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Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

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Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

A friend and I just returned from a long weekend in Nicaragua, and I thought I’d report on our trip. For some background, between us we’ve been to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Belize, Costa Rica, Mexico, so we have a good sense of how Central American ticks (from the tourist’s perspective). This is one of my favorite regions of the world. I say that so you’ll know that while, overall it was a good trip, those criticisms I do have do not come from unfamiliarity with the region or any expectation that other countries ought to operate exactly as the USA does. It’s just that in my mind Nicaragua falls somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as Central America is concerned.

We arrived in Managua on Friday night, our plane having been delayed about an hour. Customs and immigration was a total breeze. We were through the airport within 5 minutes of deplaning. I had arranged for Rodolfo to coordinate drivers for us as he is a rock star on this forum, and we were quite pleased with the competitiveness of his prices, and how smoothly things went. I emailed him to advise of our flight delay, but he had been monitoring our flight information anyway. The clean-cut driver, Francisco, was easily found at the airport, holding a sign with our names, and drove us to Granada in a clean Toyota. He did not speak fluent English, and we don’t speak fluent Spanish, but we managed fine, and more importantly we weren’t looking for a tour, just transportation.

I’m wordy, so I’ll break these up by day…

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1. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

Day Two

In Granda, we stayed at Plaza Colon, which I have reviewed separately, and selected it because of its central location, good reviews, and eco-friendly mission. While we could have stayed more cheaply elsewhere, we were pleased with the hotel. The next morning, we had breakfast at the hotel (delicious – the desayuno tipico is one of my favirote things about Central America) and at the advice of the hotel concierge Virginia we went to the Tour Granada office to arrange a tour of Las Isletas. A 2 hour tour + lunch (a beer included) was a bargain at $20 per person. Before and after boat tour, we did a walking tour of Granada, which I found here:

andrewharper.com/articles/granada-walking-to…

The convent was not open, and we did not climb the steps at La Merced, but otherwise we hit the highlights on this tour. Having been to charming colonial towns like Antigua Guatemala, Copan in Honduras, Taxco and San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, we didn’t really feel like Granada measured up to those. Perhaps if we’d visited Granada first, though, our lasting impression would have been different. We did enjoy Granada, but I just did not find it as captivating as I’ve found some other locations.

Anyway, the isletas tour was a lot of fun, in part because the other tourists we met on the boat were so much fun. We met at the tourism office, and they bused us to the Iguana restaurant, where the boat was located. The others on the tour had the foresight to bring some booze for the cruise, and we were able to buy some beer at the Iguana for the journey. They even packed an ice bucket for us to take to keep the beer cool. We cruised around the peninsula on what was generally an overcast day, and say a myriad of islands ranging from extreme poverty to opulent wealth. We paused at the island with semi-tame monkeys which the guide fed. And we drank heartily. The guide Raymond was fun and friendly. We finished with lunch at the Iguana, and most of the dishes earned high marks. After that the bus took us back to the tourism office, and we made arrangements to meet our shipmates for dinner and drinks that evening.

We continued our walking tour, and stopped at Euro Café for an iced coffee. This was a typical coffee house and also served desserts and ice cream. It had free wifi, as do most places in Granada, and we found a nice spot in the courtyard to beat the heat. We returned to the hotel and had our free welcome drink – the first of many macuas – in El Bar, which was really a charming spot. After a quick nap and much needed shower, we returned to El Bar for some pre-dinner drinks.

We met our new friends at El Zaguan for dinner and could not have been more pleased with the meal. They’d heard about the restaurant from someone else in town, our Tour Granada guide Raymond had told us it was the best in town, and the walking tour listed above praised it as well. It was an excellent recommendation. We had 8-10 people and all raved about the quality and tenderness of the many varieties of steak dishes. I would have gladly paid twice as much for my meal. Service was great, and the restaurant was lively. After dinner, we continued walking down Caldaza, stopping at O’Sheas for post dinner drinks. This was THE place to be in Granada, and we managed to snag the last sidewalk table. Drinks were cheap and came quickly, which is about all you can ask for. We did get hassled by a number of salespeople and street kids, more so than anywhere else in Granada, and this is clearly an ongoing problem, as a page in the restaurant’s menu cautions tourists against giving money to the street kids and explaining why.

