11/17/2011 08:45 am ET Updated Jan 17, 2012

Tropical Exuberance Meets Colonial Grace In Granada, Nicaragua

A culture and adventure tour of Nicaragua is one of the 24 trips that feature in Bon Voyage, Jetsetter's travel book, planning service and journal in a box. Here, our travel insider, Paige R. Penland, maps out a perfect weekend in Granada, the city known as the "Great Sultan."

For almost 500 years, the Spanish Colonial city of Granada has watched over Lake Nicaragua, Central America's largest freshwater expanse. Her fortunes have risen and fallen over the centuries, as conquistadors, pirates, merchants and revolutionaries fought for her beauty and wealth. Granada has persevered through it all, and is once again reclaiming her rightful place as one of Central America's top tourist destinations. The ancient adobes are newly dressed in bright tropical colors and filled with fine restaurants, small boutiques. Horse-drawn carriages still roll along the photogenic streets, while newly refurbished parks and churches are filled with travelers from all over the globe.


Touchdown Small, friendly Sandino International Airport (MGA) is just outside Managua, Nicaragua's more-gritty-than-pretty national capital, and less than an hour from Granada. Grab an official airport cab ($30) for the trip.

One The Way Spectacular Volcán Masaya, the most heavily venting volcano in the world, is a quick detour that your taxi driver will happily accommodate (for a fee). Drive right up to the mouth of erupting Santiago Crater, an awesome (if potentially unsettling) sight.

Lunch in the Park Grab a seat on Parque Colón, Granada's shady central park, where you can enjoy the city's specialty, vigarón. A pile of mashed yuca (manioc) is topped with tangy slaw and a pork rind, served on a banana leaf alongside a fresh fruit drink.

A Day on the Lake Take a horse-drawn taxi from the park to Granada's breezy, volcano-gray city beach on Lake Nicaragua. There are restaurants here as well -- try Villas Mombacho or Puerto Asese for guapote, or rainbow bass, served whole, the local specialty. Or just hire a motorboat or kayak to explore the 365 Isletas de Granada, a serene and jungled archipelago stretching into the sea, with water birds, elegant mansions, humble fishing abodes and even a Spanish fortress dating from 1784.

Sunset from La Merced Climb the bell tower of the oldest original church in Granada, Iglesia de la Merced, for the city's finest sunset.

Dine on La Calzada Granada's main thoroughfare and entertainment district is La Calzada, a pedestrian area lined with restaurants, cafes, and bars that pour into the streets with bistro-style seating, patrolled by musicians strumming guitars, dancers making the rounds, artisans hawking their wares and travelers telling tall tales. Take a seat at any of dozens of venues, all serving Nicaragua's famous Flor de Caña rum, relax and enjoy the show.


See the City Explore Granada in the cool of the morning, when the remarkable light brings out the best in the ancient adobes and soaring churches. Behind the thick walls of these old colonial mansions are beautiful hidden courtyards; stop for breakfast at the Garden Café for a taste of what you're missing.

City tours, on foot or in a horse-drawn carriage, can be arranged, but feel free to wander on your own. Don't miss sky-blue Convento San Francisco or its marvelous museum; Casa de los Tres Mundos, a cultural center that sponsors public performances throughout the year; and the immaculately restored Hotel Gran Francia, a fine spot for a cup of coffee.

Swim in a Crater Lake Just outside Granada, Laguna de Apoyo is a clean, blue crater lake fed by effervescent thermal springs, dramatically ensconced in steep-walled, protected forests filled with howler monkeys. A handful of hotels right on the water offer day passes, allowing you to enjoy their docks, hammocks, and food service all afternoon.

Or, Climb a Volcano Standing sentinel above Granada is Mombacho Volcano, its ragged crown topped with cool cloud forests threaded with trails, as well as a zip-line canopy tour.

Take your Pick If you aren't up for another evening on La Calzada, there are more relaxed restaurants to enjoy. Favorites include El Zaguán, specializing in grilled meets and mariachi music; romantic Mediterraneo, with Italian cuisine; and Imagine, serving healthier fair. In addition to La Calzada, there are plenty of other nightlife options to explore.


Before Takeoff:
Shopping For last minute souvenirs, arrange an extra hour en route to the airport to visit the Masaya Old Market, just north of Granada, packed with fine Nicaraguan handicrafts including fantastic hammocks, leatherwork, ceramics, and more. Or, Granada's best shopping is around the Central Park and La Calzada; don't miss Exopiel, with exquisite handbags, and Olé, offering unique, high-quality Nicaraguan arts and crafts.