My jaunt around Nicaragua broke neatly into two parts, and this break took place in Granada. Neither my pre-Nica (Salman Rushdie’s Jaguar Smile), nor my post-Nica reading (Sergio Ramírez’s Hatful of Tigers) gave much attention to Granada. The turbulent 70s and 80s did not impact Granada as heavily as many other parts of Nicaragua. By the time the likes of Rushide and Ramírez came along Granada had already lived out a vibrant history, and was preparing itself for post-history, for museumification. Basically, it was becoming tourist friendly.
Granada’s history must have ground to a halt about the time that the Panama Canal was built. It was the first Spanish city built in (what is today) Nicaragua, and became very wealthy owing to its location on Lago Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua) which drains into the Atlantic, and its proximity to the Pacific coast, which meant that it was a centre of trade between the two oceans, between east and west. Once its wealth was established the rest was perhaps inevitable; it was attacked by pirates (who also found its lakeside location convenient), became the Conservative centre of the nation, and so was involved in the post-independence civil wars, and was occupied and later torched by William Walker’s filibusterisers.
Then in the twentieth century the Panama Canal was built and Granada lost its strategic importance as a link between the oceans, and history moved on and found other places to bother.
A great number of old buildings were left behind by history; its sticky finger prints are everywhere. Some of the buildings have been elegantly restored, others lean and subside into magnificent disrepair. Some buildings are stuck in the middle; a scrubbed and crisp bell tower rising over a church grubby with age and waiting.
All these lovely buildings deserted by history and in need of some love have become very attractive to foreigners with a little bit of cash and fancy notions of doing up colonial (or “colonial”) houses. Granada is home to a fast growing number of expats, its streets are scattered about with real estate agencies. Prices are rising and currently float in the space between too expensive for most locals and still well priced for most foreigners.
History might have left Granada behind but vague memories of it still attract certain types of people. It will be a long time before Nicaragua becomes an attractive destination for anyone uncomfortable with words like socialistish. The expats that have flocked here seem – by and large – to be a rather switched-on bunch. They open arty spaces and guesthouses and start social projects and NGOs. They also bring with them a love of good coffee, organic food and international flavours.
As of consequence of all this interest, Granada is very developed, very touristy, and by Nicaraguan standards, very expensive. Compared to other towns, it was very hard to find cheap, good food in Granada. A huge number of restaurants cater to tourists, or to perceived tourist tastes, which means a range of very mediocre internationalish dishes instead of perfectly delicious local stuff. Granada’s culinary possibilities eventually reduced down for us to an El Salvadorean place by the market that had no electricity but that served up fantastic pupusas every night and mighty breakfasts every morning.
Granada’s streets were endlessly wanderable, but the majority of tourists that come here don’t seem to spend long doing so; there are too many things to be seen in the surrounding area. The impressive cone of Volcan Mombacho rises high over the region. Hundreds of islands thrown up or down by the volcano are scattered along the shore of Lago Cocibolca. Further inland are more extinct and active craters and picturesque pueblos.
A particularly accessible (nothing is very inaccessible) spot close to Granada is Laguna de Apoyo, a massive crater lake, the remains of a spent volcano, its waters still and warm. Chunks of pumice float on the glassy surface. It sounded beautiful, and it really was. The thing was though, that like much of Granada, the Laguna was set up for a certain type of tourism. A visit to the Laguna typically meant a shuttle out to one of the little lakefront restaurant hotels, an entrance fee, and then an entire day by the laguna waiting for your evening ride home. A day beside a beautiful lake is by no means a bad thing, but it’s the sort of thing that leaves me restless. It is too passive, I want to be exploring, poking my nose about. I want some sort of history to connect with. A hammock and an overpriced beer is not a bad afternoon, but I wouldn’t come to Nicaragua just for those. Granada a lot of the time felt like it was set up for people who didn’t plan on spending too many hours of the day standing up. The packs of hammock vendors about town probably concur.
It’s not even fair to say Granada is living after the departure of history. While we were there the city and country were visited by the reliquary of Saint John Bosco, a big deal for such a Catholic country. Still, the sense I got on the streets of Granada, and out among the pueblos lined with stores selling artesan junk, was that the culture of these places was become a stale, a museum curiosity, a knickknack, a quirky line in a realtors sales pitch. A city as beautiful and rich as Granada deserves something more than to exist only as a tourist haunt, but that seems to be what is happening to it. There is not that much going on here any more. Local kids come down to Laguna de Apoyo and try to impress the gringas with their flips and dives, but they get chased off of the jetty because this is private property now and the investors in the hammocks might not like the disturbance. The city and its people deserve more than that.