Lack of tourism has helped keep both Nicaragua’s natural environment and its heritage intact. Nowhere is this more evident than in Granada, an elegant and colonial city on the western shores of Lake Cocibolca (also called Lake Nicaragua), the largest freshwater lake in Central American.
Today the heart of the city is still the lively tree-lined Parque Central (also known as Parque Colon), dominated by the magnificent yellow Cathedral of Granada. Enjoy the view from the Polished-wood balconies of Hotel Plaza Colon, an exquisitely restored 27-room colonial mansion overlooking the park. Three blocks away is Cathedral America’s oldest church, the massive, sky-blue San Francisco with its attached convent (now a museum); it’s home to a display of towering black basalt statues, carved about 1,000 years ago and discovered in the 1880s on the ancient ceremonial island of Zapatera. Stroll to nearby El Zaguan for some of the best dining in town. The courtyard restaurant serves succulent fire-grilled meats, fresh rainbow bass from the lake, and sea bass from the Pacific.
Just offshore from Granada are some 365 diminutive islands called Las Islets, formed 20,000 years ago by an eruption of the now dormant Volcan Mombacho. Many of the islands are privately owned, including the one where you’ll find the luxurious Jicaro Island Ecolodge, with nine sleek, two-story casitas that look across the water to the volcano.
So wide is Lake Nicaragua that it takes 4 hours by boat to reach Ometepe, the exquisitely beautiful, twin-peaked island formed by two volcanoes. Ometepe is a mosaic of small farms producing plantains, corn, avocados, and coffee, and home to two lazy commercial centres, Moyogalpa and Altagracia. In addition to climbing the volcanoes, visiting secluded beaches, and hiking trails that wind among trees ruled by monkeys, you can view more than 70 ancient petroglyph sites and numerous stone idols scattered across the island.
A perfect day trip from Granada is to Masaya, long a center of art and culture and well known for its market; this is the place to find handmade hammocks, intricate pottery, wood carvings, and leather goods. Not much farther is Masaya Volcano National Park, where a road and trails lead directly to the most accessible live volcano in Nicaragua and, some say, the world. This low, gaping gas-belching volcano and its fiery eruptions inspired the Spanish to call it the Gates of Hell.
Nicaragua’s main seaside resort, San Juan del Sur, is just an hour’s drive south of Granada, a perfect spot for those seeking idyllic beaches or great surfing, sailing, deep-sea fishing, and scuba diving in the Pacific. Fifteen bungalows at Morgan’s Rock Hacienda & Ecolodge enjoy magnificent views of the ocean, particularly at sunset. Guides can help you explore the 5,000-acre jungle-meets-beach property, home to howler, spider, and capuchin monkeys, as well as sloths, country less birds, and sea turtles.
WHERE: 27 miles/45 km southeast of Managua.
BEST TIME: Dec – May for good weather; Easter week for celebrations.