After my Nicaragua initiation, I spent a day in Managua getting a SIM card for my phone and discovering quesillos before setting off for the colonial town of Granada. Let’s pause on quesillos first, though, shall we? It’s a tortilla wrapped around blocks of soft cheese, pickled onions and warm crema. The crema slightly melts the cheese and creates a pool at the bottom of the baggie holding device, which apparently you’re supposed to slurp at the end. It’s fatty, salty, creamy goodness. I mean, cream on top of cheese with a punch of sour from the onions- what could be better? I fell in love immediately. Fortunately there were two shops across the street from the elusive Backpackers Manuhuac that sold quesillos.
My first ordering attempt, however, did not go smoothly. Because the quesillo is made of mostly cheese, I thought ordering queso quesillo (cheese quesillo) would be a safe bet. When the man behind the counter reached down and cut off a slab of soft cheese from the deli case and proceeded to wrap it up, I knew I did something wrong. “Um, con tortilla?” I asked him, my perplexed face showing him the cheese chunk was not my intended purchase. “Oh, quesillo?” he asked as he made a rolling motion to demonstrate the shape of the snack. “Si, por favor. Lo seinto!” I replied, apologizing for my ordering error. He smiled, went to the back, and produced what I was after. “Gracias!” I said, with a huge grin to confirm that’s exactly what I wanted. And with that, I walked back across the street and gobbled it down. I did the same thing the next morning before my taxi arrived to take me to Granada.
Granada in the south and Leon in the north constantly battle it out for the oldest/best/greatest/Spanish-ist city in Nicaragua. As my journey would take me south to Costa Rica in two week’s time, Granada made more sense, and so my allegiance was made. The one-ish hour taxi ride cost me $30, a lot more than taking a local chicken bus, but faster and much more comfortable. Why are they called chicken buses? No, you don’t share a seat with a chicken. Most are old school buses from the US and get the name from the yellow color. It’s a little bit of a stretch to me, and after being in Asia where you just might share transport with animals, they might be better off re-branding.
Granada is a beautiful colonial city indeed, complete with churches, bell towers and colorful buildings. I checked into Hostal El Momento, a 400-year-old colonial house that had a beautiful outdoor lounging courtyard. It was an excellent choice despite the shared bathroom situation and my room being right next to the kitchen- which opened at 7am. The location did have its perks, however, as the Colombian cook would sometimes knock on my door to offer me treats. I sampled a not-too-sweet coconut tart, a piece of chocolate cake and homemade corn tortillas with cheese mixed in. Yum!
The one thing I questioned about my brief time at home prior to Central America was why I ate so much Mexican food. It was EVERYWHERE in Granada and I smacked myself for not filling up on sushi instead. I thought it would be more about beans, rice and plantains, but apparently quesadillas, tacos and nachos are just as popular, particularly with tourists. And ironically, the best nachos I had were at Reilly’s Tavern. The proliferation of Irish pubs around the world amazes me. Granted they mostly cater to foreigners, but I can’t think of another genre of bar/restaurant that I saw more often throughout my travels. I even stayed above a pub in Phnom Penh. I guess the Irish get around.
Yes, there are local Nicaraguan dishes to be had as well, or la comida Nica as it’s called. Gallo pinto (“spotted rooster” in Spanish) is a combination of rice cooked with red or black beans. It’s a staple and often found on the plato del dia, or dish of the day, served in many traditional restaurants.
Tostones con queso y carne are great to pair with a $1.30 Toña beer. Plantains are cut crosswise, flattened and deep-fried, then topped with a square of fried cheese or meatball and secured with a toothpick. It’s bar food Nica style.
Vigaron is another national dish consisting of fried pork, yucca (a starchy root vegetable) and cabbage served on a banana leaf. Typically a street food, I tried vigaron at a kiosk in the park. Unfortunately they ran out of yucca and gave me a corn tortilla instead. I didn’t mind, but apparently that’s blasphemy to locals. I thought fried pork meant it was pan-fried on top of a stove, so I was shocked to discover my leaf topped with pork rinds! I’m not a fan of petrified fat, or risking a chipped tooth, so this was not my favorite dish. But I guess it doesn’t count because I didn’t try the real thing anyway.
