still an adventurer in my own mind, I rode halfway to the top in an all-terrain truck and did a mid-level-difficulty climb. Man-made stone and tree-trunk steps lead the way through the thick forest that covers the volcanic mountain. The views were spectacular and totally worth the exhaustion (thankfully my massage therapist was waiting for me back at the hotel). From here you can see the city of Granada, the lake and the countryside beyond. Smoke trails of sulfur sneak up out of the ground, reminding you that this volcano is very much alive inside. I took the truck all the way down, stopping at a coffee bean plantation, located halfway up the volcano, for a taste of Nicaragua’s famous rich, dark coffee.
Man-made stone steps lead the way up the Volcan Mombacho where views from the top overlook the entirety of the Isletas in Lake Nicaragua
At night, back in the town, nightlife is hopping. Bars offer happy hour in the early evenings and drinks are the equivalent of $2 U.S. dollars each. At two-for-one, you do the math. Mojitos and red sangria reigned supreme with their fresh mint, locally -grown fruit and Central American-produced spirits. Our favorite, and most frequented, restaurant was El Zaguan, located on Ave la Sirena (make note that addresses do not consist of street numbers, only the name of the street). It is important to mention that all of the food served in Granada is locally grown and organic. The reason for this is, that the soil in Nicaragua consists of so much volcanic ash, it provides exceptional nutrients for growing and therefore no artificial fertilizers and hormones are needed. (And of course the fact that they don’t have access to all of the preservative-filled “fast” food we eat in America.) I must tell you, in 33 years, I’ve never seen the point in celery. Here, at El Zaguan, it is served pureed with onion and garlic, to be spread over freshly baked warm bread. It was heavenly, and something so simple to make back at home in my New York City kitchen. The ceviche (a popular dish on every munch in Granada) consisted of fresh white chunks of locally caught fish, soaking in a tangy lemon broth. Chorizo sausages were tender and spicy, enclosed in fine paper-thin casing. Finally, sirloin steak was marinated in a traditional Nicaraguan onion broth and flame broiled on the table right in front of your eyes. The melt-in-your-mouth tender sirloin was better than any I’ve had in any of the big New York steakhouses. Ahhhh, I am hungry again.
I was pretty bummed when it was time to go. I felt that there was so much more to explore and learn. But alas, I only had four days to spend. Taking with me a newfound love for this beautiful, green country, its landscapes and its food (as well-as some useful Spanish phrases), my husband and I headed in a taxi back to Managua Airport for my flight back to JFK. With the upcoming season of Survivor: Nicaragua, some much needed positive light is going to be shed on this country, which was not so long ago ravaged by civil war. Get yourself here before the big resorts start popping up and experience unspoiled Central American nature.