Granada, Nicaragua: The Spirit and Struggles of a Great City.

The view of Granada’s El Cathedral from La Merced’s bell tower.

Please check out the Granada episode of my Radical Travel Podcast, largely based in this article.

I had flown out of Managua, Nicaragua a few months earlier to head back to California to start work on some fundraising and planning for our Burning Man camp, The Bureau of Misinformation.  I spent the summer in California keeping pretty busy, with Burning Man and a promotional tour for World Travel Buzz, and then caught a flight back to Managua, in early November.

I don’t think Nicaragua is on many travelers’ Must Visit list. If you want beaches and resorts in Central America, you’d probably skip straight to Costa Rica, and if you want Mayan culture and ruins, you’ll head to Southern Mexico or Guatemala. So what does Nicaragua have to offer travelers  Well, for one, the prices are cheap. And for many (especially backpackers) that’s reason enough to come here.  The beaches and the waves in the south west of the country, are more or less the same as the ones you’d get in Costa Rica, but at a fraction of the cost. If you’re looking for a bit of adventure, Nicaragua has plenty of rain forest where you can do jungle treks or go zip-lining through the canopy. You’ll love the Spanish Colonial architecture, the old churches, and the vibrant markets. This place has culture aplenty, kind locals, cheap beer, and lot’s to do. Yeah, And did I mention that it’s cheap? At least it should be.

When you’re a gringo arriving on a late flight in Managua, the price for a taxi to the next town suddenly skyrockets. Managua doesn’t have much to offer the tourist, and the taxi drivers know that most gringos just want to get out of town. The first driver I approached wanted $50 US for the hour-long ride. I told him that price was for loco gringos only. I’m a pretty savvy haggler and I knew the price should be half that, so I told him he was crazy and walked away – he came back to me a few minutes later, offering the same ride for $25.

I don’t recommend arriving late at night in Managua – it’s a dangerous city, especially for a gringo with limited Spanish.  If you can arrange for a daytime arrival, do it. It’s safer, and you’ll be able to catch a bus to Granada instead of haggling for a deal on a taxi.

Luckily for me, I speak decent Spanish, and I’m good at making friends, so I wasn’t too worried about the journey. I walked with my driver across the street from the airport and up a block to the dark and quite possibly dangerous alley where he had parked his taxi. I threw my backpack in the trunk and then he said to me, “Necesito preparar para el viaje”  – I need to prepare for the journey.  I wasn’t sure what this meant, but I quickly found out. Apparently, the heat and humidity was too much for him, so he took his shirt off, letting his proud, sweaty. Nicaraguan paunch hang out over his belt like a central American Buddha  They are unabashed about that kind of thing here – big sweaty bellies are often put on display while standing in the streets or lounging in a rocking chair on the porch. He smiled, turned away, pulled out his cock, and began to urinate on the wall behind his taxi.  ”Welcome to Nicaragua,” I thought.

Preparations completed, the driver sped wildly through some crazy back roads, taking sharp turns down cobble-stoned streets, and when I expressed some concern over where he was taking me, he explained that we were taking a shortcut to the main highway, and that I didn’t have anything to worry about.

I was slightly worried. Late night back road short cuts in Central American cities tend to make me uncomfortable.

I told him I needed a drink, which normally wouldn’t have been a problem – he’d have been happy to stop at a store for me to grab a Toña Beer (the local favorite) or a flask of something stranger, like Nicaragua’s most famous rum, Flor de Caña. Hell, he might have even joined me for a tipple. Drinking and driving laws, if they exist, are pretty relaxed here.  Unfortunately, I was informed that today was the eve of the election for the Managua’s equivalent of  Mayor, and it had been decreed that no one could sell alcohol for the entire weekend, possibly in hopes of having a good turnout of sober voter on Monday morning. It seemed like such a strange practice to me, especially coming from America where people were planning election day parties and respectable political news sources were creating Presidential Debate Drinking Games. But maybe we’ve got it wrong – keeping the electorate boozed up and complacent… But I digress.

So there I was, in Nicaragua, where you could buy a prostitute for less than the price of  a steakhouse dinner (or so I hear), and where a small bribe usually goes a long way with local police, but today, of all days, I couldn’t get a cold beer. Apparently, this was one rule  that the local Nica’s weren’t willing to bend. At least not for me.

So, after a sober drive, my driver dropped me at the door of Hostel Oasis – probably the nicest hostel in Granada. I’d stayed there once before and had a great time – It’s clean, comfortable, has good wifi, and they’ve got a pool. Highly recommended!

I booked a bunk in the dorm for $9 and got some much needed rest before stepping out into the chaotic streets of Granada

A typical fruit vendor’s stall in Granada’s Market.

The markets in Central America are all pretty much the same, and Granada’s was no exception: A bustling nexus of chaos and culture where people buy and sell everything from fruits and vegetables to underwear and electronics. You can get just about anything in those markets, and even if you don’t need to do any shopping, it’s fun to just take a stroll through the maze of market stalls to experience the smells and sounds and vibrant colors. Vendors often chant their wares. You’ll hear the strawberry man chanting in rapid monotone, “Fresa, fresa, fresa, fresa, fresaaaaaaa” while in another corner of the market, the vegetable woman sings out, “Cebolla, tomate, pimiento! Cebolla, tomate, pimiento!” All this, ringing loud above the chatter and buzz of the myriad vendors and patrons, like some strange and powerful choir.

Besides the central Market, pretty much every central American town has at least a couple famous churches.  It’s pretty easy to get burnt out on these types of sites, but if you’re feeling up for it, Merced is well worth a visit.

