48 Hours in… Granada, Nicaragua
Top tips from travel blogger James Tennet
Granada is one of Central America's undisputed gems: an achingly charming colonial city brimming with culture and beautiful architecture, sitting pretty on the picturesque shores of Lake Nicaragua. You could easily spend more than two days here but if that's all you've got you'll want to make sure you make the most out of it, so here are my tips for a busy but very rewarding weekend in the city.
A breakfast buffet in a chocolate factory might not sound like the sort of thing your doctor would recommend, but you're on holiday so normal rules don't apply. Head to the Choco Museo cafe (located inside the Hotel Spa Granada) for a calorific start to your day: take a tour around the museum after the buffet, learning about the chocolate-making process and chomping tasty samples along the way.
With a belly full of treats it's probably a good idea to sit and digest for a little while, and there's nowhere better to do so than the grand Parque Central, just one block away. Once you've admired the fine colonial architecture and domineering cathedral, find a bench in the shade and settle down for a little people-watching. Pretty much everything can be reached on foot in Granada, but if you fancy something a little special in terms of transportation, take a short city tour in one of the many horse-drawn carriages waiting around the central square.
Ecclesiastical enthusiasts will find much to keep them occupied here. Granada boasts five further churches after the main cathedral in Parque Central. Convento San Francisco and Iglesia La Merced are the pick of the bunch. The former is on the north edge of the central square and the oldest church in Central America – worth a visit for that accolade alone, but don't leave until you've checked out the ancient Zapatera statues inside the attached museum (English-speaking guides are available on request). La Merced doesn't exude quite the same level of grandeur, but the attraction here is the bell tower, from where you can gaze across the entire colourful Granada roofscape. Sunsets are also particularly spectacular from this vantage point, if you have time to return later in the day.
If you're ready for more grub after the morning's chocolate-gorging, La Merienda (on Calle La Calzada, three blocks east of the main square) is a good choice and certainly a little kinder to your health, with a wide variety of cheap vegetarian dishes available.
A visit to Nicaragua isn't really complete until you've seen another famous export in the making. Esteli, a town in the northern highlands, is one of the most important cigar-manufacturing towns in the world. However, if you don't have the time to head that far afield, an afternoon spent at Doña Elbas cigar factory in Granada is a fine alternative. After watching the process from start to finish, you can purchase the premium product to enjoy at your leisure.
Finish the day back at Parque Central with a plate of regional fare. The local speciality, vigorón – an intriguing mix of cabbage, tomato, onion and pork served with mashed yucca (similar to potato) – is sold at the numerous kiosks on the square. Wash it down with a sugary Jamaica (hibiscus) tea, best taken as the locals do: via straw from a plastic bag.
Start your second day with another breakfast buffet. There may be no free chocolate at Cafe DecArte (Calle Calzada) but you do have the option to join in one of the entertaining mosaic classes run by the owners after your meal.
In addition to everything the centre has to offer, there are a huge variety of attractions outside of Granada, so why not venture further afield on your second day in town. Looming over a nearby nature reserve, Volcán Mombacho (1,345m) makes for an exciting expedition. There are numerous 'eco-mobile' departures that tackle the rocky road to the summit, from where various hiking trails begin and fan out around the two craters. Guides are available (and required for some of the longer routes), and phenomenal views come with the territory: the panorama as you look down over Granada and the sweeping shore of Lake Nicaragua is magnificent. Alternatively, if the thought of swinging through the treetops on the side of a volcano appeals, take an exhilarating 'Canopy Tour' with local operator Mombotour.
Finish the afternoon with a more leisurely activity: a boat tour through Las Isletas. Created by a giant Mombacho eruption around 20,000 years ago, this extensive network of tiny islands just off the shore of Lake Nicaragua is best explored by boat from Puerto Asese – a 10-minute taxi ride from the centre of Granada.
On your final evening in town, treat yourself to some fine dining at the atmospheric Imagine restaurant (Calle La Libertad). Expect to pay up to 400 córdobas for a meal – but the food is delectable, as are the extravagant cocktails, and there's always excellent live music in the evenings. The perfect setting for the culmination of your 48 hours in this wonderful city...
Safety: Nicaragua is generally considered to be the safest country in Central America, but as in any city it's always worth taking common sense precautions: beware of your belongings at all times (especially in outdoor eating areas); don't wander alone at night; don't give to begging children.
Power cuts: Can occur frequently but are usually resolved swiftly. Just be prepared.
Purified water: Tap water is considered unsafe for consumption, stick to bottles.
James Tennet is on a trip with no fixed end date which began in Mexico and has seen him traverse the isthmus of Central America on his way towards South America, where he is now travelling in Bolivia. You can track James's progress at www.tennetstravels.com