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Day Three

The next morning, moving considerably slower, we had a tasty breakfast at Plaza Colon before another tour guide from Tour Granada, Manny, took us to a ceramics shop in San Juan de Oriente to watch ceramics being made (and buy some very reasonably priced pieces), to the mirador in Catarina (one of the 2 highlights of the trip), and to the Masaya Volcano (the other highlight of the trip). We also went to the volcano museum, which I wanted to blow off but wound up finding very informative. Part of the volcano park was shut down following a recent fire, but we got to go to the rim of the crater and peer inside, which was overwhelming. This is a sight that cannot be missed. Catarina was also stunning – beautiful panoramic view, festive setting. If I had a criticism, it would be that the car was not air conditioned (it really seemed to be the driver’s personal car rather than an official vehicle of any sort), so after 3 hours of driving around with the windows down I was a mess.

Upon returning to Granada, we had lunch at Comidas Tipicos y Mas, hoping to sample some more traditional foods. We shared a nacatamale, which was quite tasty, not unlike the typical tamale but larger. My friend had tacos that were served with refried black beans, and I had Vigoron, a classic Nicaragua meal local to Granada, with pork, chicharron, yucca and a cabbage salad. As much as I wanted to like this the pork was rather tough, and the chicharrones were so hard that I could not bite into them. We then walked around some more, had some rum drinks at Nectar, which was advertising a happy hour. We were about the only patrons there, though. We have found that the happy hour idea is very popular in Central America, and the free magazine in Granada lists the times for every happy hour in town, some of which last 6-7 hours! My mojito was too tart to drink, but my friend enjoyed his nica libre.

After naps and freshening up, we returned to El Zaguan for dinner again. It had been so good the previous night, and lived up to that again. The refried black bean appetizer with homemade tortillas and crema was incredible. My steak was perfectly cooked, service was ideal, and everything was reasonably priced. For an app, salad, entrée, tip, bottle of wine, and another glass of wine each (don’t judge) we only spent about $40 each. After walking around a little to seek out night life in other spots, we returned to O’Sheas that evening, as it was the liveliest.

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Day Four

The next morning we had breakfast at Kathy’s Waffle House at a friend’s recommendation. The waffles were good, but I can get good waffles at home. I wish I’d stuck with the (free) traditional hotel breakfast, which had eggs, gallo pinto, plantains, pico de gallo, coffee, fresh juice, cheese. Carlos (?), another driver who we coordinated through Rodolfo, arrived to pick us up from the hotel, again in a clean Toyota, and took us to the market in Masaya. He was really enjoyable and chatty.

We arranged to meet the driver after 1.5 hours in the market, but really did not need that much time. On the plus side, the setting in the old fortress was nice, the market lacked the chaos and crowds of other Latin American markets, and the prices are pretty much fixed. So if you find bargaining stressful this is a much easier experience.. But we really found little variety between the vendors, few items that interested us, and that the prices were not great bargains. Don’t get me wrong. This is a good souvenir shopping spot and I’m pleased with my purchases, but if you’ve been to Chichicastanengo, Otovalo, San Miguelle de Allende, etc., the Masaya market will be a letdown.

