Calle la Calzada was buzzing on our first night in Granada. Restaurant patios spilled into one another, packed with diners. Pedestrians strolled, gathered here and there to watch parading mariachi bands and street performers. The bells of the nearby cathedral rang out.
Our guide Adriana led us to Nectar restaurant, where we were seated in the lush interior courtyard, an architectural feature I would soon learn is common for colonial houses in Granada.
I had just ordered my fish tacos and macua rum cocktail when I heard loud drumming coming from out front. Some of us went to see what the commotion was and found ourselves facing a giant masked figure on stilts. It was accompanied by a drummer and another masked figure, this one short and plump with a huge head.
I later learned the story behind “La Gigantona”, which was created by mestizo Nicaraguans to represent women of Spanish descent, or colonizers. The not-so-subtle implication was that these women had a superiority complex. At festivals, sometimes the figure bends down towards children to thrill / scare them. Adriana said she was terrified of them when she was young!
The smaller figure, “El Enano Cabezo” (the big-headed dwarf) may represent an indigenous Nicaraguan whose head became swelled after getting married “above his class” to a Spanish woman. Another version of the story says his head is big simply because he's so intelligent. Either way it’s a fun tradition to witness, even if it's really a money grab these days. There was a “handler” / money collector circulating with the masqueraders, so I handed over a few coins as appreciation for the entertainment.
Granada grand tour
For our first full day in Nicaragua the four of us signed up for a tour of Granada and its surroundings. The day was organized by operator No Rush Tours.
Our guide Ramon and driver Michael started by showing us the main monuments and beautiful colonial buildings in the city centre. These included the Heroes Monument (a tribute to independence fighters), Parque Central, and of course the golden Cathedral of Granada and its plaza. Along the way, Ramon regaled us with detailed historical facts and dates, far too many for me to recall (I should have recorded him.)
Heading out of the city centre, we drove along the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua. Families were gathered with lawn chairs around public grills for their weekend cookouts. I noticed a few circles of people standing in the water and realized these must be baptisms. It was Sunday, after all.
Cruising the Isletas
Soon we were boarding a motorboat for a tour of Granada's Isletas, a cluster of tiny islands just offshore. Green branches drooped low over the water as we navigated the channels between islets.
The mid morning sun was bright overhead as Ramon queued up his playlist over the boat’s impressive sound system. We were tickled when he started off with some classic 70’s disco in the form of “Ladies’ Night” by Kool and the Gang. He was setting a festive mood!
Some of the islands were in a fairly natural state, while others were inhabited or developed. Some featured large private homes and a few were dominated by waterfront restaurants.
On one island with a few modest homes, a lone pig snorted at us as we pulled up to the dock. Ramon called out and three young boys came running. One was holding a large petrified shark jaw -- evidence of the freshwater sharks said to inhabit the lake. We learned that No Rush Tours supports the children of the island by allocating a portion of their proceeds for their school supplies -- another reason to be happy with our choice of guides.
Monkey Island is home to a group of spider monkeys placed there by a veterinarian after their owners abandoned them. The vet returns to check on them regularly and supply them with extra bananas and other food.
We circled the island and pulled up close to shore to see if they would show themselves. They did let us have a quick peek at them, but mostly kept their distance as they lazed in the branches. They must have known we were bereft of bananas!
On the way back to the dock, we could see Mombacho volcano smoking offshore.
Since hammocks are such a fixture in Nicaragua, it was only natural that we would visit a hammock shop. But it was much more than that. The Tio Antonio social project supports hearing impaired Nicaraguans by giving them employment either making and/or selling hammocks, or working in the adjoining coffee shop.
Most of the hammocks are made from brightly died cotton. Others are made from plastic bags collected in countryside garbage cleanup efforts, a much-needed service to the community. They're also on a mission to set the record for the world's largest hammock, which we were able to try out.
And speaking of community service, they had one more welcome sight: a public restroom supplied with oodles of spools of toilet paper (often lacking in public facilities). Plus some darn cute signage.
