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Granada Nicaragua
Written & Photographed by Mark Chesnut

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The first time I see Granada, it looks tiny. Granted, I’m standing atop a large hill in the town of Catarina, Nicaragua, taking in the grandeur of the nearby volcano as well as the expansive lakes Apoyo and Nicaragua. From a distance, the city of Granada looks like nothing more than an inconsequential group of miniscule buildings tucked between the mountains and Central America’s largest lake, but first appearances can be deceiving.

Granada is one of Nicaragua’s biggest tourist attractions. When I arrive in the city, its relaxed pace is immediately apparent. Bicycles amble by as horse-drawn carriages clip-clop past historic homes converted into luxury hotels.

I head first to the vast Lake Nicaragua, also called by its original indigenous name of Cocibolca. The lake is connected to the Caribbean Sea by the San Juan River, making Granada technically a Caribbean port, even though physically it’s closer to the Pacific coast. This helped Granada to become a pivotal transportation hub, especially before construction of the Panama Canal, when a stagecoach line owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt connected the lake with the Pacific. More than 100,000 people traveled this route in the late 1800s, many en route from the eastern United States to the California gold rush. Plans called for an inter-oceanic canal, but the Panama Canal happened first (even today, similar proposals for a Nicaragua canal still surface from time to time).

For the most part, however, Lake Nicaragua today is more of a leisure destination than a transportation route. It is also home to 365 islands, some with luxury vacation homes and docks, and others that are tiny and uninhabited except for a rather curious group of spider monkeys and white-face capuchin monkeys. If you have the time, make sure to visit Isla de Ometepe, where visitors can climb to the summits of two volcanoes.

Back in the city, I have the pleasure of checking in at one of the best hotels in Granada: the Plaza Colón. Set in a former private home, the Plaza Colón sits on a prime location facing the Parque Central (the central plaza), and is pristinely renovated with wood furniture and two landscaped courtyard gardens, one of which has a swimming pool and is rimmed by tiled walkways and wooden balconies. This is just one example of the ever-growing array of interesting accommodations in Granada. The equally lovely Hotel Darío is also set in a beautifully restored former residence. Like the Plaza Colón, the Darío has two lush courtyards (one with a small swimming pool), and well-appointed rooms—choose one on the second floor of the main building if you want a good view of the street and the cathedral, which sits just down the block. While there are plenty of good dining options just steps away, the Darío also offers two good choices: El Tranvía, an upscale restaurant that serves international cuisine, and Chocolate, a café with a variety of light meals, desserts, and refreshments.

Kekoldi, a gay-friendly hotel with clean, basic rooms that have air conditioning, private baths, and cable TV is another great choice for accommodations. As a value-priced alternative to the larger hotels, Kekoldi is set around three small courtyards, one of which hosts a tasty breakfast every morning. Rocking chairs and other hand-crafted wooden furniture invite guests to sit and relax in each of the hotel’s outdoor spaces to socialize. Staff members, some of whom are gay, are friendly and always ready to help with information and suggestions about dining, nightlife, and other activities.

That evening, I dine at El Zaguan, a pleasant eatery that specializes in grilled meats and locally caught seafood. In keeping with much of the traditional architecture, the restaurant is housed in a building set around an open courtyard, creating a comfortable, open-air ambiance enhanced, on some nights, by live music.

After dinner, I take advantage of the city’s wonderful walkability. The smell of damp wood wafts through the open doors of grand hotels and bustling restaurants as I stroll through the humid night air. Chairs scrape across the tile front porch at my hotel as an employee closes up shop at the stylish, modern Enoteca Wine Bar next door. It’s only 9:30 P.M., but it feels much later. Restaurants are closing and everyone seems to be heading home. Granted, it’s the off season.

Are you a professional photographer?” a man on a bicycle asks, smiling. I’m walking down the street called La Calzada, taking photos of the parts recently widened to make it more pedestrian-friendly and allow for more space for outdoor cafés and restaurants. “Más o menos,” I smile. It turns out this guy, Franklin, works at a local hotel and is also something of a clearinghouse of information about the city. We stop for a soda at a café on the Plaza de la Independencia, a corridor next to the main square, lined by the impressive architecture of the Casa de los Leones. Today, the building houses the Casa de los Tres Mundos, a foundation that stages art exhibitions, concerts, and independent movie screenings.

“The latest edition of Lonely Planet says there isn’t much gay life in Granada,” Franklin says as he sips his soda. “That writer was way off. Granada and the Nica people are very accepting. The drag shows here attract as many straight people as gays.”

Most locals assure me that the crowds tend to be mixed just about everywhere in Granada, and local and visiting gays tend to bar hop just like everyone else. That’s what I’m finding to be true. Having drinks at Café Nuit, a popular open-air bar with live music nightly, or Mi Tierra, a dance club with an eclectic selection of music, it’s just as easy to find fellow gay travelers and local gay residents as it is to find their straight counterparts. You don’t visit Granada for its exclusively gay nightlife or party scene, after all. You come here to enjoy the culture, the ambiance, and the interesting mix of people, which includes an ever-more-open gay and lesbian community. In all my travels in Latin America, I’m hard pressed to name any other small city with such a high percentage of easy-to-find gay residents and visitors, thanks to the gay-owned hotels, gay-popular restaurants and businesses, and overall friendly community.

During my stay, I visit some of the city’s biggest attractions, including the cavernous but sparely decorated cathedral, built in the early 20th century atop the ruins of an older church. Its soaring, cheery yellow spire is a landmark for the region, and its four chapels contain impressive stained-glass works. Just a few blocks west is the Iglesia de la Merced (Church of Mercy), a finely detailed church that dates to 1539. This is probably the best place in all of Granada to get a bird’s-eye view of the city; pay about $1 and you’ll be able to ascend the narrow stairs of the bell tower, which is open daily.

Also worth a visit is the spacious Convento San Francisco, a convent founded in 1529 that now houses a museum with multiple art and historical exhibitions. Wandering from room to room along a courtyard populated with soaring trees, visitors may check out colonial-era artwork, pre-Hispanic artifacts, and cultural displays.

Fans of historic architecture will also want to check out Fortaleza La Pólvora, a military post built in 1749. In addition to exhibits of art and colonial military gear and weaponry, the fort also offers nice views of the city.

Day trips outside of Granada yield even more activities, especially for nature lovers and arts-and-crafts enthusiasts. The towering volcanoes of Mombacho and Masaya are easily reached during guided tours, and shoppers are advised to head to the town of Masaya, home to one of the region’s most celebrated crafts markets, and San Juan de Oriente, a village famous for its handcrafted ceramics.

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After an exhaustive search, I also found a gay-owned hotel in Managua. Its a bed and breakfast-style small place, but swimming pool and very nice. The name is Viva Nicaragua Guest House. Its about 20 minutes from the clubs in Managua.
- Danny Stensil , Chicago IL USA

Thanks for such a great article about this cozy little city I have fallen in love with. My partner and I love to vist and have stayed at Joluva, mentioned in your article. A great city for a small budget, including a growing gay culture! Viva Granada!
- Daryl , Nashville, TN U. S. A.

What are housing prices like in Granada? From a simple row house with no yard to a newer home with yard/garden/space in back or front? Any info or travel agent leads will be greatly accepted. US telephone number (landline) is 1-804-778-4842. THANKS!!!
- James Fosnot , Richmond, Virginia, USA

felicidades por esta edicion... y mark que hizo ese reportaje de nicaragua y lindo el chico que sale de camisa naranja de gorra negra cute guy!!!! felicidades a todos...
- CHRIST , nicaragua

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