Central America #11: Granada, Nicaragua

The bus from Managua to Granada was a small one, and had about 16 seats and enough space for the same number standing. Yet somehow they managed to pack in at least double that, and it was quite comical seeing the charger trying to coordinate people into two lines down the aisle, putting people on the bus from the front and back, with some hanging off the open doors. Luckily I’d got on early and had a seat, but with my bag on my lap I still couldn’t move and had people’s rear ends pretty much in my face for the whole journey.

The road leading out of Managua is just one lane in some parts, and as I’d set off in rush hour we took about two hours to get to Granada rather than the 45 minutes it would take at a less busy time. I arrived tired with hamstring cramps and hadn’t researched where I was going to stay, so I wandered around for a while in the dark until I came across a cheap-looking hotel at the end of the main street where the restaurants are. As one needs it now and again, I went for a private room and paid 16 USD for the privilege.

I was around halfway through my 5-week trip and had some decisions to make regarding where to go and for how long to stay. In Nicaragua I still wanted to see Leon, yet I also wanted to beat the less-beaten tracks of Honduras and El Salvador. As well as that, I still had to get to Guatemala, and had heard great things about snorkelling in Belize and scuba-diving in Honduras’ Caribbean Bay Islands. So I intended to stay in Granada for just a couple of nights. I spent the evening researching what my next moves would be and got a relatively early night.

The following day I relocated to a hostel containing the word boca where it cost 9 USD per night. I had intended to go on a hike that day up a mountain called Mombacho, but I bumped into a Spanish girl, to whom I gifted my spare padlock, and she said there was a minivan leaving for Laguna de Apoyo at 10 that morning and that I should go there. I took heed and went on the trip.

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Laguna de Apoyo

And I certainly wasn’t disappointed. We were taken to a kind of resort which I thought might be rather pricey, but in the end, entry was just 7 USD and the transport a further 4. Laguna de Apoyo is basically a lake that has formed in a volcano crater. Its waters are warm, perfectly calm, refreshing and unsalted. There’s a bunch of kayaks you can use so I indulged in this activity for the first time. Initially I shared one with La Miri, the Spanish girl, and set off to explore other beaches along with another guy called Jordi from Switzerland on a one-man boat, but coordinating was a bit awkward for two, so we abandoned that idea after a while and headed back to shore to get something to eat. I had a ceviche de pescado, basically fish fillet pieces marinated, not cooked, in lemon with tiny pieces of onion, tomato and cilantro. It was rather nice.

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Ceviche de pescado

After that I took off on my own in a smaller kayak and honed my rowing technique for about half an hour, and realised that if I went to the other side of the lake, I’d spend my whole afternoon doing so. As health and safety rules are pretty lax in Central America, there was no lifeguard, and just a perfunctory notice stating that you should put one of the raggedy life jackets on if you went out on the lake. I did, though many others didn’t. After arriving back safely I joined La Miri and Jordi on a floating piece of wood a few dozen metres out from the beach and sunbathed for a while, and we had an interesting conversation about life and the whole carpe diem mantra which we all attempted to adhere to. I bumped into a few people I’d met in San Juan del Sur, something which happens more than you’d believe when travelling.

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Kayaking

The resort also has rubber rings, table tennis, free Wifi, hammocks, a TV and free coffee all included, so going there is definitely worth your while.

Back in Granada I went for a walk with a Mexican girl staying at the hostel, who thought I was Spanish, and La Miri, the Spaniard who had believed I was Mexican. Granada is a colonial town which gets the thumbs up from many visiting tourists due to its colourful and authentic architecture. It is indeed pretty and the fact that some of the dilapidated buildings aren’t renovated, along with residents seemingly having freedom to paint their house whatever colour they choose, the place certainly has something of an allure to it. Though at night a few shady characters operate and there had been reports of bag-snatchings and muggings at knifepoint, so it was best to keep on one’s toes.

If I recall properly, we went up the tower of a cathedral from where you could see Lake Nicaragua, supposedly home to the only freshwater sharks in the world due to them getting lost when coming in from the Caribbean, and apparently scene of an appearance by the Virgin Mary in  a coffin some centuries ago. Hence the processions that occur for a whole week in early December being very much centred around the Lady in Blue.

In the central square, I had a quesillo, a kind of cheese tortilla, and taught the girls the art of sucking the leftover cheese out of a bag, and followed that with a raspado, basically grated ice with a concoction of fruit and sauces thrown upon it. For these two products I paid barely anything, but then got silly and bought some nuts off a kid for a way over-inflated price, not for the first time in Nicaragua. But what the hell? You win some, you lose some.

