Written & Photographed by Mark Chesnut
The first time I see Granada, it
looks tiny. Granted, Im 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 Americas
largest lake, but first appearances can be deceiving.
Granada is one of Nicaraguas 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 its 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
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
roomschoose 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 hotels 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
citys 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. Its
only 9:30 P.M., but it feels much later. Restaurants
are closing and everyone seems to be heading home. Granted,
its the off season.
Are you a professional photographer?
a man on a bicycle asks, smiling. Im 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
SLIDESHOW OF NICARAGUA
The latest edition of Lonely Planet
says there isnt 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
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. Thats what Im 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, its
just as easy to find fellow gay travelers and local
gay residents as it is to find their straight counterparts.
You dont 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,
Im 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
citys 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 birds-eye view of the
city; pay about $1 and youll 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 regions most celebrated crafts
markets, and San Juan de Oriente, a village famous
for its handcrafted ceramics.