Nicaragua – Placemats to Places – Granada First

I used to frequent a restaurant in my neighborhood that was owned by a Nicaraguan family and on their tables they had placemats that were photo collages of their country. It was then and there that I knew I had to see Nicaragua and now I am here and it has not disappointed.

I flew from Panama City, with a short stop in San Jose, Costa Rica and landed in Managua the capital of Nicaragua. I had read that the capital was not particularly appealing and is best seen as a short term destination and so I headed for Granada on Lake Nicaragua, the largest fresh water lake in central america. The Spaniards established a fort here in 1524 making it the oldest colonial city in the Americas.

Travelling on a budget, staying in 30-40 dollar a night hostales in Cuba and Colombia meant that I was ready for a treat. I booked myself into a lovely hotel in Granada directly across the street from a ragged looking old cathedral which made for a dramatic backdrop from the balcony of the hotel. A former private casa, the hotel has been restored and brought back to a beautiful state with a central garden and pool, the rooms were so freshly renovated I could smell the paint and the sheets and beds were luxurious after our nights in rough stays. It was a real treat and the hotel was having a half price sale and it was a central location so I could wander at will. I even found the local chocolate spa for a much needed clean up. Their pool was in a beautiful courtyard garden complete with ducks in the pool.

On my first day I opted for a carriage ride, number 26 is particularly good at guiding and the driver will speak either English or Spanish as you choose. The carriage ride covered most of the tourist spots in about 2 hours including the Museum in the Convent San Francisco, Iglesia Guadalupe with corinthian columns, La Catedral, Antigua Estacion de Ferrocaril (the old train station), Iglesia Xalteva, Iglesia la Merced, Mercado Central and Park Central. From the tour I gained a good sense of the history of Granada, the important people and buildings and some pre-columbian history as well.
In the evenings I wandered through the city, finding the plaza mejor, a beautiful spot for families to dine, play and visit. Well treed with a gazebo in the centre the square is in the shadow of the catedral, rebuilt in 1856 after being razed by the american William Walker. Colonial buildings, mainly hotels and restaurants surround the square and in the background is the Mombacho Volcano.

It was the start of Semana Santas (the week of Saints) celebrated all over Latin America and I was lucky to see several processions in which the saints of churches are paraded through the streets. On Sunday I saw a beautiful procession of people carrying palm fronds behind the statuary that is paraded through the streets on palanquins until they return to the churches from whence they came. Semana Santa is a huge holiday and schools are closed for the week and families take vacations and/or celebrate together with food, drink, dance, music and usually fireworks. Often small circuses come to the pueblos and there are no shortage of people wanting to participate in the processions.

Hearses are very ornate, high-sided, black carriages drawn by white horses and behind the hearse walks the mourners on their way from the church to the burial site. This particular hearse is empty and on the way back to the funeral home.

Granda’s lake is huge and close to city are some islands you can visit by boat. Along the shores of the lake is a large park, dotted with restaurants, food vendors, picnic spots, nightclubs and beaches for the enjoyment of the Granadians. It is here that you can hire a boat to take you through the Islas for about $20 for two hours and well worth the expense. There are 350 little islands scattered in the lake, formed by the last eruption of Volcan Mambacho, over 10,000 years ago. The islands are rich in bird life and some have restuarants and hotels but most are privately owned and used as holdiay homes. We were particularly lucky on the day I chose to go because there was a floating procession for Semana Santa as we found ourselves in the midst of the throng.


My time in Panama was brief, only three nights but Tom and I managed to squeeze in quite a lot. Of course we visited the actual canal, and luckily when a cruise ship had just entered the Miraflores lock. So that was fun, although hard to see over the throng of tourists on the viewing platform waving at the throng of tourists on the Celebrity cruise ship who were waving back at them. The Museum of the canal is really worth taking in and in addition to describing the history, politics and engineering that went into the canal, there are some great displays, one of which is a simulation booth of a pilot house in a freighter and you get to steer the ship through the locks.


We covered some territory in Panama City as well seeing the Old Quarter with its many plazas, churches and museums. We also headed up above the city to a mirador where we could see the full length of Panama City with its impressive sky line filled with office towers (Trump) and some pretty interesting works of modern architecture. Sadly in between the signature towers of great wealth and where we were standing are pockets of poverty the appearance of which is accacerbated by the obvious disparities.


As recommended by all the guides, we took the train along the canal, across Panama, crossing from the Pacific to the Caribbean in just over an hour. Colon the terminus city for the train can be dangerous as there is great poverty and addiction in the downtown core of the city. Our taxi driver gave us a quick tour that provided us with a chance to see some of the highlights, really they were lowlights, of Colon before we hopped a bus to Portobello.

The local buses in Panama are old American school buses and each one is pimped up by the owners to reflect their personal style. The views along the bus route are beautiful and it was nice to the Caribbean side of Panama. We had lunch in Portobello and wandered the few blocks of the main square before heading back up the coast to spend the rest of the day at the beach. A national park with some private enterprise in the form of restaurantes and change rooms rim a beautiful little bay with the warmest water I have ever encountered. It was truly as warm as a bathtub.


We opted for the bus back to Panama City in order to see the road route and landed at the Terminale in Panama City that rivals some small airports in size. Connected to the bus terminale is a huge mall and again only reminded one of the poverty that we had seen in Colon and across the country only hours earlier. Since I had been to Costa Rica a couple of times, I decided to fly to Nicaragua and attend Spanish school while Tom saw more of Panama and Costa Rica.