Local food and drink
Back in the van, Ramon declared it happy hour, since it was noon-ish. He brandished a plastic jug of what he declared was the best macua in the city -- his homemade concoction. I'd normally be wary in such a situation, but maybe the disco music on the boat had loosened me up. We agreed to try some. Out came the plastic glasses and cooler of ice, and soon we were enjoying a mid-day libation as he climbed back into the front and cranked up the tunes. It was a delicious and refreshing bonus treat.
For lunch we stopped at Masaya market to try a regional dish from one of the food stands there. Baho is mixture of beef, plantain and yucca cooked in a banana leaf, then topped with tomatoes and fresh thinly shredded cabbage. It was filling and tasty, especially with an ice-cold Coke in a glass bottle – ahhh.
Forgetting Michael’s name, I attempted to ask him in my horribly rusty, never-that-good-in-the-first-place Spanish. He and Ramon burst out laughing and informed me that I’d just declared my love! I’m blaming it on the macuas.
Ghosts of the revolution
Our visit to El Coyotepe was the most sobering part of the day. Originally built as a fortress in 1893, the dungeons were later used as a prison by alternating factions of the Nicaraguan government, including the Sandanistas. Hundreds of political prisoners were crowded into rooms, some with no light at all. Ramon explained some of the gruesome tortures that took place there. One of the more dramatic forms of punishment took place offsite – prisoners who refused to talk were sometimes taken to the top of Masaya crater and thrown into the volcano to die.
No wonder the place is believed haunted. Ghost Hunters International even filmed an episode there, if that means anything. It seemed to be a favourite spot of Ramon's -- he was animated in his storytelling, and wary at the same time. He showed us how the hair on his arms was standing on end, which gave me a chill too.
As we walked through the darker tunnels, Ramon assigned flashlight duty to me so that he could record video in hopes of capturing a ghostly image. Thankfully any resident spirits left us alone. Maybe they only come out at night, for those who believe. Still, it was a relief to climb back out into daylight and up to the top of the watchtower for panoramic #views.
A celebratory finish
After some relaxation time at Laguna d’Apoyo (which you can read about in my Nicaragua volcano post), it was time to head back to our hotel. Ramon poured more macua and pulled out one final stop – strobe lights pulsing across the interior of the van! He turned up the #music again, and this time it was salsa. Both he and Michael were dancing in their seats, as were we.
We drew more than a few curious looks from pedestrians as we drove by. Ramon (or Rum-on, as we took to calling him) obviously takes the entertainment aspect of his tours very seriously. It certainly put us in the right mood to tip generously – brilliant really, now that I think about it.
With a free afternoon in Grenada at the end of our trip, Leanne and I signed up for a colonial homes tour. The guide, an ex-pat American woman, took us through three different homes to see the expansive spaces and inner courtyards hidden behind the large wooden doors.
Some of the homes originally took up entire blocks, or significant portions thereof. The houses we saw were all full of modern furnishings and updated plumbing, all the better to serve as vacation rentals. The structures were intact though, retaining the original adobe walls, decorative columns, tile floors and cane ceilings.
It turned out that our guide’s husband manages the rental property company, so the tours obviously serve a promotional purpose. The company donates 100% of tour proceeds to local children’s educational charities, so the enterprise does give back to the community. I could certainly see myself renting out one of those luxurious colonial pads on a future vacation.
Hasta luego Granada
After a bit more time admiring (and posing against) the bright facades of the city centre, we met up with our group for a final dinner. Adriana took us to the Garden Café, a well-known tourist and expat destination, with good reason. Another beautiful courtyard and well-prepared food, if a little on the pricey side for Nicaragua.
I ordered Indio Nuevo, which the menu billed as a modern twist on Indio Viejo -- a traditional Nicaraguan dish. However, the traditional dish is a beef stew, and I was presented chicken skewers with rice, tortillas and salad. That's quite a major twist. A menu gimmick, but tasty all the same. Especially accompanied by my final macua.
Oh, and a chaser of hibiscus juice, which was my favourite beverage of the entire trip. I brought back a bag of dried hibiscus flowers so I can attempt to recreate the sweet nectar at home.
Gracias por un dulce visitar, Granada.