People sometimes call Nicaragua 'The Earth of Volcanoes' because more than 63 active and inactive volcanoes dot its landscape. In contrast, a local expression translates to "Granada is Nicaragua; the rest is just mountains."
Fortunately the first day of our four-day bus trip was the only crack of dark morning made necessary by an anticipated long border crossing. We stopped for breakfast en route from San Jose, Costa Rica. At the border, our guide took our passports, ID cards from Costa Rica residents, and money for taxes. Then we stood in line in the hot sun and heat to reach immigration located in a dingy air-conditioned room needing painting. As customary, the guide tipped a man who handed us the forms required to cross the border so we wouldn't have to go into a building to collect them. I would have paid him a bonus to jump to the front of the line.
Afterwards, we drove to the historical Alhambra Hotel that faces the main square in Granada, the oldest colonial city in the largest country in Central America (about the size of Louisiana) bordered by Costa Rica, Honduras, the Pacific Ocean, and Caribbean Sea. Granada was conquered immediately following the Bay of the Virgin massacre that lead to the installation of the infamous General William Walker as president of Nicaragua, an event still recounted.
During the national war, Walker ordered a general to demolish the two towers of the Cathedral in Parque Central. A fire destroyed the rest of the building and thousands of historic documents. An Italian architect used stone blocks found in Posintepe, located on the lower part of the Mombacho volcano, to build the current Cathedral. Even though Walker was booted out after establishing slavery, with fatuous tenacity, he kept trying to invade and set precedence for continued US interference in Nicaragua's affairs.
My single room on the third floor of the hotel was very hot, as were all the other rooms, including a suite one couple had. The city had turned off the electricity for several hours in the afternoon to conserve energy, a daily occurrence during the previous two weeks! After settling in once power was restored, we climbed into horse-drawn carriages reminiscent of those in Central Park in New York City, an itinerary must for all visitors. Even though the streets were dark, the full moon glowed over the lake near the old Spanish ammunition fortress.
Prior to the jaunt, I joined three women for a drink on the terrace and met the manager of the hotel, Juan B. Pasos, whose family has owned it for generations. We would meet later so he could tell me about Granada and show me his home across the street hidden behind a nondescript façade. Flush to the street, the exterior wall disclosed no clue to the interior that reminded me of palaces in Europe belonging to minor royalty that are filled with shabby-chic antiques.
In the house, three autos stood as if on display, one behind the other at the far side of a room, sort of an open garage. The public rooms lined with historical family photos surrounded a cloister type open atrium filled with plants. I asked if rain water came onto the tile inside the rooms, recalling how my patio gets wet during heavy storms. "Yes, but the maid cleans it up," he shrugged like a man who grew up with wealth and domestics.
Straight back from the entrance I glimpsed a kitchen where a large man in a robe that clung to him was pouring juice. Don Juan introduced me but I was paying more attention to the man's embarrassment about having a strange woman in the house before most family members were stirring. In a rear garden housekeepers already were hanging laundry. A small dark study to the right of the entrance was filled with photos, some loosely scattered, art, and artifacts. Anyone who has lived in a home for umpteen years knows how collections accumulate. The phone rang so I had time to peruse the darkened displays.
Don Juan, who admitted he enjoys his role as manager, was excited that the New York Times had just run an article about Granada with a photo of his stately father. While I yearned to take photos inside his home, I didn't feel it appropriate to ask since the one of his father failed to divulge a sense of their sanctuary. Glimpsing this bit of local life and hierarchy, one realizes that just like the elite in the American old south, the Granada 400 are preoccupied with family bloodlines and history.
The second day we had breakfast in a private room at the Alhambra, a venerable colonial classic filled with antiques and art treasures definitely worth perusing that could be equated with a Gran dame grown a bit elderly but still elegant. I was the last to arrive, feeling I didn't need an hour to eat. Everyone else was finishing, having gone down early. Because someone had asked for an extra plate, I didn't get my meal until our guide assured the waiter he would get paid. Accommodating our 21-person group was apparently overwhelming, because mine was the only hot meal.
That morning several launches took us through the Isletas on Lake Nicaragua, the largest in America and the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world. It gave us a chance to tour a fort in ruins on one island, observe women washing clothes near the shore of another, and view some really fine homes perched on islands that obviously were owned by wealthy Nicaraguans.
