“What are you looking for?” My husband asked me as we hit the 80-degree evening air, a stark contrast from the 40-degree winter we left behind. I stopped rolling my suitcases to the car and looked up. “What is that noise?”
It wasn’t that I had never heard squawking in the trees before. It was just disorienting to hear it at 9 p.m. in the darkness. I always thought birds went to bed at sunset and occasionally crowed during the night as they got restless. But when I looked up, I saw parrots and birds lining the electrical wires in Managua looking down on us. In Nicaragua, the birds never really seem to sleep.
As we climbed into the car, the driver our hotel sent sailed down the main road and we saw modest shacks and home with families in the streets. We knew Managua could be pretty dangerous at night, but we weren’t expecting to see so many children playing and dancing at block parties in the evening hours. Most tourists are told to go straight to the Best Western next to the Managua airport at night and get on the roads in the day, and I would agree that’s a good rule of thumb to follow if you arrive in the midnight hours.
But there really seemed to be no need to delay heading straight to Granada at 9 p.m. Our hotel explained Nicaragua has a reputation for being dangerous for a reason, but unless we’re looking to go clubbing in an area we don’t know, stay out late, or engage in illegal or suspect activity (which we were personally not) to just be mindful and we would be fine.
The Outpost of Spain
In just 40-minutes we were in Granada where a quaint colonial city welcomed us with cathedrals and a central square winding down for the night. I noticed the cathedrals, while beautiful, seemed dwarfed in comparison to Mexico’s fantastical colonial cities like San Miguel de Allende.
We were told when Spain settled Mexico, Nicaragua was almost like an outpost and the same resources and affections simply went unnoticed. This seemed to be a recurring theme while we were there. We loved the little city and its low-key vibe, but the locals seemed totally resigned to the idea water and electricity go out for 24-hours at a time and may or may not come back on.
I was happy to see the Islita Boutique Hotel was just off of the main hub of town and a few blocks from bodegas, restaurants, and bars where locals and tourists sipped the local Mancua rum drink. We asked our hotel it was okay to walk around, and were told it was fine but to stay in the central area at night. People were still out, but it was a quiet Thursday night. We ended up snacking on chips and sipping on the local beer called Toña and Victoria at The Camel Bar. The founder of the brewery lives on a private island in Lake Nicaragua that’s only accessible by boat.
Sharks, Monkeys, and Lake Nicaragua
During our stay, we ended up taking a tour of the lake and I found myself feeling a little mystified at the sight. It looked like the muddy waters of Lake Eerie surrounded by palm trees, tiny islands (Islitas) with mansions, and monkeys.
And here’s a terrifying fun fact not to be missed. The freshwater Lake Nicaragua is home to bull sharks.
We were told they don’t like to come near the shore because of all of the boat motors, but our hotel owners said sharks hadn’t been seen in decades. They heard a rumor a group of foreign fishermen came to the area and poached them all in the 1980s, but I’m not really up for finding out.
The tour of Lake Nicaragua was one of the highlights of our trip and included a brief stop on one of the Islitas for a Toña. We also stopped at monkey island where the spider monkeys may or may not jump on your shoulder and climb into your boat, hoping for some coconut meat. By the time we got there, the only monkey we saw seemed fatigued and properly fattened up. He instead hung upside down, belly out, to take some sips of water from the lake.
Butterflies of San Francisco Convent
During our days, we tackled the handful of bell towers and cathedrals and wandered in and out of shops and bars for a snack of plantains and more Mancua. One of our favorite stops was Granada’s San Francisco Convent and Museum. For a few dollars, you can explore a history of the museum with an open-air courtyard and colorful displays. I was taken by how many butterflies were posied throughout as if they were placed just to enhance the artwork. But our favorite spot was tucked in the back of a courtyard. With the array of doors wide open, we sat and rocked in the chairs.
I opened my eyes. “If the kids were here they would totally be climbing those statues,” I said and pointed over at a row of statues lining the courtyard. We take the kids on various trips for fun or to see family, but we also try to do one grown-up trip a year and recharge.
Granada, Nicaragua with Kids
Granada is totally doable with kids, but the playgrounds seemed to all be nestled around the lake, which we were told was not safe to walk around at dusk. That can make it tough if you’re having a great day at the beach or want to explore before heading back in town.
Had our kids come with us, we would have booked more things outside the city, including the Laguna Beach Club for a day of warm-water swimming and playing. You adjust as you go, but the old-world charm of Granada didn’t strike me as being overly kid-friendly. Of course, we take the kids to San Miguel de Allende for weeks to a month at a time, and it’s also short on traditional fun you would find for the kids. Instead, you make it fun and give them new eyes to see with and new experiences to share.
We met a traveling family with kids at the hotel who said they were missing school for a month to explore Nicaragua. They were envious it was just a short, 3-hour flight from Atlanta that made a shortened week possible. The Mom mentioned that her kids had been traveling for long stints since they were little and it was good to, “Be tired, bored, and hungry on the road once in awhile.”
I saw the sense in that and teaching your kids about the world while also giving them the experience of delayed gratification.
I can’t say that my husband and I practiced a lot of delayed gratification. At all. In fact, it was a lot of eating at both authentic and foodie-inspired stops along the way. We fell in love with El Garaje where a Canadian couple turned expats cooked amazing lunches from Monday through Friday right from their home.
At first glance, you think you’re in any other restaurant unless you’re seated on the slightly elevated landing and realize you’re in their home. The sandwich I ate was easily one of the most amazing meals of my life. Espressonista was also a favorite with a Nicaraguan chef preparing everything from goats milk cheese to roasted walnuts with olive oil.
It surprised me that Granada was such an amazing food town. There were also plenty of tourist-friendly stops on the main pedestrian strip with the obligatory Irish bar, souvenirs, and ice cream shops. Kids would definitely love the amazingly fresh ice cream and small toys littering the street. But we were struck how fresh the food was everywhere we went and how decided not fresh our food seems to be here in Atlanta.
It changed the way I wanted to eat when I got back and suddenly wanted more fresh produce and fruit in the house than before. The idea of frozen meals suddenly seemed completely underwhelming instead of a convenience for a busy night.
I also found I appreciated what we had when we got home. The water went out for 24-hours while we were in Granada and the locals just kept running their businesses and playing soccer like it was nothing. We were told they didn’t have much water or electricity during the Revolution and conflict and got used to it. They figured out how to make-do and stay resourceful. But it struck me that no one seemed to complain or accept it as anything more than a minor obstacle to their day. I think we could all do more of that.
Of course, I fell trying to step over a low chain in town connecting to posts and fell flat on my face. It was so hard I heard my nose go, “crunch.” My first thought was, “I hit my face! There’s no running water!” Miraculously I barely even bruised my face, though my legs were banged up. Nothing an ice cold swim in the hotel pool and some more Mancua didn’t help.
The next time we go back to Nicaragua I would like to see more of the country, including Leon and perhaps Corn Island. The entire trip was seamless and the flight from Atlanta felt like nothing. Of course, the kids weren’t with us and that meant actual sleep and grown-up movies on the plane. That in and of itself was a vacation I’ll take again.