Our group of 3 families (3 moms, 1 dad, 7 kids) spent a week in Granada in February 2012. We had a wonderful time and highly recommend Granada.
We arrived in Managua at 5:30pm and were met at the airport by Julio Jaime, Rodolfo Ortega's friend and partner. Julio was delightful: funny, energetic, and easy to talk to. He answered all of our questions and kept us entertained all the way to our hotel in Granada, Hotel Con Corazon. During the course of the week, Julio also picked up other friends and family members, all of whom spoke highly of him. More on Julio later.
Hotel Con Corazon
We loved Hotel Con Corazon. I'd read all of the reviews on TA beforehand, and was prepared to be disappointed. I mean, how great could this place really be? Well, as of this writing, it is, hands down, my favorite hotel ever. The setting is beautiful, and there's plenty of space to hang out with friends. The staff was approachable, friendly and helpful. Though I'd worried beforehand about spending a full week at a small boutique hotel with my 3 young kids, the staff made it easy for us. We felt really comfortable and relaxed there, and our kids loved roaming the halls, swinging in the hammocks and playing with the enormous chess board.
The cleaning staff was amazing - I've never seen a hotel room cleaned so well. They arranged every item neatly and, much to our embarrassment, even folded our dirty laundry. (Thereafter, we kept ours in the plastic bag provided.) Breakfast was great -- plenty of fruit, coffee, bread, eggs, etc. Dinners there were among our favorites in Granada. Best of all, they have a fantastic business model -- all proceeds go directly to their non-profit foundation, and all tips are split evenly among staff members.
If you stay there, I recommend doing your tours & transfers with their tour organizer, Frank. We heard rave reviews about him from other guests. Two other guests told us that Frank gave their kids piggy-back rides when they got tired during the Mombacho hike. During the coffee plantation tour, he noticed the kids were bored, so whisked them off to play so that they moms could enjoy the tour.
Transfers & Tour Guide-- Rodolfo Ortega/Julio Jaime
On the advice of many on this forum, I made arrangements with Rodolfo for our airport transfers (6 in all) and a night tour of Masaya Volcano. A week before our departure, we were disappointed to learn that Rodolfo would be out of the country during our visit. Fortunately, his friend and business associate Julio took over for him. Julio was great -- very dependable, high-energy, friendly, fun to talk to, and quick to laugh. And his self-taught English was excellent.
Julio made the airport transfers effortless, and even helped us out at the last minute, when we needed a ride from Granada to Laguna de Apoyo. We'd been a bit intimidated at the thought of getting a cab from Granada to Apoyo (San Simian Eco-Lodge), so we called Julio. He showed up as planned, got a truck and delivered us to the front door of San Simian. All this for the same price as a cab. Moreover, he pointed out that a cab driver would have dropped us a quarter of a mile from San Simian since the road is unpaved.
Julio also accompanied us on our tour of Masaya at night. He stayed with us for the duration of the tour, and worked really hard to make the tour enjoyable and safe. He helped us keep the kids safe at the crater's edge and on narrow paths. When it got dark, he was scrupulous in ensuring that all the kids were accounted for. When some of the kids had trouble on the steep, gravely path to the look out point above the crater, Julio helped them stay on their feet (and out of the crater). He even gave my daughter his helmet at the bat cave, even though he kept getting audibly whacked in the head by bats. It looked painful. He definitely went above and beyond for us.
We all really liked Julio, and were happy to work with him. My husband said that knowing he could call on Julio if he needed anything at all "was ALL [he] needed to have a great trip" in an unfamiliar place. He was out "go-to" guy. We would be delighted to work with him again and highly recommend his services.
Casa Xalteva Spanish School
Our entire group took daily 2-hour classes for one week. The school is housed in spacious colonial house with a nice courtyard. The atmosphere is welcoming, friendly and casual; it's a nice place to hang out. Our 7 kids (ages 6-12) really liked their Spanish class with Gabriella and Gerald, and would happily go back. My sister and I had a great time in our just-barely-intermediate conversation class with Romel, and our friend really enjoyed her advanced class with Sergio. If we return to Granada, we'd like to study again with the same teachers.
