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Granada

Granada is a wonderfully colourful old colonial city positioned on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, a popular destination on the tourist route and the second stop on our Nicaraguan adventure.

Granada Cathedral

About Granada

The city of Granada in the province of Granada,  was founded in 1524 under Spanish rule.  It is located at the northern end of Lake Nicaragua and is a central point between two active volcanos, Masaya and Mombacho.

Granada’s location for settlement was a strategic choice, with access to fresh water, waterways for trade, and fertile volcanic soil for agriculture. The well positioned, busy trading port became a target for pirates and plunder. Making for a rich history.

The city is quite large, with a population of over 100,000 but, as the city is sprawled over a large geographic area, it doesn’t feel at all crowded. Granada’s city centre is buzzing with life, and is a display of well maintained, spectacularly colourful, colonial architecture.

Granada tends to compete with Leon as the most popular city for tourists to visit in Nicaragua. I feel it’s truly personality and interests that affect which one you prefer. As someone with a preference for quaint and charm, Granada was certainly my preferred city.

Our stay at Granada

During our days in Granada we did a combination of tours and self-exploration.

Get lost in the streets

My first and foremost recommendation for Granada is to get lost. Wander the streets at random, say hi to all the friendly locals, appreciate the brightly coloured buildings, the fascinating and intricate door designs and taste some of the treats for sale by street vendors (I generally stick to the fresh fruit options).The colourful streets of Granada

Cathedrals and Churches

All the churches have different architecture and colouring, and they are fascinating to visit. They each cost $1 to enter.

The main cathedral has a wonderful ceiling painting and the view over the plaza from the tower is gorgeous! Iglesia La Merced also has a spectacular view, some people prefer it to the cathedrals view, but I thought they were both equally interesting.

Mercado Municipal

The Mercado Municipal is the local market, you can buy anything and everything here: fruit, vegetables, fresh meat and fish, socks, underwear, shoes, brooms, bed linen, plastic buckets…the list goes on. It’s a really interesting place to explore, but be prepared for crowded, dark spaces.

There are some food stalls where you can buy a cheap, fresh,  local meal. I was nervous ordering food when I did not know what I would get, but my local lunch was absolutely delicious! It was a server of grilled beef, served with a gallo pinto (rice and beans) and a salad for only a dollar or two.

Doña Elba Cigar Factor

North of the city centre, near Xalteva church is a tiny Cigar factory called Doña Elba. Their daily production is 300-350 cigars all hand rolled and pressed.

You can get a free (donation based) tour of this tiny factory and if you want you can learn to roll your own cigar for $7.

The staff at the cigar factory were lovely and despite not being smokers, nor having a particular interest in cigars, it was a very pleasant experience.

Las Isletas Tour

Mombacho Volcano and Last Isletas in Lake NicaraguaThousands of years ago Mombacho Volcano erupted and threw rock and ash into Lake Nicaragua forming an archipelago of 365 islands. Most of the islands are vegetation and wildlife rich dur to the rich, fertile volcanic ground.

Many of the islands are inhabited or for sale, they are largely foreign owned due to the very high price tags. Two of the islands have monkeys, but they did not come to be there naturally and are simply to appease the tourists. Sadly they get fed Oreos and other things to bring them close to the tourist boats.

It was quite interesting to zip in and around the islands, to see the huge houses, and the variety of birdlife and vegetation, but it was disappointing to see the monkey so far from their natural habitat.

The Las Isletas tour cost $18 per person for a 3 hour tour. They run from  9-12 and again 2-5pm.

Masaya Volcano

From Granada an evening tour to Masaya Volcano is quite common, you can also self tour but we booked a tour. Masaya Volcano is the smallest but most active of the active volcanoes in Nicaragua. It is 635 metres above sea level, and the lava level is currently up to 270 metres above sea level.

We had hoped to hike the lava tubes, but as they are at 250 metres above sea level, they were under the current lava level.

For the majority, the tour is spent in a van travelling, and we had a brief visit at a museum on the way up. The main event however, is a visit to the volcano crater after the sun has set. Vehicles are sent up in batches, after arriving at the car park you are given 15minutes to look around and take your photos and you must then get back in the van and leave. As the volcano is so active, the sulfur fumes are dangerous and also it’s ridiculously popular, the visit is very short.

Despite being a short visit I considered it worth the time and money. I thought it was truly a great experience to look down into an active volcano, and see the glowing red, fast-flowing river of lava below!