Afterward, while some of the group swam in the pool, I visited Mi Museo located on Calle Atravesada in Granada, across from the BanCentro. It houses 5,500 Columbian artifacts dating from 500 B.C. to 1550 A.D., mostly discovered in the surrounding area. In a section of the Tico Times called the Nica Times, an English newspaper published in Costa Rica, I learned about this free private museum, normally open six days a week (552-76149).
According to the article, Danish born Granada resident, Peder Kolind, started his collection by offering to pay good money for artifacts and ceramics people had in their homes. As a result of amassing so many items, he was incarcerated under suspicion of planning to export them illegally, which he had no intention of doing. He stayed in jail for three days until 2,000 children came to his defense. Kolind runs Carita Feliz, a charity that provides education and 2200 daily meals to underprivileged children.
In the afternoon, we visited the Masaya Market hidden behind a façade that looks like a fortress. Booths offering Nicaraguan creations surrounded a colourful fountain without water in a central courtyard. Since I hadn't had time for lunch I braved a meal in a tiny food bar that reminded me of a soda (hole-in-wall restaurant) in Costa Rica. When you are hungry... the beer was fine.
Ever on the lookout for special things to do during trips, I learned about a free concert when I wandered alone in Granada snapping photos of picturesque streets and the impressive San Francisco Covent Cathedral with its bell tower. Ducking into the gift shop at Casa de los Tres Mundos in Plaza Leones, adjacent to Parque Central, I learned about a Concerto de Guitarra Clásica, with an Orquesta de Guitarras de Nicaragua, that would be held in the evening.
By the time the enjoyable performance by a quartet and small orchestra of young musicians supported by family family and friends was over, the rain had stopped. It was possible to walk leisurely across the large square where artisans sold wares during the day to an upmarket French restaurant, La Gran Francia, located in another hotel. A fiesta character on stilts came by and performed outside the door. Afterwards it was a short stroll to our hotel across the plaza in front of the Cathedral where a religious group would hold an event the next day.
On day three, we had breakfast at the nearby Hotel Colonial, built in 2000 in the colonial style that is flawlessly maintained in Granada and also in the other colonial town of Leon, which we didn't visit. A few people decided to go on their own to the large island Isla de Ometepe on Lake Granada. Most of us wanted to see Managua located on the southern shore of Lake Managua that serves as the capital. It is the country's largest city with a population of over one million inhabitants, the center of transportation, commerce, finance and manufacturing.
When we drove past a plastic tent city in an area of damaged buildings, we assumed it was home to poor people. The manager of our hotel later told me it was set up by immigrants who come to protest and usually stay about two weeks. He said that buildings sheltering squatters were never demolished since earthquakes had damaged their homes. Some original buildings that survived the quakes currently house the National Palace, the Fine Arts Palace and the Government House.
At an area near a large church and government buildings, where a temporary fair offered entertainment, some kids wove neat bamboo flowers and foisted them on us hoping for money. We also visited La Nueva Catedral de Managua where people solicited money for the unique church featuring a massive tower and bubbles reminiscent of mid-eastern mosques on the roof.
We drove past brightly painted walls executed by artists to a modern mall for lunch that included a food court and several other restaurants. A couple of friends and I shoveled our food in order to get back to the bus at the prescribed time and then had to wait because service was slow everywhere. From the grounds of Mirador Caterina, we saw the Laguna de Apoyo, an impressive lake formed in a crater after a volcano erupted. A row of stalls teeming with items tempted passers-by on the way to the view. In the evening we ate at a restaurant in Granada where members of our group had enjoyed lunch the day before. Once again, for a large group, the service wasn't great — or the food.
Early in the morning of the final day, before breakfast, at the Colonial again, I walked to a local market with three women who also had visited Don Juan's home because they shared a mutual friend. They bought sweets, homemade tortillas and more, and I looked at the smorgasbord of neatly stacked fruits and vegetables, raw meats and chickens hanging on hooks, fish on ice, items locals might use at home, and a great display of colorful piñatas.
On our return trip, we entered the other side of immigration at the border. Unlike the long wait going into Nicaragua, it took no time at all to go out. Back in Costa Rica we stopped at a triple fast food restaurant for lunch before returning to San Jose.
Inexpensive trips like this are possible with Costa Rican guides, in this instance the niece of a friend. Reasonable prices for informative and fun Nicaraguan tours originating from different locales may easily be found on the Internet.