AJ and I had just over a week to see the best of Nicaragua, and Granada was top of our itinerary. We only had four days to spare for our visit, but they were four days well-spent, getting to know the town and its surrounding districts and environmental attractions. I’ve distilled what we saw and experienced into a three-day itinerary for any traveller wanting to experience the best of what Granada has to offer.
Day One: Explore Granada City
One of the things I love about Granada City is how small it is; everything is within walking distance, so you can get around the main attractions in a day.
Start the day by booking any tours you want to do during the rest of your time in Granada; I would personally recommend Buena Tours, which can be found inside an Asian restaurant, and Tierra Tours – both can be found on Calle La Calzada.
After this, you’ll be ready to start exploring the city. The main attraction of this city is the architecture and buildings, all of which are bright, colourful, and in the colonial style. Take advantage of the cooler mornings to simply walk the streets and admire everything around you. Make sure to head to the Central Plaza, a huge open space surrounded by municipal buildings, and the huge yellow Cathedral, which is beautiful both outside and inside, and definitely worth popping in to. Browse the beautiful wooden and clay bowls and plates in the small handcraft market within the plaza, and if the heat of the day is getting a bit much, grab a snack and a cooling drink in one of the many small restaurants that line the plaza.
Feeling refreshed, head out and visit the four churches of Granada, each one beautiful and memorable in its own distinct way, from the stunning wood panels and murals of Xalteva, to the crisp interior of La Merced, so in contrast to its crumbling façade. Las Merced also has a tower that you can climb for $1, which gives you a view over the city, and the chance to take the ‘postcard picture’ of the cathedral surrounded by red-tiled roofs.
End your day of exploration by heading to Calle La Calzada, which is the main tourist street in Granada. Here you can find an array of bars and restaurants; my favourite is O’Shea’s, and Irish-owned Irish bar that serves cheap beer, and delicious food that won’t break the bank. I would recommend getting either the Shephard’s pie or the Irish stew; the mashed potatoes are creamy, the meat is tender and the gravy is really flavourful.
OPTIONAL EXTRA: For $22 you can go see Volcan Masaya, which is a local active volcano, at night. This allows you a chance to clearly see the lava in the crater, and people have described is as ‘looking into the depths of hell’ so you know it’s good.
Day Two: Masaya Super Classico Tour
For travellers who don’t have a lot of time to explore the area and small towns surrounding Granada, the Masaya Super Classico tour with Buena Tours is a brilliant way to get a taste for the area and see the main attractions. If there are 2 people booking the tour it costs $45 per person, and if there are three or four people it costs $35 per person, so it works out better to have more people in your group if you can. The tour lasts most of the day, and during it you will go see:
- Volcan Masaya: Here you can peer over the edge of the crater rim, and if you’re lucky, the sun isn’t shining too bright, and there isn’t too much smoke and gas coming up from the volcano, you will be able to see lava bubbling way down in the crater, which is really cool to see. You can only spend a maximum of five minutes there, though your guide will try to push it closer to ten, but there are guards there who will whistle at you to move on when your five minutes are up. This is because of all the gases coming out of the volcano, which you can definitely feel at the back of your throat when you get right up to the crater rim.
- Handcraft Market in Masaya Town: This is Nicaragua’s biggest handcraft market; it is a huge labyrinth of stalls selling all sorts of wares from pottery, to wooden sculptures, plates, and bowls, to jewellery, patches, and clothes. Our guide asked us how much time we wanted; we’re said half an hour, and unless you want to look at everything in detail, it’s enough time to browse most of the market and pick up a few pieces; we got some patches and small wooden serving bowls and tiny spoons. The prices are marked on most of the pieces, but the owners expect you to haggle.
- Pottery shop just outside Masaya Town: In this workshop the family creates beautiful decorative pottery bowls, plates, vases, cups, and more, all using traditional methods. We were shown every step of the process, from molding, to polishing with different types of stones, handpainting with natural dyes, and firing in the wood-burning kiln. The process itself is fascinating to watch, and the objects they produce are stunning. We genuinely wanted to buy everything we saw, but had to be content with three beautiful small serving bowls.
- Viewpoint at Catrina: This is a chance to look out over the Apoyo Crater Lake; when the weather is good you get a really clear view of the crater and the lake within. Be warned though; being that high up means there is a LOT of wind, which isn’t great for selfies when your hair is down!
- Apoyo Crater Lake: The tour ends at the Apoyo Crater Lake; Buena Tours have an agreement with Hostel Paradiso so you can use their facilities free of charge. Our guide dropped us off at the lake and told us he’d meet us at the entrance in two hours. Hostel Paradiso has deck-chairs on the lake-front where you can soak up the sunshine, and kayaks and inflated rubber rings that you can take into the lake. The water is warm, and the lake is large enough that the waves are fairly large; it’s great fun to sit on top of the rubber ring and gently bob along in the water. If you’re feeling thirsty or hungry there’s a lake-side restaurant for you to enjoy, although it’s a little pricey.
After the lake your guide will drop you back in Granada wherever you want; if you didn’t eat at Hostel Paradiso, head to Tito’s for dinner. This is a small restaurant on Calle Atravesada that does traditional food. You can get a set dinner of meat, rice, chips and salad for around C$120 (~$4)
Day Three: Volcan Mombacho Hike
Volcan Mombacho is a dormant, rainforest volcano about a 30-minute drive from Granada, and is home to a coffee plantation and a variety of tropical plants. We did this tour with Tierra Tours for $30 per person, and while you can do this independently for about $10-$15 cheaper, it involves several buses, hiring your own guide and hiking over a kilometre up a REALLY steep hill to get to the starting point of the hike; honestly, I’d rather pay a bit more and avoid the hassle. The hike takes about an hour and a half, during which you will have a chance to learn about the different tropical plants (including what our guide called the “so bad” plant which looks just like a coffee plant, but which is actually extremely toxic), hopefully spot some wildlife (we saw a very bedraggled sloth near the end of our hike, sulking halfway up a tree), and if the weather’s on your side, have an amazing view over the Apoyo crater, the coastline, and Las Isletas. It’s a fun, not very difficult hike that takes you through the beautiful environment of the volcano.
You’ll be dropped back in Granada mid-afternoon, which is a great time for a snack; head to Hotdog Agenda on Calle Atravesada and take your pick from the multitude of hotdogs available, for the low price of C$45 (~$1.50) – great value for money!
On your last night in Granada, first head to La Merced, and climb the tower to watch the sun set over the city. Afterwards, head back to Calle La Calzada; all the restaurants fill the street with tables and chairs, everyone gathers together, and street performers provide entertainment, including the infamous ‘La Gigantona.’ Being Irish, I naturally went back to O’Shea’s for the stew, but there are a number of restaurants to choose from.
Granada is a beautiful and quaint town, perfectly situated near a host of beautiful natural attractions. From its stunning churches, colourful buildings, beautiful architecture, and local natural beauty, it is definitely worth travelling to, even if all you can manage is a flying visit.