A man naps in one of the entrances to La Merced Church

Merced was originally built in 1534, and restored in 1862. It was one of the most important building in Old Granada, and one of the most important Churches in the area. Today, it wears its age well, the main facade looks ancient, its stone walls, dark covered in moss, partially crumbling. The bell tower looks to have been rebuilt, or at least cleaned more recently. For less than a dollar (20 Cordobas), you can climb to the top of the tower for some really amazing views of the city, and the surrounding volcanoes. At the entrance to the church, you can often find a disabled local man, ushering tourists in with the only English phrase he knows. He struggles to pronounce each syllable: distorted,  slow, and forced: “Aaaalways O-pen.” The bell tower, in fact, is not always open – They close it around 5:30, but if you want to catch at the sunset, get there a little early and stay until the sun goes down or they kick you out.

Inside Merced, you’ll find a typical colonial church, with archways, stained glass, and plenty of depictions of Jesus. It’s probably much as it was in the 1500′s. But, as I sat in the old wooden pews, looking at the boombox, sitting in front of the pulpit, lit with red LEDs and blaring modern Religious music in Spanish, I was reminded that despite being in this ancient church, it’s actually the year 2012, and outside, the traffic roars down the road, honking their way passed stunningly restored colonial buildings, and a man sets up his food cart, selling Quisillos and gaseosas to the tourists snapping photos of the church.

El Cathedral in Granada

A few blocks East or La Merced, you’ll find Parque Central, Granada’s central park. It’s a nice, open square, with horse drawn carriages lined up on one end of the park, and the other end, flanked by the massive, yellow edifice of El Cathedral.  There lots of people milling around, and lots of opportunities to meet the locals – almost as soon as I sat down, I made some new friends met some children who were excited to chat with a friendly gringo. Their mother was selling sodas and water to tourists from a nearby cooler, and the kids were running wild in the park, playing games. They told me that when they grew up, they wanted to be doctors, lawyers, police men, and teachers. High aspirations, and I wished them the best of luck.

Later, I met a young local man named Moises. He told me that he was from Granada – he was born here, created here, and he told me how much he loved his city. It’s beautiful, he said, it’s tranquil.  He told me of Lake Nicaragua it’s many beautiful islands, and of the volcano that formed them. This young stranger was a wealth of unsolicited information. Just a friendly local who was going for a walk and was happy to chat with a gringo about his love for his city.  Moises was a great example of what I love about Nicaragua and Nicaraguan people. I quizzed him about rumors of freshwater sharks, living in the depths of Lake Nicaragua. To me, this sounded like something locals told gringos to laugh behind their backs.

The shores of Lake Nicaragua

He assured me that the rumors were true. I Googled it that night. It turns out, the Lake Nicaragua Sharks are actually Bull Sharks which are known known for entering freshwater in other parts of the world. For years, scientists thought that they had been trapped within the lake, but in the late 1960′s, They tagged some Lake Nicaragua Sharks to track their movements, and discovered that there are actually able to jump along the rapids of the San Juan River, all the way to the Caribbean Sea,(which is over 100 miles) like giant, terrifying salmon.

Moses kind and informative, and he was also very was candid about his life and his struggles. When I asked him what kind of work he does, he struggles to find the words to explain his situation. He said, “in the past, I was a street kid. I slept in central park, I slept on the sidewalks, I used to be very bad… but now, actually thanks to one program that I know, I changed my life. Now I’m a new person.”

It’s a Christian program, he explained, and although he has no religion, the program took him in and helped to change his life. In fact, there are many programs to help street children in Nicaragua. It’s said, that there are enough organizations, orphanages, and programs here to help feed and house all the street children, if only that would accept the help. That’s why the locals advise tourists not to give money to begging children, no matter how distraught and needy they seem. The fact is, Many of the children that are on the streets are actually being exploited by adults, driven from one tourist bar to the next and forced to beg for money, which goes straight to the adults. Others are addicted to drugs and refuse help.

Just the other day, I was followed home by a boy, not 10 years old, who had a plastic coke bottle in his hand, the bottom discolored from spraypaint which he had sprayed inside to huff the fumes and get high. He stumbled down the street behind me, flailing clutching at my arm to steady himself, sucking poison fumes from the bottle, and attempting to beg for money, his speech slurred and slow. It’s a hard thing to see, and an all too common problem here in Nicaragau.  It’s even harder to imagine my new friend Moises, with his clean polo shirt and his kind demeanor to have been one of these children of the streets. He really is a changed man, as he said – but the deep scar that runs along the edge of his eye tells a story of a difficult past.

And maybe that’s a good metaphor for the city. Throughout history, it has been invaded by English, French and Dutch pirates, and in 1856, it was burned to the ground by one of William Walker’s cronies, when his attempt to take control of the country failed. This is a city that has been through a lot, and it is still struggling through the political and social issues that affect the entire country. But in spite of it all, Granada remains a must-see destination for anyone passing though Nicaragua. It has vibrant culture, beautiful colonial architecture, crazy and kind taxi drivers, fantastic markets and historic churches, and it has the spirit of a people who despite their struggles, are happy to share a smile and a story with a visitor from another land.

Like the photos in this article?  Check out all my photos from Granada in this Granada Photo Essay!

Thanks for reading! Please check out the Granada episode of my Radical Travel Podcast, largely based in this article.

A woman, selling vegetables in the market. She asked me to take a photo of her and then wanted to see herself in the camera’s screen.

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