The school also offers very affordable tours for students -- $15pp (less for kids) for tours of the Isletas, Masaya, etc. We did the Isletas tour with Andreas and it was one of the highlights of our trip. He spoke excellent "Spanglish" (his word, not mine), and after 90 minutes of boating, picking ripe mangoes, and trying to coax monkeys onto our boat, he took us to a really funky little bar/restaurant with a pool and diving board into the lake. The kids loved it!
* El Coyote (Calle Calzada) Rec'd by Julio, and patronized by plenty of locals. Service was good, prices standard for Calle Calzada (130-200 Cordobas per entree), and the steak was good, as were other entrees. Good burgers. Not great for vegetarians.
* Cafe de los Artistas (Calle Calzada) -- The kids loved this place. They each got pasta -- a welcome respite from hamburgers and tostones. I got the fish w/ tomatoes & capers, which was quite good. I was surprised as I'd never read about this restaurant on TA, and it was pretty much empty the entire time we were there. Most of the food was Italian, and there were good vegetarian choices.
* Querubes - Great local place rec'd by one of our teachers. Popular among locals. Very inexpensive, but hard to find, as the sidewalk is narrow and crowded. On Calle Altravesada, near the mercado. Just ask for directions when you get close. We got lost, but everyone knows the place. Good food, and nice to get away from touristy spots. Ate lunch here twice and would return. We loved the soup (meat and root vegetables in broth) and the gallo pinto.
* Nectar (Calzada) - Very nice staff who were incredibly patient when one of our kids threw up next to the table. Twice. The waitress even brought him some Alka-seltzer. Kids loved their North-American style quesadillas and nachos. Over-marinated churrasco. The vegetarians seemed to like the stir-fried vegetables.
* Bocaditos - On Altravesada, toward the mercado. Another popular local place. A few blocks from Chocolate Museo/Hotel Spa Granada. Great service, good prices, good food. Especially liked the quesadillas, though they're not what North Americans are used to. Ate lunch here twice and would return.
* Cafe Isabella - We choose this restaurant in hopes of getting off Calle Calzada. The setting was quiet but the food was mediocre at best. Then again, the menu was pretty big, and it's probably worth another try, especially if you'd like to avoid Calle Calzada. The kids recommend the hamburgers, and they would know as they ate hamburgers almost everywhere we went.
* Garden Cafe - Very pretty setting. Great service. Over-marinated beef. Good hamburgers. Mediocre smoothies.
* Hotel Con Corazon Restaurant - Beautiful setting, great service. Very good food, and inexpensive at 120 Cordobas per entree. I don't know if non-guests can eat here, but it's worth checking if you want a nice, quiet supper -- romantic even, now that our 7 kids are gone....
* Euro Cafe - We loved the banana smoothies. Coffee was fine. Gelato was awful.
* Parque Central - We ate lunch at one of the virtually identical restaurants that mark three of the corners of Parque Central -- ours was the one closest to the horse-drawn carriages. It was good, though rather expensive for what you got. The kids really liked the the chicken on a tortilla (pollo a la plancha?) and we enjoyed the vigoron. Predictably, prices were a bit high, but the people watching was great.
* We had hoped to eat at La Merienda and La Calzada, but both appeared to be permanantly closed.
* Volcano Masaya at night
I'd seen so many pictures of Masaya volcano that I wasn't really looking forward to the tour -- I felt like I'd already seen it. I was completely wrong. The crater is awe-inspiring and a little scary. The Spanish conquistadors thought it was the mouth of Hell, and I can't blame them. You could've fooled me too. The views from the cross are fantastic and the sunset was beautiful.
Some advice: The sulphurous gas got really strong at one point and gave 3 of the adults bad asthma attacks, though none of us have serious asthma. Be sure to bring an inhaler, even if your asthma is mild. Also, wear good walking shoes. The terrain is rough and steep at times. Lastly, your mother was right: bring a sweater.
We couldn't really see the lava at night -- only the glow, but it was worth it. The bat cave was fun too.
I definitely recommend this tour. Rodolfo charge $20pp, which included the $10 park admission fee. I thought the price was quite reasonable.
