Costa Rica may have its rainforests and eco-lodges, but this Central American country is not to be overlooked. Especially the thriving city of Granada, where sometime-local Eleni Gage uncovers design-forward hotels, gorgeous colonial architecture and authentic eats.
I rekindled an old romance recently. For one weekend, life was as passionate and beautiful as I’d remembered.
I tend to fall hard and fast for places I visit, imagining what life would be like if I were a resident, not a tourist. With Granada, Nicaragua, I got to find out. I lived in the Spanish colonial city for seven months in 2013, with my husband, a Nicaraguan coffee trader, and our then-year-old daughter. There were parrots and turtles in the yard, and parades regularly (Christmas? Lent? The Poetry festival? You name it, these people celebrate it with fireworks and dancing in the street). Plus, dinner for two, with wine, never cost more than $30. Living in Granada was a dream. A delight. And every other delicious D word you know.
Which is why the idea of returning filled me with dread. When you’ve loved a place, and left it, coming back is a mixed blessing. What if it has all changed? What if they paved paradise and put up a parking lot? But when we visited a few months ago, Granada remained as irresistible as ever. Built on the banks of Lake Cocibolca, around the Parque Central, it’s eminently walkable, with winding cobblestone roads that connect church to church.
The hotels just keep getting better. And the Granadinos are still partying. Here are our greatest hits of Granada, to help you plan your visit—and, maybe, inspire you to fall in love.
What to Do
This nearby volcano is home to wild orchids, lava sinkholes, and the coffee plantation of Café las Flores brand. Now Las Flores has opened a café on the Parque Central, where you can book multiple eco adventures on Mombacho, from hiking to ziplining.
Along the coast of massive Lake Cocibolca you’ll find restaurants where you can eat fresh guapote (arguably the ugliest fish in the world), and motorboats offering tours of some of its 365 islets, which house tiny villages, summer homes of Managua’s glitterati, and wild monkeys. Or, you can sit at Henry’s Iguana Bar and Restaurant, have a drink, and watch as the boats come and go, the sun sets, and the sky turns pink.
No trip to Granada would be complete without a stop to visit the mascot at Pure Spa and Yoga, a huge turtle that thrills visitors. Equally thrilling? The $8 pedicures, $15 private personal training sessions, and a $26 hour-long massage that my sybaritic father insists is the best he’s ever had.
In Granada, horse and carriage rides are a bona fide mode of transportation, as affordable as taxis and often easier to flag down. Set a price and route before you leave.
Marenco Children’s Clothes
In the US, hand-smocked dresses and “John-John” rompers tend to cost more than they should. But Granada abounds with stores in which nice older ladies sell handmade kid’s clothes worthy of the Easter parade for about $20 each. My favorite, run by the Marenco sisters, is on Calle Xalteva about a block away from the Parque.
Where to Eat
At this airy, chic café in a meticulously renovated mansion, co-owners Andres and Zoltan turn out perfect plates of internationally inspired food made from local hams, produce and cheeses – along with unforgettable desserts and the cream of Nicaragua’s (stellar) coffee crop.
Each corner of the Parque Central houses a kiosk that serves the local specialty, vigoron, fried pork rinds served on mashed yucca with some cabbage slaw. We like El Gordito, which has toadstool-shaped chairs, a great location opposite the papaya-colored Catedral, and fajitas for anyone who doesn’t love a pork rind.
Run by deaf-mutes, this café and hammock workshop has the friendliest staff, the freshest pressed juices, and handmade hammocks that are works of art – plus testers you can swing on as long as you like.
We came to this restaurant in an interior courtyard for the “kid’s pizza,” a thin-crust margarita shaped like a fish – with a black olive as the eye. This year, we were devastated to see it had morphed into Pita Pita. False alarm! It was our beloved Pizzaiol, only with an expanded Mediterranean menu. Now it’s two restaurants in one. And they still make the fish pizza upon request.
Where to Stay
Just steps from Church of Xalteva and Granada Cathedral, Hotel Xalteva is a classic colonial mansion with 8 intimate rooms done up in antiques, each with a private balcony overlooking the city. Pamper yourself with an onsite massage or go for a dip in the hotel pool.
This romantic eco-hideaway sits smack in the middle of island-dotted Lake Nicaragua and is just a short boat ride from Granada. Tropical trees surround the nine two-story wooden casitas, which are elegantly but simply dressed and have enormous windows looking out over the water.
One of the more design forward stays in the city, Tribal hotel has a cool tropical vibe: colorful tiles and fabrics, handcrafted wood furnishings, chic outdoor cabanas. At night its private terraces turn into candle-lit lounges – the perfect setting for pre-dinner cocktails.
It’s one of the most elegant inns in town, but this antique-filled beauty also features a second-story bar, La Bodeguita de Arriba on a rickety balcony that’s straight out of a Western, where you can sip your drink while people-watching on the streets below.
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This article was originally published by Jetsetter under the headline Nicaragua’s Hidden Gem. It is reprinted here with permission.