We continued on to Managua, where we stayed at the Intercontinental Hotel, which was pretty much like any other Intercontinental. The lunch options were a fancy buffet at the hotel or fast food at the nearby mall, so we opted for the buffet. It was pretty good, but we’d have preferred something less formal and less expensive. Afterwards, we asked for a taxi to go to the Plaza de la Revolution, intending to walk around that area then on to El Malecon. The hotel doorman suggested that we use a driver who was located out of the hotel and would charge us $10 an hour. For the most part this worked out nicely. First, he took us to a cathedral and to a mirador that we would not have seen absent his suggestion, and even though it was in Spanish and we only understood about 75%, he gave us a lot of information. Also, when we arrived at the Plaza, it became clear that it was not in an area that we would have felt comfortable walking around solo. We were glad to have him with us, and we glad that the car was so close. The ruined cathedral was very interesting, and I would love to learn more about that. The plaza also had the tombs of Sandinista leaders, and a cultural center that once housed the Congress that was kidnapped by the Sandinistas. Though the area was gritty, I’m glad we saw it.

Afterwards, it had started to rain, so we quickly we to El Malecon, which is a lakeside entertainment type complex. It looks a lot like a giant miniature golf complex/amusement park, with lively colors and beachside bars. It was essentially deserted because of the massive thunderstorm rolling in, and I’m not sure it would have been a place I’d enjoy anyway – very artificial. But I’m glad we saw it because I’ve never seen anything like that before.

This tour took just under 1.5 hours, so we assumed we’d be charged $15, but the driver told us it would be $20. We gave him $20, but did not tip, since we basically paid him for a half hour he did not work. We did not like that he inflated the price, but he offered to take us to the airport the next morning and we agreed, thinking it would be easier and at least it was the devil we knew.

That evening, we took full advantage of the cocktail hour at the club level of our hotel before venturing down to the hotel lounge for – surprise – more drinks and dinner. Our hamburgers were really, really good, and that wasn’t just the wine/rum/beer talking. I thought the prices were reasonable, and it was a nice spot. We turned in early because we had to leave for the airport at 5am.

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4. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

Day Five

The next morning the driver was there on time, and the hotel had put our ride on our bill already. I am confused about what their arrangement was. If I had to do it all again, I would have made all of these arrangements through Rodolfo, tours included, but we were making decisions as we went and didn’t want to commit to any particular schedule. Things went smoothly at the airport, though, and we were able to check in and get to the gate within about 15-20 minutes. It’s an easy airport to navigate, and had plenty of food and shopping options.

Overall, while we had some criticisms, this was a good trip. Granada was a little less scenic and seedier than we'd expected, but then again our impressions were likely colored by having visited some places that were exceptional. Lake Nicaragua is no Lake Atitlan, but that doesn't mean it isn't beautiful. The people we encountered were all lovely, and we managed to keep our days full. I hope some of our experiences can help others planning a trip to this area.

Edited: 6:39 pm, May 29, 2013
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5. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

Thanks for a great report! I am headed to Granada on 6/19, so the information is greatly appreciated. Do you happened to have contact information for Tour Granada? I would be interested in Las Isletas tour. My hotel quoted $25 per person and there are 5 of us, so $20 with lunch sounds much better.

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6. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

This will be our first visit to Central America, although we traveled pretty extensively in Asia a couple of decades ago. Granada seemed like an easy re-entry to travel in the developing world. Sounds like pricing (tours, car hire) is not as standard as we were led to believe - any advice on making sure tour companies are reliable and fairly priced?

7. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

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8. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

I will say to make sure that a company is reliable, look them up on tripadvisor, you get will get a rough idea on who offers good services, send out emails and see where you get the best deal.

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9. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

We did little planning or comparison shopping, so the inconsistency with the Managua driver was our fault, and even then we got a bargain. Otherwise, we were quite pleased with all of the pricing and service that we received with tours and drivers.

Edited: 4:16 pm, June 02, 2013
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10. Re: Granada (and Surrounds) Trip Report

I don't have info on Tour Granada but it's hard to miss. Their office is on La Caldaza, one block away from the park, behind the cathedral. You can just walk in. The early tour started at 11. The prices were published, so you don't have to negotiate. (We did ask them to throw in a beer with lunch though and they agreed.)