In 2011 I travelled to Costa Rica and Nicaragua on a medical mission with International Service Learning, a United States-based educational NGO that focuses on enlisting medical and educational volunteers to provide care to underserved communities in Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa. We spent a week providing care to Concepcion de Alajuelita, a very poor urban community within San Jose. After a week in Costa Rica, we headed north via the Ticobus to Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua we spent a few days providing medical care to members of the Nindiri community at the church Hermanos En Cristo. On our last day in Nicaragua we explored the old Spanish colonial city of Granada. Granada has a population of over 117,000 people and is the fifth largest city in Nicaragua. Granada was the first European city settled in mainland America in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba.
Granada is located on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, the world’s 20th largest lake, in western Nicaragua. Granada sits in the shadows of the Mombacho volcano, an extinct volcano with still visible lava. Granada is both a tourist and expat hotbed. It is filled with beautiful Spanish colonial architecture and is famous for its cigars.
Antiguo Hospital San Juan de Dios is located in the western part of the city. Construction of the hospital began in 1886 by Carlos Ferry. The hospital opened in 1905 and served patients during war times until it was closed in 1998. The hospital has now fallen in decay and is a great place to take photos and wandering around.
Granada has several famous churches within the city. The most attractive of the churches is Iglesia La Merced. It was originally built in 1534 and was sacked and burned by Henry Morgan in 1670. It was rebuilt in the Baroque facade between 1781 and 1783. It was damaged again during war times and repaired in 1862. One of the best features of the church is the bell tower. You can pay a small fee to climb the tight spiral staircase to the top of the tower for the best views of the city! While looking over the red-tiled tops of old colonial buildings, you can see Lake Nicaragua from one side and the Volcan Mombacho from the other.
One of the main tourist attractions of Granada is Lake Nicaragua. Lake Nicaragua is the largest lake in Central America and the 20th largest in the world. Even though the lake is located geographically closet to the Pacific Ocean, it drains into the Caribbean Sea via the San Juan River. Lake Nicaragua contains over 400 islands with 300 of them within 5 miles of the city of Granada. Not all the islands are inhabited. Some are owned privately and contain pretty impressive vacation homes.
One of the 400 islands is known as Monkey Island. Monkeys are not native to the western side of Nicaragua, but one local islander released their former pet monkey on the island. The monkey population has since grown. The monkeys are Capuchin monkeys and are omnivores, meaning they will eat both fruits, vegetables, and seafood. Due to all the tourist boats the monkeys are used to being fed by tourist versus finding their own meals.
The food in Nicaragua is amazing, especially the seafood in Granada. After a boat tour of the Isletas de Granada, we ate lunch at an island restaurant.
If you’re traveling to Granada then you certainly don’t want to miss an opportunity to roll your own cigar! Nicaragua is well-known for their cigars and rum. During our carriage tour of the city the driver brought us to the Dona Elba Cigar factory where we learned how to make our own cigars. It was a really cool experience and I purchased some cigars for friends and family back home.
I really loved Granada and the country and people of Nicaragua. I would have loved to have stayed longer and really experience more of the Nicaraguan culture. We were really lucky in that our trip leader, who was Costa Rican, had a cousin that lived and worked in the Nicaraguan government. After our day trip in Granada, he took us on an evening tour of the city of Managua and told us the history of the country. He also took us to the local discoteca, which was quite the experience!
Have you been to Granada before? What do you recommend seeing?