* Chocolate Museum
Our kids did the chocolate making workshop with Ismael. Ismael was terrific -- energetic, funny and great with kids. The kids really enjoyed the workshop, which included making a chocolate bar to take home. Unfortunately, the kids didn't like the chocolate bars. Too dark for their taste. No matter -- they still recommend it.
* Las Isletas
Though most everyone recommends this tour, I was worried our kids would be bored. Wrong again. They loved it.
We did this tour through our Spanish school. Andreas was our guide, and we had a great time.
I think the Isletas tours are pretty standard -- ride in a covered boat among the isletas, visit Monkey Island, gawk at beautiful houses, wave at locals, stop somewhere for lunch and swimming, etc. My guess is, so long as you have an interesting guide, you'd have fun doing this tour. It's a great option on a hot afternoon, especially with kids.
* Carriage Ride
Every time we got near the carriage station, we were approached by multiple guys trying to sell us a carriage ride. We relented early on, and went a guy who seemed nice enough and wasn't too pushy. We paid $20 for one carriage, then squeezed 3 adults and 5 kids into it. Not our best idea, but we survived. We were pretty sure we were getting ripped off, but were too tired and confused to shop around.
If we could do it over again, we'd try to cut our the middle-man and work directly with the carriage driver. We'd also limit ourselves to 4 people per carriage, since it's no fun to ride backward, squished between two grubby, sweating kids. Sit up with the driver for the best views and commentary.
* El Recodo -- Well worth visiting. Housed in the oldest building in Granada, former home of William Walker -- you'll stop there on the carriage tour. Nice wooden santos and other carvings for $30-70. Other interesting items as well.
* Tio Antonio - Rec'd by Hotel Con Corazon and others, Tio Antonio is a non-profit that helps local families, children and women. They sell a wide assortment of hammacks and if you give them enough lead time, I bet you could order one in the colors of your choice.
* Ole - Very cute little store on Calle Calzada with interesting items I couldn't find on Parque Central. Good for little stone statues, bamboo light fixtures, & other cool crafty items. Somewhat expensive, but the saleswoman's English was better than mine.
* El Antiquario - On Altravesada, above St. Lucia. Ring the bell to get in. Looks like someone's house, stuffed with antiques. I'm pretty sure one of the rooms doubled as the owner's bedroom. Can't speak to prices as we didn't find anything, but it's well worth stopping by.
* Harold's Antiques - Ask at your hotel where to find Harold Sandino's place. When we went it was closed, perhaps permanently, but it's supposed to be worth visiting.
* Chocolate Museum - Very small gift shop, but they have some lovely things: stone metates (google it), pottery.
* Women's Cooperative, Parque Central - For the life of me, I can't remember the name of this group, but I think they were from Solentiname. Anyway, they had a large stand in Parque Central (near the hammock & furniture stand), and their work is beautiful. Gorgeous textiles, handbags, jewelry.
Mockingbird Books - I think this is the name. Anyway, it's the used book store next to Euro Cafe. Sullen staff, high prices, mediocre selection.
While traveling in Granada, we felt really conflicted about how to respond to street kids. We knew it was not in their best interests to give them money, so contributed to local service agencies instead.
Still, it was hard to walk past kids who were sleeping in doorways, and to watch kids sneak into cafes to snatch up our leftovers. In response to this, my brother-in-law would buy bags of fruit or nuts from the smallest street vendors each morning, then leave the bags next to sleeping kids. Whenever we had good, untouched leftovers, he would wrap them up and offer them to street kids as well.
I imagine this approach will draw some criticism, but I thought it was a great idea. His approach helped both the vendor and hungry kids, without contributing to their exploitation or drug use. Just thought I'd pass it on.
Dollar Rent-a-Car, Hotel Plaza Colon
On our last day in Granada, we rented 2 cars for our group: one 5-seater and one 8-seater. The process was easy and the cars were great, with one exception: the "8-Seat Toyota Land-Cruiser," was actually a 7-seat Landcruiser. I kind of freaked out about this, but there wasn't anything to be done about it. Anyway, just wanted to warn you to double-check with your car rental agency.
Well, that's it for Granada. Please feel free to post here or message me if you have any questions.