The Masaya Tour cost $20 per person and was around 3 hours in duration. It was operated by TransTours, but we booked through El Caite Hostel.

Glowing lava in the Masaya Volcano

What I would do if I went back…

If I went back to the Granada region in Nicaragua I would take some extra time to do some hiking and ziplining at Mombacho Volcano; explore Chocoyero Nature Reserve to see El Brujo; and visit the craft markets at Masaya.

Food

Vigoron stall in Granada's central park

Two fantastic restaurants I can recommend in Granada, are more American cuisine and prices than Nicaraguan, but the food was absolutely delicious.

For great steak, my recommendation is El Zaguan. I enjoyed the surf and turf – steak with a full grilled lobster tail on top and it was absolutely amazing.
For fresh healthy, salads and wraps, as well as modern versions of local dishes, great coffee and smoothies, then The Garden Cafe is worth a visit. They also have a great little store and an amazing selection of books to read.

A local dish recommended to us was Vigaron, this can be purchased in the central park at the cafe/stall with the colourful umbrellas. Vigoron is a traditional dish served of Yucca, chicharron (pork crackling), pickled tomato, cabbage and something else green.

Accommodation

Through relatively random travel choices, we stayed at three different places in Granada. Two of which I would happily recommend, and the third I would strongly advise against.

El Caite is a hostel two blocks back from Parque Central. It was a fairly busy hostel but with a great location and good facilities. There was a really friendly vibe amongst guests. The only downside was that the staff didn’t speak much english and this leads to some issues with booking tours,.

At the end of our trip we had another two nights in Granada before flying out. We thought we would splash out on a private room, so we booked Hotel Casa Generalife but were most disappointed to find that our superior room with a garden view was simply a painted concrete room with no view, and the ensuite was only separated from the bedroom with a flimsy curtain. We promptly booked our second night at another hotel.

The night we spent at Hotel Glifoos was not in any way disappointing. The welcome was warm and helpful the hotel itself felt more homely, clean and modern. The facilities were better and it was a fantastic location. Only a block and a half from Parque Central but with no street noise.

Getting there and away

Granada – Laguna de Apoyo

Our first trip to Granada was from Laguna de Apoyo; we took a local shuttle from Paradiso hostel directly to Mercado Municipal in the centre of Granada for US$3 per person.

Granada - Rivas Chicken BusGranada – Rivas

If you wish to head south from Granada, to either Isla Ometepe or San Juan del Sur, you will need to go via Rivas. The local chicken bus departs from a stop three blocks south of Mercado Municipal and costs 50 Cordoba per person.
Note: the chicken buses always have their route name on the front of the bus so they are easy to identify.

Granada – Managua Airport

We travelled from Managua Airport by taxi to Mercado Roberto Huembes Bus station for 100 Cordoba per person.
From the bus station we took a chicken bus to central Granada for 21 cordoba per person.

Returning to Managua Airport for a 7am flight, we took a private shuttle for US$35 organised through the hotel. We were actually driven by the Hotel Glifoos Hotel Manager, David, who was a truly wonderful man.

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Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo is a lake inside the caldera of an extinct volcano. It is in the provinces of Granada and Masaya with the province border crossing through the lake.

About Laguna de Apoyo

Laguna de Apoyo
It’s a fresh water lake with a volume of approximately 2.58 cubic kilometres, and surface area of just under 21 square kilometres. It is 6.6 kilometres in diameter and 175 metres deep.

Laguna de Apoyo was declared a nature reserve in 1991, and is a popular place for people to visit for both day trip and a few days away. Many people with limited time visit as a day trip from Granada, but those with more time tend to stay a night or two.

Our stay at Laguna de Apoyo

Arriving in Managua at 10pm, we had organised an airport pickup to take us straight to our accommodation at Laguna de Apoyo, and we started out vacation with two days on the side of the lake.

Sunrise at Laguna de ApoyoThis was a brilliant way to switch from work mode to holiday mode. We arrived at night time, tired from travel, and we woke up to blissful calm. We watched the sunrise; easing into the day listening to the birds chattering, the howler monkeys howling in the distance and the wind lightly rustling through the leaves of the trees.

No matter where you stay by the lake, all accommodations provide kayaks and inner tubes for enjoying time on the lake. Some accommodations have a pontoon to which you can swim out and then enjoy the sunshine. The accommodations also typically have hammocks and beach chairs, some also have barbecues and picnic tables at your disposal.

