The Spanish must have either been homesick or utterly lacking in imagination when they started naming towns in their newly conquered territories in the Americas. As someone who has spent a bit of time in Spain there have been a number of familiar names on our trip through Latin America. Perhaps it was just the colonising mindset, after all there is a Manchester, Vermont and a Birmingham, Alabama.
Sorry about that Alabama.
Granada is one of the most cultured and beautiful cities in Spain, home to the world-renowned Alhambra. Its history stretches back to the eighth century BC and it was a centre of Islamic learning and grandeur under its Moorish rulers, before becoming a major prize of the Reconquista as the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand III and Isabel I overthrew centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsular. Its architecture and legacy are world famous.
Nicaragua’s Granada has a lot to live up to. Founded in 1524, it may not be world-renowned and it may only offer a fraction of the architecture, but, perched on the edge of Lago Nicaragua and with a wealth of colonial buildings, shady people-friendly plazas and a couple of beautiful churches, it is a fabulously relaxed town to spend time wandering the streets and stepping into some of its excellent restaurants and bars.
Granada, Nicaragua, grew rich on trade that went via Lago Nicaragua, down the Rio San Juan and out to the North Atlantic via the Caribbean Sea. The route from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Rio San Juan once made Nicaragua rich, and was proposed as an earlier alternative to the Panama Canal. Even today it is still talked of as a possibility, however unlikely that seems.
So rich did this trade make Granada that, even though it was a long way from the Caribbean coast, it attracted the attentions of pirates. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary attacks came 1665 when Welsh pirate Henry Morgan navigated the Rio San Juan with canoes and paddled across Lago Nicaragua to sack the city. A hugely dangerous and technically difficult feat that made Morgan famous.
The one thing the two cities of Granada share it is that they drip with a sultry, energy-sapping heat. My advice is, get out early, swing in a hammock through the heat of the day (or pay for air conditioning) and hit the streets late afternoon as the sun starts to sink over the horizon and partake of some of Nicaragua’s best people watching while walking the city streets.
There are two Granadas in more than one way. While the colonial centre of this city is as pleasant a place to spend a few days strolling as any I’ve been to in the Americas; the other Granada of tin-roofed shacks and grinding poverty is only a few blocks away. You frequently see carts with skinny horses pulling people and goods around the city. It is a real contrast to the wealth of the colonial centre and especially to the countries to the south of Nicaragua.
We stayed in a hotel (Hotel Casa Barcelona) outside of the centre a few blocks from the mercardo municipal. Its a lovely hotel that is set up to help single mothers – of which there are plenty in Nicaragua – and is located in a much more typical barrio. There might not be any lovely colonial architecture here, and people may be poor, but it is a friendly neighbourhood that allows you to get a glimpse of how the vast majority of Nicaraguans live.
As with much of Central America, Granada has attracted a large number of Europeans and North Americans to either retire or start businesses. A complaint we heard a number of times was that gringos were buying up all the best properties and Nicaraguans were being priced out of the city centre, which was starting to lose its traditions and spirit.
While true, many gringo owned businesses have a social mission as well, which is just as well since there is a huge need for investment in basic health, education and social services which the government is struggling to provide. Still, it is good to try to spread the dollars around so that some make their way directly to Nicaraguan businesses.