This post is part of a multi-story series based on my latest trip with Intrepid Travel. Here is the trip link.
Granada is one of Central America‘s oldest colonial settlements, conquered by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1524.
During the colonial period the city was an important commercial harbor, and in 1610 when an earthquake destroyed its twin city of Leon, its prominence was truly seen.
You may even hear Granada referred to by it’s other name, Sirena (Siren), due to its dual personality as an urban center as well as offering a prime view of Lake Nicaragua.
Things didn’t stay peachy for Granada forever, though, as pirate attacks and earthquakes in the 17th century badly damaged the city, while the hated self-elected president William Walker set fire to Granada during his retreat from the city in the late 1800s.
Despite this, Granada enjoys an immediately appreciated beauty with colorful colonial architecture, paved streets, ancient sites, and a lively pedestrian thoroughfare full of bars, restaurants (as well as stray dogs and children selling things).
Not to mention accessibility to sacred volcanoes and crater lakes, while we’ll dive into in this Nicaragua travel guide.
Food & Fun In Granada
The pedestrian street in Granada is my first stop when I arrive — after I unpack and a sip a “Macuá” welcome drink, the national drink of Nicaragua, made with domestic Flor de Cana rum, orange juice, lemon juice, guava juice, and simple syrup.
The drink is sweet and fruity — and dangerous, as you won’t realize how tipsy you are until you stand up.
My hotel, Hotel El Club, is budget luxury at its finest, with small but well-equipped rooms starting at $35 USD per night (they even have air conditioning and television) and a small pool that’s perfect for some pre-going out drinks with friends.
After settling in, my Intrepid Travel group heads to Cafe de los Sueños for Nico Libres — Cuba Libres with local rum — and huge portions of American-centric food in a quieter outdoor setting just steps away from the nightlife strip.
Portions are huge — my stuffed chicken with rice is so filling I can’t finish it — and give the second half to a hungry boy playing in the street.
Before heading to Kelly’s Bar for a night of Latin and electronic dancing (don’t let the Irish pub-sounding name fool you), I check out the Latin artwork inside the restaurant, colorful paintings and Mexican Alebrijes, brightly-colored folk art from Oaxaca.
In true Central American fashion, the night focuses more on dancing than drinking, which is important as at 9am we’re greeted by Ramon of No Rush Tours for a day of volcano hiking, crater lake swimming, and boat rides via their The 5-in-1 Grand Classic Tour to Masaya combo with Apoyo Crater Lake plus Isletas of Granada boat tour.
No Rush Tours aims to provide an uber local experience that weaves in “history, vulcanology, and sights and makes guests feel like they’re traveling with a family member — not a bad family member, of course.”
Our first stop for the day is Masaya Volcano National Park, one of 76 protected areas in Nicaragua (aka 18.2% of the country’s national territory).
It’s Nicaragua’s first and largest National Park at 54 km² (21 mi²) with two volcanoes, five craters, heights reaching 630 meters (2,067 feet) above sea level, an underground tunnel made from lava, and the opportunity to hike or drive the volcano rim — the only place in the Western Hemisphere this is possible.
Steam billows up from the various craters, making it clear why the Spaniards called Masaya “La Boca del Infierno” or “The Mouth of Hell.”
Though the park is called “Masaya,” it also features Nindiri Volcano.
Masaya Volcano used to be a massive volcano; however, it erupted then collapsed to form the two. The main site of activity is Crater Santiago, formed by an implosion in 1859, spitting out sulfur dioxide that’s visible to those who visit the park.
Despite the tangible activity, Masaya has only had two eruptions since the sixteenth century — Nindiri in 1670 and Masaya in 1772 — although there have been a number of lava-less explosions.
Today, you can scramble over the hardened lava rocks while taking in views of the angry yet beautiful mountains.
In fact, to show us why Nicaragua is known as “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes” Ramon brings us to a massive field of volcanic rocks for some photos.
The rock is an A’a lava rock which in Hawaiian means “lava which one can’t walk barefooted.”
Luckily, we’re all wearing sneakers, and the views of Masaya and Nindiri Volcanoes and the Masaya Crater Lake are enchanting.
According to Ramon, the volcano craters are considered sacred.
In fact, tribes used to make sacrifices in Nindiri Crater as they believed there was a God inside creating earthquakes and lava flow when angry.