We had a great time paddling around in the kayaks and lazing on the pontoon.

In addition to enjoying the water activities, you can walk along the waters edge to check out other accommodations, restaurants and quiet spots to soak up the scenery. I believe there are some hiking trails in the area and that the view from the crater rim is spectacular, but we didn’t get to either of these things. For those who dive, there is also lake diving.

 

Accommodation

There are several accommodation options by the lake and on the crater rim. We chose to stay on the Granada side of the lake, by the water at a place called The Monkey Hut.

The Monkey Hut is a great spot for peace and quiet, there weren’t many guests there and it was a very relaxed place to be. A dorm bed cost USD$16.10 per night, and includes coffee, tea, purified water and the use of kayaks, inner tubes, pontoon, hammocks, beach chairs. I made the booking via email and WhatsApp.

We loved the Monkey Hut for the peace and quiet, but if you are travelling solo or are a bit more social, then neighbouring Hostel Paradiso would be my recommendation.

The only downside of The Monkey Hut was the food. They did have a restaurant, but it was not on site, food was delivered plastic wrapped and the price/quality wasn’t amazing. Paradiso however was fantastic, with a huge range of options. It was a 3-5 minute walk between the two sites. At Paradiso we were able to get a day pass for free in order to make use of the restaurant (if you want to use the swimming facilities – kayaks etc. then you need to buy a day pass for USD$6)

Getting There and Away

We travelled to The Monkey Hut direct from Managua airport with a private transfer organised by Monkey Hut for USD$40 fo two people.

On their website Money Hut have directions for how to get there by car, taxi, shuttle or bus from Managua, Masaya and Granada.

Making use of the daily shuttle from Hostel Paradiso, we paid USD$3 per person for the ride to Granada. The shuttle goes between 3-5 times daily. Their website also provides some transport directions.

Laguna De Apoyo

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Looping around Nicaragua

Nicaragua has been on my “To See” bucket list for some time, so when a cheap flight popped up I had to jump on it. I then explored Nicaragua for 3 weeks with my partner.

Extended posts on each of our Nicaraguan destinations to follow.

A loop around Nicaragua

Telica Volcano, Leon, NicaraguaOur three weeks in Nicaragua took us in a clockwise loop around Nicaragua and ending with a trip out east to the Caribbean.

We flew into Managua, but being a big city and having heard negative things about it, we arranged an airport pickup to take us straight to Laguna de Apoyo.

A visit to Laguna de Apoyo was the best way to start our trip, by giving us time to slip into holiday mode relaxing by the lake. (2 nights)

From Laguna de Apoyo we headed south to the colonial city of Granada, where we explored the city and neighbouring natural sights such as Volcan Masaya and Las Isletas. (2 nights)

From there we travelled further south and a little east to Isla Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, where we completed the steepest hike in Nicaragua, up Volcan Concepcion. (3 nights)

Playa Maderas, San Juan del Sur, NIcaraguaThe next destination was our most southern stop, Playa Maderas in the San Juan del Sur region, to enjoy some time by the beach. (3 nights)

We then headed north to Leon, in order to hike Volcan Telica and surf down the slopes of Cerro Negro. (3 nights)

From there we went to the coffee region of Matagalpa in the north-east, but when we found it wasn’t what we had hoped for we returned to Leon. (2 nights)

From Leon we bussed down to Managua in order to fly to the Caribbean for some days of sun and snorkelling on Little Corn Island. (4 nights)

To finish the trip we spent the last days in Granada writing postcards, and people watching by the plaza. (2 nights)

Budget and Bookings

Including flights, accommodation, tours, food and everything else we spent under €3000 for two people for 3.5 weeks including travel time. While the national currency is Cordobas, Nicaragua makes extensive use of the US Dollar. You can pay in either currency, but you will notice that the majority of prices are listed and quoted in US Dollars. Whenever bargaining, be sure to check what currency you are discussing!

Flights

We flew with United Airlines from Amsterdam to Managua return for €330 per person when a cheap deal came up online through TicketTippers.

The flights from Managua to Big Corn Island are through the regional airline La Costeña. We booked with a travel agent in Leon at a cost of USD$195 per person return, however if you book on the phone directly with the airline the cost is around USD$165.
Note: if you book online it is around the same price as a travel agent, but fewer of the flight times are available for booking.

Transport

Chicken Bus from Granada, NicaraguaWe predominantly travelled by Chickenbus and Microvan (UCA), where prices range from USD$1 to $3 for trips up to 3 hours.

