This past year, I have been traveling a little more like a normal tourist than I did when I set out on my travels three years ago. Back then, I made a point to use the transportation used by locals, eat at the night markets and food stalls, and visit every kind of neighborhood. I was reminded of this in Managua when my taxi driver took me to the bus station instead of the meeting place for the tourist shuttle.
The Managua bus station was small but busy as a beehive. As I was paying the taxi driver, a young man asked me where I was going, then grabbed my suitcase and hoisted it on to a bus with peeling paint. I was pretty sure it didn’t have air conditioning or seat belts. I wondered about the brakes and whether the road to Granada went through the mountains. While I was thinking about how I could graciously extract myself from this bus ride, a dozen Nicaraguans moved in behind me to get on board. I paid the $1 fare and took a seat near the front. After a few minutes, a rumbling engine started up, and the bus lurched out of the station spewing a cloud of diesel fumes. And then I was so happy — adventurous and free on the chicken bus! Ninety uncomplicated minutes later, we were in the small colonial town of Granada.
Granada has a long history of colonial intrigue. Settled by the Spanish in the 16th century, it was the one of the centers of government and commerce in Latin America, and the site of many battles for European control of the region. Most surprisingly, an American “fillibuster” named William Walker appointed himself president of Nicaragua here in 1856. He was executed shortly thereafter but not before his troops burned Granada to the ground.
After I checked into my hotel, I wandered through the quiet cobble stone streets for several hours, impressed that there was nothing much to buy. I found a cafe that caters to back packers and had a dinner of watermelon-ginger juice and a salad topped with Gorgonzola cheese and slices of avocado. For me, this was a good sign!
Granada reminds me of wabi sabi, a Japanese aesthetic meaning “imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.” In a good way — simple and mindful. Here, it’s green and orange stucco walls with chipped paint, gorgeous red roofs with uneven tiles, and aging wooden carts pulled by sinewy horses. It’s a tourist destination where the tourists kind of blend in — no flashy spas or high end art galleries or fake performances.
The region around Granada has its share of natural wonders and there are plenty of ways to enjoy them. I started with a kayaking trip on Granada’s Lake Nicaragua. The lake is the largest in Central America and loaded with small islands and mangroves, perfect for wildlife viewing and birding. In just a couple of hours, we saw howler monkeys, white faced monkeys and spider monkeys, as well as long-nosed bats and dozens of varieties of birds.
After our kayaking journey, I joined my kayaking friends for an evening bus ride to the active volcano called Masaya, about 20km north of Granada. Nicaragua is part of the “Ring of Fire,” a string of volcanoes and earthquake zones around the edge of the Pacific Ocean. I wasn’t sure what to expect but OMG!!! The lookout for Masaya sits above a giant open crater of roiling magma that creates a red cloud of sulfur gasses. It was truly inspiring to be so close to the explosive power of Inner Earth.
I also saw a part of Granada’s gentle countryside riding a chestnut mare named Lucy. My tour guide, Wilberto (riding a caliente pasofino!) told me about the medicinal plants growing along the roadside and encouraged my pathetic efforts at Spanish. The terrain was flat and mostly wooded with a view of the inactive volcano called Mombacho. This is one of the areas where ex-pats (who in the US are called “immigrants” if they aren’t from Norway) build retirement houses. We also saw a lot of small farms and squats near the roadside, some stucco and some barely standing. “Nicas” in the Granada countryside are mostly poor and obviously work very hard to sustain their families.
It’s easy to feel at home in Granada and that’s my cue. Next stop: the Nicaraguan coast!