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This ancient Iglesia and convent was originally built by Franciscan monks in 1529.

Granada, Nicaragua: Granada, the oldest city in Central America, is a cacophony of colors and colonial-era treasures. Unlike the crumbling facades and bullet-ridden balustrades of neighboring Leon, much of the city has been rebuilt following the revolution’s bombings and chaos, and a stroll through Granada is an eye-catching amalgam of 17th-century churches, tucked-away courtyards, historic buildings and museums, and boutique hotels.

I stayed near the Granada’s city center in the sprawling Hostel Oasis. It was indeed a backpacker’s oasis as it featured a small swimming pool, a third-story balcony for washing clothes, an all you can eat pancake breakfast, free coffee, and a shaded lounge. Like its sister city, Granada is horribly hot. Almost too hot at times – the type of weather where you can almost hear your skin sizzling. Most steamy afternoons found us lurking in shadows, moving as slowly as possible, and consuming copious amounts of water. Or guzzling ice cold cacao – a refreshing, mildly chocolate flavored, icy drink.

granadacentralchurchCGranada is certainly worth a few days, even more if you’re willing to explore Granada’s outskirts and reach Masaya and Lagoon Apoyo. But do take time to get to know the city before hightailing it to the more interesting places. Like most Central American cities, Granada’s center boasts a grand cathedral and tree-lined main square. This beautiful yellow and red cathedral has obviously been rebuilt, and I noticed workers touching up the brilliant colors on a daily basis. Local children kick their soccer balls along the boulevards, and vendors sell crafts, jewelry, cold beverages and delicious gallo pinto wrapped in banana leaves.

Since it was unsafe to run in Granada during the evening, and I wasn’t silly enough to jog during the heat of the day, I had to find alternative exercise options. As luck would have it, Granada had several “local gyms” where, for $1, I had access to free weights, bicycles, a yoga floor, and a mixture of other equipment in various stages of rust and usability. Following one afternoon’s workout, I took a alternate rout back to my hostel and stumbled upon the Iglesia de La Merced. Visitors can climb the tower for $2 and catch iconic photos of Granada’s skyline and Lake Nicaragua. I recommend visiting both in the morning and during the early evening in order to capture the best light and also avoid the crowds. Tickets are valid all day, and you can hang out and watch the clouds drift for as long as you like. (and no, you cannot ring the tower’s bell, nor swing back and forth on the rope…though it was tempting!)

topofcathedralCA walk down Calle La Calzada to Lake Nicaragua passes Iglesia Guadalupe. The church was  used as a fortress and garrison to hold William Walker and his troops when he was leading private military expeditions into Latin America. The Calle La Calzada then proceeds straight down to the waterfront where the twice-weekly ferry to Ometepe docks. This is also the jumping off point to explore Lake Nicaragua’s islets.
granadachurch3BWhile meandering through Granada’s streets, remember to poke your head into doorways and windows. You may have to be a peeping Tom once in a while, but the locals seem happy to oblige and even let you inside if they catch you peaking around their doorways. Many of the homes, restaurants, and hotels have startlingly bountiful courtyards with flowers, fountains, and climbing trees. Even the most run down homes have havens of greenery and blossoms.

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Granada’s courtyards

Of course, big city Granada has a booming night life too with dozens of high-end restaurants, wine bars, and nightclubs. Our stomping ground became Irish Murphy’s for several nights. With Ladies Night, Hombres Night, and Backpackers Night, there was never a shortage of free drinks, terrible house music, and good fun.

Masaya: When you’re ready to get out of the city, jump on a local bus bound for Masaya, a little city that moves much more slowly than Granada. Be warned, you may be hard pressed to find vegetarian food or night life of any form here. I ate a lot of avocados and fresh bread, and was in bed by 8:00 p.m. on most nights. leonorangejuiceB

Most people come to Masaya to shop, and its two markets are fun to explore or stock up on souvenirs if you have room in your suitcase. Visitors have two options: there is a new tourist market that sells high-quality artisan crafts and an old, sprawling market where you can find the same crafts for better deals. I recommend checking prices at the “new” market and then heading to the local one to buy your wares. When you’re finished shopping, test your climbing skills at the Parque Volcan Masaya!

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Hike Volcan Masaya: Parque Volcan Masaya is Nicaragua’s biggest national park and home to the Masaya volcano, the only volcano in the Western Hemisphere that is accessible by vehicle and open for tourists. The park includes two volcanoes – which have erupted several times throughout history – and five craters.

masayavolcanoC Visitors can peek over the edge and look into the crater, which continuously emits smoke and sulfur gases. Park rangers stand on the edge of the crater and test the level of sulfur at all times. If the wind is just right, visitors are only given between 3-5 minutes on the crater’s edge. Luckily, the winds were pushing the gases away from us so I was free to lounge and gape at the crater’s enormity.

There are several trails in the surrounding areas, and some lava tunnels open for viewing. From the main road, the hike up to the crater is only 5 K’s, but the final kilometer is quite strenuous (and HOT). Check in at the ranger station near the museum first, and bring along lots of water.

Cool off in Lagoon Apoyo: Reward yourself for the Masaya Volcano hike and cool off in Lagoon Apoyo, a clean, blue, and thermally vented 48-square kilomenter body of water contained inside a crater. Imagine a giant volcano imploding on itself and then filling with water – that is the general history of the Lagoon Apoyo. Though the air temperature wasn’t any different than Masaya or Granada, it felt much cooler at the Lagoon, possibly because I could just jump in to the water whenever I got too overheated. It was almost paradise…apoyolagoonB

…and one of my favorite places in all of Nicaragua…

apoyolagoonsunsetB…mostly because of its tranquil setting and stunning vistas.
apoyolagoonvistaBMy friends and I woke for sunrise and swam in the Lagoon’s warm waters throughout the day. Sunset brought us out to kayak on the Lagoon or play volleyball on the beach near Hotel Paradiso. And evenings offered hours of delicious food, card games, and $2 mojitos. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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