An airport transfer from Managua to Laguna de Apoyo cost USD$40 for 2 people; and a transfer from Granada to Managua Airport for 2 people was USD$35.

Taxi’s anywhere can be ridiculously expensive as the drivers try to rip off the tourists. I have been scammed out of $15 for a 5 minute ride. Try to take Taxi Colectivo where possible as they will also pick up additional passengers and it brings down the cost for everyone.
Note: there are pirate taxi’s you need to be aware of. When taking a taxi check that the number plate has horizontal striped colouring Red, White, Red. Official taxi’s have these plates, and usually also the ‘Taxi’ bubble on top of the car. I also always take a photo of the licence plate before I get in and ensure that the driver see’s me doing so.

Accommodation

We mostly stayed in hostel dorms that we booked through HostelWorld paying between USD$6 and $14 per bed.

On a few occasions we splashed out for a private room, which we booked via booking.com paying between USD$19 and USD$30.

We saved some food costs by trying to always book a hostel that included breakfast. The best free hostel breakfast was most definitely at Hospedaje Soma on Isla Ometepe; the best paid hostel breakfast was at Hostel Paradiso at Laguna de Apoyo.

We occasionally booked rooms by sending WhatsApp or Facebook messages directly to the accommodation. This was typically a great way to find availability and costs for places not listed on the common booking sites.

Food

Laguna de Apoyo, NicaraguaIt depends on how adventurous you are with food as to what your food budget is likely to be. We enjoyed some street food, as well as some nice restaurant food. We found that some towns had really well priced meals at USD$6-9 like Granada and Isla Ometepe; but some places were closer to American pricing around USD$10-$18 such as San Juan del Sur, Leon and Little Corn Island.

There’s a great local restaurant, Comedor San Benito in Leon where you can get more food than fits in your belly for only $4. Another one is an amazing local shack called Rosa’s on Little Corn Island where you can enjoy a spectacular 3 course lobster meal for only $7.

By comparison you can eat a ridiculously amazing lobster and steak meal (surf’n’turf) for USD$18 at El Zaguan in Granada, or the most amazing breakfast burrito at Salud! in San Juan del Sur for around $8.

Activities

Tours were always the most expensive thing we did, but were a great way to experience numerous things you can’t do solo. Tours for things like volcano hikes and snorkelling trips will typically cost around US$20-25. The cheapest (paid) tour we did was a 3 hour tour through the islands of Granada for US$18, and the most expensive tour we did was a 6.5 hour tour and sunset hike up the active volcano Telica for US$45 including dinner, snacks and a free t-shirt.

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Granada, Malaga & Cordoba, Spain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI spent about a week whipping around Andalusia, the southern portion of Spain. I spent two nights in Granada, one in Malaga and then two in Cordoba before heading north to Barcelona.

In between transport times and the flu I didn’t see a great deal of any of these places. However I felt I saw the highlights, enough to appreciate these cities. Also they aren’t very big places, so hitting the highlights in the span of a day was generally possible.

Granada

Granada is definitely a city on the popular tourist trail, it was ridiculously busy with people everywhere. Not to mention we were there across a Sunday and Spain’s National Day.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile it is true to its history, I really felt that Granada was having an identity crisis. The majority of the city was ‘standard’ Spanish design, some wider avenues for the main streets and narrow winding cobblestones for the other streets. Then as you head into the old town the streets gets windier and narrower and then you randomly pass through entire streets which make you feel like you are in a turkish bazaar – the street sellers yelling for you to buy their wares and I saw the exact same products as I did in Istanbul. There were also loads of little bars selling mint tea like in Morocco and bars with the hookah pipes like Istanbul. It was interesting but bizarre.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAExploring the old town is wonderful and it’s worth walk up to the Mirador de San Miguel, apparently the setting sun lights up the Alhambra on the opposite hill is really beautifully, but I didn’t stay for the sunset to find out. The Mirador (lookout) is crazy busy into the evening!

The Cathedral is one of the main sites to see, but after having seen so many cathedrals, and with a cost of something like 8€ this was one cathedral I skipped, though it did look lovely from the outside.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe main attraction of Granada is The Alhambra, word of warning if you want to go you need to book weeks preferably more than a month in advance as it is insanely popular, if you can’t get a standard ticket then try to book a guided tour as they sell out slightly less quickly.

