This was my fourth time to Nicaragua in the last two years, and seeing Central America´s oldest city was on my must-see list. Previously, the pristine beaches and taco vendors of San Juan del Sur along with the mystic lure of Isla Ometepe had prevented me from suffering the extra couple hours it would take me to get to Granada. But after hearing rave reviews of this impossibly charming ¨must see¨ city tucked into the heart of a country that pleasantly surprises me every time, I figured a visit was overdue.
Pablo and I mentally prepared for the 12-straight hours of sitting it would require to reach Granada, Nicaragua from San Jose by bus. Bags packed, and a second serving of coffee stored in our trusty HydroFlask, we drove from San Carlos to San Jose to see what tickets were still available. Balto came along for the ride, along with Pablo´s brother Daniel and his girlfriend who graciously agreed to drive our car – and dog – back to San Carlos when (and if) we found a bus for the same day. After some shopping, we settled on the TransNica ejecutivo bus – a luxury we had never afforded ourselves before, but whose air-conditioned reclining seats, lunch and coffee service, and shorter ride time – only 8 hours! – convinced us it was worth the extra dollars. It was. An easy border crossing, a few travel friends, and my favorite neck-pillow later, we rolled into Granada, Nicaragua at 9pm.
The thing about Central American cities is that ¨urban grit¨and ¨authentic neighborhoods¨ aren´t quite as charming after dark. With Granadas´s famous colors being lost in the dark alleyways, no plans, and no local currency, we headed to the closest bank and flagged down a taxi to take us to the center. We decided on at a small hotel and to save the hostel shopping – and getting to know the Granada we came for – for the following day…..
I woke up to explosions. While Pablo slept like a baby I was fully awake, alarmed, and looking for the source…until I left the room and stepped onto the second story deck. The still-grey sky reminded me how annoyingly early it was, but set the backdrop to the terra-cotta roof tiles, iconic gold walls and red domes of the cathedral that I had only seen in photos. Birds flitted around the tiles and the clopping of horse hooves unseen awakened that spark of emotion only a new city can bring…then, CRACK!!, another explosion and I was nearly on the floor, but by the looks of other sleepy tourists walking downstairs, was the only one alarmed. I peeked in at Pablo, still sleeping like a rock, and decided to venture into the street where I discovered the source of my alarm clock; homemade firecrackers being thrown by local boys. We asked later and the reason? ¨They´re making noise for the Saints.¨
The next hour unfolded in a pattern of events, in being charmed by cobblestone streets, horse-drawn carriages, and the fact that I was awake to see the city start to come alive. It started with the first lazy bicycles carrying elderly men to work, then followed by women with frilly white aprons and oversized reed-woven baskets balanced on their heads. Colorful doors opened just enough for a broom to sweep out the morning dust, and fat-enough street dogs checked the trash bins lining the street. A car alarm sounded and I knew that even if I had slept through the firecrackers, I couldn´t have stayed in bed much longer. Just as I was rounding the block to head back to the hotel, an old man carrying a large plastic box passed by me, tipping the lid just long enough for me to get a glimpse of the golden pastry inside. I doubled back, got his attention and asked ¨how much?¨ before I knew what it was. Ten Cordobas later, I was tucking a napkin with two cheese-filled, sugar dusted, fried dough balls into my purse.
Pablo was awake by the time I got to the room with two cups of coffee and our pastries. We sat outside under a now-blue sky and he asked me what I thought of the city so far. Between bites of greasy dough and sweet and salty cheese, I decided it best to uncover the sights and smells together and reflect more deeply after the caffeine had worked its magic. So far I said, Granada, Nicaragua was colorful, charming, and….loud. What I didn´t know is that it was also going to be our home base for the next 11 days, and not entirely by choice.