After our volcanic island extravaganza and full-immersion into Nicaraguan farming life on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, we were keen to go back to the mainland to enjoy some colonial towns and their beautiful and evocative architecture. Although we absolutely fell in love with the previous country that we had visited; Costa Rica, we found that it had very little in terms of colonial architecture, so we were glad to be back to normal in the terms of using impressive historical towns as a base to explore the country further.
After visiting Ometepe, we took a short taxi ride (1 hour) to the manageable city of Granada. Granada is also on the lake shore and it boasts some notable colonial architecture. For those reasons we thought it would be a better base than the nearby capital of Managua, which we elected to bypass completely.
Granada has a typical history of riches generated by the flow of gold, silver and other minerals that were being exported from the empire back to Spain. Parts of the city have been heavily restored, with some projects evidently ongoing; it certainly seemed like a lot of churches had seen better days, but the crumbly unpainted facades added to their character (at least from a travellers perspective).
The city is quite compact and easily walkable with everything a few blocks from the central plaza. There is a main pedestrianised street (Calle La Calzada) which leads to the lake and this has the majority of tour agencies, restaurants and so forth. We stayed further north in the town in a little AIRBNB apartment, but it was still convenient for the centre.
For a different perspective on the colourful streets, try climbing the La Merced church tower. It costs very little for the magnificent panorama of the city and the nearby dormant Volcano Mombacho that awaits.
From the church tower we had spied a dramatic green colonial structure with twin towers which turned out to be the central market. For anyone who has not visited a market in South or Central America then it is worth a visit to see how the locals go about their daily lives, and trust us, this was a top-notch one compared to some of the ones we have visited.
Visiting Lake Nicaragua
We took a boat trip (motorised canoe, but you can also rent one-person canoes if you prefer) out onto Lake Nicaragua to see some of the many small islands (Isletas) formed by the eruptions of Volcano Mombacho. Most of these are now luxury homes or restaurants but there is an island with some cute rescue monkeys and also a small Spanish fort. It’s also a good way to see Granada from the water, and in the distance plumes of gasses being emitted from Volcano Masaya.
The Volcano Experience
You can climb Volcano Mombacho but we chose instead to have a slightly different volcano experience with Volcano Masaya. Most tour agencies will take you on this evening tour, but as we had our own transport we drove. It’s less than 1 hour from Granada on the road towards Managua. Volcano Masaya is very much an active volcano, where you can gaze into the mesmerising lava crater and watch the billowing fumes rising up. What is all the more extraordinary is that you can drive your car right up to the edge of the crater for a 20 minute viewing session. Remember to park facing downhill though, just in case a speedy getaway is required! We loved this experience because it was so different and staring at the lava below constituted one of those “the power of nature is awesome, oh my God I’m shitting my pants” kind of feelings! Unfortunately, a bunch of drunken Russians felt the same so we had to battle them and their vodka-heavy breath to get a good spot to enjoy the spectacle.
From Granada we drove north to the city of Leon which used to be the capital of Nicaragua and a revolutionary hothouse. Leon is also a colonial city but you can immediately see that it is much rougher and more run down, with crumbling buildings and lots of rubbish in the streets, including a terrapin (or perhaps teenage mutant hero turtle if he lives in the drain for much longer, Master Splinter was nowhere to be seen though!).
The main square and its epic cathedral are a good place to start (check out the mural depicting the history of Nicaragua in one corner) but there are many churches in a variety of styles dotted throughout the city. We tried to climb the cathedral for the view but always seemed to miss the opening hours.
Leon doesn’t have much to keep you entertained for longer than a couple of days, but there are some activities in the vicinity, most notably volcano trekking and boarding. We wanted to climb the Cerro Negro volcano which is the youngest in Central America, but our rental car was not up to the challenge of the road leading to it, so we had to abort the plan. Instead we opted to visit the Flor de Caña rum factory for a tour (what a shame!). We were the only people on the tour and had a very merry time sampling the rum including a 25+ year old 70% one which just evaporated in your mouth! We now like Flor de Caña very much and refuse to drink any other rum…at least for now.
Nicaragua’s colonial cities are rougher round the edges, with mainly the nucleus of the city restored and polished, but they are still charming. Happily for us, cheap tourism is still possible, but we think that Nicaragua may be in for an explosion in development that in the next decade or so will change the nature of investment and tourism.
After some dramatic volcano-strewn landscapes, our last stop was the town of Esteli, close to Honduras, which would be completely forgettable if it wasn’t a gateway out of the country and the hub of cigars production in the country. Of course Nicaragua is well known for its cigar production, probably only second to Cuba. We tried to visit a few factories but they certainly don’t make it easy for tourists in terms of spreading the word of Nicaraguan cigars in the world, aka they won’t sell you anything or show you the factory (Unlike their Cuban counterparts)! We did manage to buy a few local ‘puros’ or small cigars from a shop in town, but we feel that the whole thing could be more gringo friendly and used as a means to attract tourists.
We really appreciated our time in Nicaragua and we hope that many others decide to visit this country of volcanoes, charming colonial towns and epic scenery. Although we only scratched the surface, it is clear that it has just as much to offer as it’s titan of a holiday destination neighbour Costa Rica. It would be wrong to say that Nicaragua is the poor-man’s Costa Rica, but it is certainly attractive to budget travellers due to the lower cost of tourism. Win-win for the time being, but watch this space, Nicaragua’s day will come!