The Alhambra is a fort and palace strategically placed on a hill. The name is a variation on Al Hamra which means The Red One. There are loads of theories about why it had that name, but of course, they are all just theories. The grounds of the Alhambra are quite extensive but the real highlight is the interior of the castle.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe moors believed, and this can be seen throughout Spain, that the exterior of all buildings should be equal. You should be unable to determine the wealth of a home owner based on the outside of their house. Once you put over the threshold of the palace at the Alhambra you are quickly astounded at the amazing designs. The colours, the carvings, the intricate wood and mosaic work. The archways that lead you from room to room are each individually designed and created. Each room has a different design in the floors, walls and ceilings. The palace is an extensive collection of rooms and patios. The crowds of people can be a little frustrating but it is otherwise simple magnificent to wander the spaces in the palace.

Visiting the arab baths (hammam) is a very popular activity and the most popular baths were booked out, so I went to Aljibe de San Miguel Arab Baths and paid for the 55€ for 1.5hours access to the baths, an exfoliating scrub and oil massage. It was a thoroughly pleasant way to wind down at the end of the day and relax my legs and feet after so much walking.

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Check out all my Granada photos on Flickr

Malaga

Malaga is a cute coastal town. It was brilliantly sunny when we visited, which was a pleasant surprise after cold, rainy Granada.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe started the day with the aim of heading straight to the Picasso Museum. On our way there, we popped into the tourist information office and stumbled across a flyer for a free walking tour starting 20 minutes from the current time. So we put the Picasso plans on hold and headed to the meeting point.

We met our guide Shelby, from South Tours at Plaza Constitucion. With a small group of us we explored some of the main buildings in town including a visit to the local market and a wine cellar, to try the local sweet wine, Moscatel. It was a bit too sickly sweet and syrupy for me (and I have a sweet tooth). We learned some of the city’s history, saw the roman amphitheatre and Alcazaba on the hill. We walked through the famous restaurant El Pimpi where Antonio Banderas signed a wine barrel and finished the tour at the birthplace of Picasso, where we took a picture with his statue.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the tour we decided to visit the Alcazaba rather than the Picasso museum, because as the guide pointed out, all his most famous works were sold and are therefore not to be found in the museum of his hometown.

So we headed off to the Alcazaba, entry was only a few euros (though I forget the exact price). After the Alhambra in Granada, this castle was beautiful but in a more rugged, unfinished way. It was still stunning to explore and I throughly enjoyed wandering the grounds. The added bonus was that it wasn’t excessively busy, quite uncommon at this time of year for any major site in Spain!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe finished our day watching the sunset from the rooftop terrazza of the AC Hotel Malaga Palacio. It is a crazy fancy restaurant where they open the doors for you and even push the elevator button for you. Don’t be daunted, stroll on through the lobby to the elevators and head up to the terrazza, you won’t be the only tourist in jeans and sneakers!! The view is beautiful, so I recommend finishing your day there with a drink!

Check out all my Malaga photos on Flickr

Cordoba

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe main highlight in Cordoba is the Mezquita. It was originally built as a mosque. Later it was converted to a Cathedral, rather than destroy the existing structure, they simply knocked down 63 columns in the interior and constructed the chapel internally. Needless to say the combination of traditional muslim architecture and the Catholic architecture is thoroughly fascinating. While it is a little bit of a bizarre combination of religions, it is simply stunning!

Entry to the Mezquita is around 8€ after 10am. However, if you turn up at 8:30am you can have free entry to the majority of the cathedral until 9:20am when you are asked to leave.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI also did a free walking tour of the city. The guide Susanna was passionate and knowledgable about her city and spoke really good English. We explored a portion of the old town, learning the history and seeing several old sites, including the Roman Temple, the old bridge, Jewish Quarter, the Mezquita (from the outside) and the Alcazar.

Cordoba is a beautiful city, easy to navigate and with such a cheery atmosphere.

Check out all my Cordoba photos on Flickr

General Tip for Eating Out in Spain

IMG_7793Everything runs on a later schedule in Spain. Breakfast is around 9am (stores open around 10 or 11), lunch is around 2 and dinner usually around 9pm.

At lunch or dinner they will often place a bread basket, or sometimes a plate of olives on your table. These are generally at your own expense, so it is worth checking if it is free. If you don’t want to pay, then simply refuse it or check your bill carefully at the end and refuse to pay that portion.

While often some of these things cost money, it is also important to be aware that you often get one tapas free when you buy a drink.

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