On our wander, we also got chatting to a local man who’d spent 45 years living in San Francisco and had returned recently to his country of birth, extremely wadded given the size of his house and amount of tacky Christmas decoration he’d purchased from Uncle Sam. He spoke somewhat cynically of the locals, calling them loutish and uneducated, and said that they didn’t like his family because they had money. I’d however say he didn’t fit in because he thought himself better than his neighbours.

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A hungry horse

The next incident of the night involved La Miri being nipped by a horse attached to a chariot as we crossed the road, and it wasn’t the last time we were to be bitten by the locals. About five of us from the hostel went out for a beer in what one guy termed Gringo Street, the main one where the restaurants and bars are. We saw a group of young street acrobats perform a very impressive routine, for which the tourists readily put money in their hats. Better doing that than taking it from pockets like some fellow not very conspicuously tried to do to La Miri’s bag as he ‘casually’ passed our table. Then came a pair of gentleman probably in their fifties, well-dressed and armed with guitars. They asked us if we wanted a song, to which we said no, but kept pestering, so I rashly told them to sing El Chofer, a Mexican ranchero song. They played it pretty well and obviously hung around for payment. I gave a couple of dollars, hoping it would suffice, but they got rather angry and demanded we give them more, and even wanted to charge 10 USD for the minute of entertainment they’d given us. A few of the others stumped up some coins, but it all got very awkward as they continued to ask for more and wouldn’t move on. Under normal circumstances I never ask for songs or engage with vendors or entertainers because the above-described situations are bound to happen, and I’d learn to be doubly careful in the future. Anyway, karma got me as the bartender didn’t bring the change from the bill, and we decided not to pursue it for the sake of a dollar or so and headed back to the hostel.

The next day La Miri and I headed out to Mombacho, which contrary to what tour companies will tell you, is very reachable by local transport. We did indeed have to walk about 20 minutes to the market to where the bus to Rivas set off from and told the charger where we wanted to get off, paying less than a quarter of a dollar for the trip. I’m always one for walking, so hoped that La Miri would be able to handle the apparent 2-hour trek up the steep mountain. It costs 5 USD to enter the main trail and there is an additional cost for transport taking you up there, which most people use.

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The steepness of the walk

However, we didn’t, and were the only ones to walk the whole way up, perhaps with good reason. To say it was steep is a real understatement, and the winding almost-vertical road up to the top seemed like it would never end. Fortunately, I had some music in my armoury to help motivate us and we adapted the lyrics to Enrique Iglesias’ Bailando as we were doing lots of subiendo y subiendo and not ­bajando.

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A kind of cave up Mombacho

Up at the top there’s a trail to go on with several viewpoints looking over Lake Nicaragua, and the landscapes on offer are particularly impressive, so La Miri didn’t hit me as she’d threatened to do so in the case of it not being worth the climb. We also came across a couple of caves, steam holes from which volcanic vapour was emanating and observed a bunch of spider monkeys who were in no way spooked by our presence.

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View from atop Mombacho

The walk back down wasn’t as tough as going up, obviously, and we made it to the main road just before sundown. A few tuc-tuc drivers tried telling us that there were no more buses, that they weren’t going to come for hours, that they didn’t stop close by and things of that ilk, but being aware of their propensity to lie about public transport, we waited for the bus which duly came within 10 minutes.

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A tuc-tuc

Later that evening La Miri and I went out with Jordi, who’d spent the previous night at the resort overlooking the lake, and went to an enclosed square with a few restaurants away from Gringo Central. A waiter gave us a ‘special discount’ so we’d eat at his place and he was very nice to us, which countered our eating experience from the previous night. I had a tasty chicken and rice dish for about 4 or 5 USD, and we tipped him generously for his good-naturedness.

As I was running out of days, the next morning I decided to head to Leon, though it would entail a 6am start and a combination of local buses. I persuaded La Miri along for the ride.

Granada had been interesting, though I wasn’t such a huge fan of the city itself. Charming and different it is on the surface, but the nocturnal unease on the streets wasn’t too smart, and due to the large amount of tourists there, many locals look to squeeze as much money as they can out of them for everything they sell. However, the views provided from atop Mombacho were splendid, as was the trip out to Laguna de Apoyo. From Granada, one can also head out to Masaya, a town with a strong folkloric culture, several festivals and another volcano hike which includes bathing in the crater.

Nicaragua was continuing to show off its natural beauty, and in Leon I’d meet an ex-guerilla and skateboard down a volcano.

Interesting times.

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