To calm the God down, virgins and innocent children were offered up and thrown inside.
One of these craters, shown below, is still active today and can be reached by foot or car to see it up close.
A Challenging Volcano Trek
It’s from this car park at the mouth of an active crater where our day’s hike begins.
The 90-minute circuit trail along the edge of where lava erupted from Masaya, Crater San Fernando, 650 meters (2,133 feet) in diameter and 200 meters (656 feet) deep, is even more captivating, although much more challenging.
We pass myriad viewpoints reached by steep up and downhill climbs over loose volcanic rock and pebble.
Vultures swarm over Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua as we peer over water, mountain, and volcanic landscape from heights of 635 meters (2,083 feet) above sea level.
I’m thankful I hiked in a bikini; one because I’m drenched in sweat and look like a human waterfall, and two because next, we’re off to eat and swim (with a stop at the Masaya Crafts Market for some shopping, of course; though note if a local offers to show you around don’t accept unless you plan to tip them or be harassed).
Serenity & Swimming
And then finally, we arrive at what becomes the highlight of the entire day:
Aside from food — the grilled chicken is delicious by the way — all amenities are included for about $7.50 USD (although the visit is part of our tour).
That means the afternoon is spent kayaking, paddle boarding (I even did a bridge on one!), and trying to drown each other in the Apoyo Crater Lake.
Warm waters glide over our bodies as we dive, flip and roll off a floating dock, laughter mixing with giddy screams, and I’m once again thankful I’m on a group trip with some awesome people.
Ramon brings a cooler stocked with gallons of homemade Macuá, and we sip our fruity rum drinks among lush tropical plants, views of the Mombacho Volcano, a mystical cloud forest floating up its sides. #PureParadise!
The Islands Of Granada
Despite a sudden storm, we head out on a private boat (we fancy, huh?) to explore the islands of Granada, sailing in a simple covered yet open structure along Lake Nicaragua.
By the way, in this huge freshwater lake, there are bull sharks — which are super aggressive and can reach more than 11 feet (3.5 meters) in length — although they’re almost extinct so you likely won’t see them.
But you will see monkeys on Monkey Island.
According to Ramon, the owner of the island is a veterinarian that donated the island for the monkeys so they wouldn’t be locked up in a zoo cage.
There are four spider monkeys and one white face cebus capuchin monkey. The owner of the island brings them food each day and also gives them their shots.
There’s also a native village as well as garfish, a scary-looking fish that has a crocodile-like face.
As the sun sets over the water, illuminating the gentle lapping waves in orange and yellow, I feel amazingly thankful.
I’m appreciative of the day’s experiences — seriously, when do you get to hike a volcano, swim in a crater, and see an island of monkeys in one day? — as well as the great company and new friends I’ve made on the trip. And for the Way to San Jose crew, the adventure is just beginning.
For more posts from my Way to San Jose trip, click here. Bonus: Get 25% off last minute deals with Intrepid Travel by clicking here.
Getting Around: Granada itself is easily accessible on foot; however, to explore the volcanic adventures booking a tour is advised. I was very happy with No Rush Tours, and highly recommend them.
Currency: Nicaraguan cordoba. Almost everywhere accepts US Dollars, too, though you might get ripped off in the conversion. The exchange as of October 1, 2015, is 1 USD=about 27.5 cordobas.
Outlets: My USA plugs worked fine without an adapter, including my laptop.
Language: Spanish, but some people also speak English. Knowing a few key phrases in Spanish will be helpful though. A small pocket dictionary can also be helpful.
Safety: While I didn’t feel particularly unsafe in Nicaragua it’s still Central America and crime does exist. I’d recommend a lock for your day bag with your valuables inside (I lock the zippers together), a safety whistle and Clever Travel Companion pickpocket-proof garments.
Border Crossing Notes: For the Americans, Europeans and Australians crossing the border from Honduras into Nicaragua was super easy, especially with our Intrepid Travel guide Javier organizing everything and telling us exactly what to do. That being said, we had one traveler with an Kenyan passport who had a really difficult time getting through, despite having the proper paperwork/visa. If you have an “uncommon” passport realize you may need to resort to a bit of bribery. You may also want to have your consulate’s contact information handy in case needed.
*My trip to Central America was hosted by Intrepid Travel. I was not compensated nor required to write this post. As always, all opinions are 100% my own.
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