Aside from eating, there isn’t a whole lot of activity in Granada. It’s a beautiful town that you can cover on foot in about a day. The stunning ocre-colored Catedral de Granada and the Iglesia de la Merced are two of the most prized colonial buildings in town. Pay $1 to climb the bell tower of the Iglesia de la Merced and you’ve got yourself a 365 degree view of the city complete with the Cathedral and Lake Nicaragua just behind it. Another popular tourist spot is the Calzada, a cobbled pedestrian street in the center of town, which reminded me a lot of 3rd St. Promenade in Santa Monica. Street performers could be found in the evenings, dancing and tumbling to Michael Jackson for alfresco diners. Authentic Nicaragua? Perhaps not entirely with its tourism-dollar facade, but a worthy destination nonetheless.
I planned to visit San Juan del Sur, a beach to the south, but I never made it. After a year of traveling, the thought of not having to pack right away was too appealing, so I stayed in Granada for a full two weeks- not something I’d recommend for the active tourist. What also sealed the deal was overhearing a conversation in a bar by someone who just returned. “You really need to get to San Juan by Wednesday at the latest or all the good party hostels are full.” Uh, I don’t think so. During my time there I noticed most tourists were either 23 or 63, so I struggled a bit more connecting with people. Once San Juan del Sur was off the table, I decided to spend some time learning Spanish so I enrolled in a five-day, 20-hour private course that set me back a whopping $110. My teacher only spoke Spanish so at first I was amped and determined, then my brain began to malfunction and by the last day I was so overwhelmed with verb conjugations and prepositions that I was pulling my pelo out. It was too much information over a short period of time with little opportunity to digest. Shockingly, however, we did manage to have a conversation about the drug trade entirely in Spanish. Did you know that marijuana in Spanish is la marihuana? Consider yourself educated.
In between quesadillas and tarea (homework), I did manage a few fun day trips outside the city. The first was an evening tour of Masaya Volcano. Masaya is a town about 10 miles away and home to Nicaragua’s first National Park. One of the active craters emits sulfur dioxide, a gas that creates a witches brew-like atmosphere, but can make you spontaneously start coughing. Carrying a bottle of water is highly recommended.
After standing on the rim, staring down into the abyss (although the gas clouds obscured any view), we made our way to underground tunnels created by the lava flow. By this time darkness had fallen and we were each equipped with a flashlight and hard hat prior to descending. Why take the tour at night? Because of the bats. Yes, I said bats. I don’t know what possessed me to do this. One of the “highlights” is standing outside a cave and turning off all the flashlights. The bats fly out in huge numbers in search of their insect dinner. You can feel them whizz by your head although I was told they will never hit you because of their highly-developed sonar. It was still creepy. Then our guide instructed us all to turn on our lights, at which point we saw throngs of them flying at us. Double creepy. But wait, there’s more. Our guide spotted something inside the cave and steadied his light on it. A snake was hanging from the top, devouring one of our winged friends. What a bargain- we were in a superhero movie and National Geographic documentary all during a four-hour tour. Incidentally, the Spanish word for bat became my new favorite: murcielago. Not only does it roll off the tongue beautifully, but it also includes every vowel. Ok, caped crusader, Nat Geo AND Sesame Street. Can’t beat that.
On the other end of the spectrum was my trip to Laguna de Apoyo. The only wildlife there was in the form of flashcards we each received to keep a running tab at the restaurant. A genius idea, really. “One Toña beer on la tortuga,” I asked, brandishing my cartoon turtle. Lake Apoyo was magnificent. The moment I got out of the van, I wish I had booked a night there. Included in the $12 fee was transportation to/from the lake and the use of the private beach at Hostel Paradiso. While there are public beaches around the lake, it’s worth paying the extra few bucks for the hotel services, which usually include lounge chairs, kayaks and inner tubes. Hostel Paradiso has rooms as well, of course, and if I had it to do over again, I would’ve booked one of those rooms instead of doing the 10am-4pm daytrip. Live and learn.
Apoyo is a perfectly round crater lake with the cleanest, warmest water you’ll find within the country. While I was in Nicaragua during the rainy season, the weather gods smiled upon us and produced a gloriously sunny day- almost too sunny- and the rain clouds didn’t move in until we were packing up to leave. I spent the day lounging, reading, floating in an inner tube and talking with a woman from Kentucky who has been living and working in London for the last six years.
After paying my turtle tab for lunch and beer, I bid farewell to the lovely Laguna de Apoyo and returned to my little colonial hostel where the rain poured down. The afternoon rains in Granada were actually a welcome respite from the heat as they provided instant air conditioning. Buckets would usually drop in the late afternoon or evening and then suddenly stop. But despite what I consider a lot of rain, Nicaragua is experiencing a severe drought. The worst in more than 30 years, in fact, due to El Niño. For one of the poorest Central American countries, this is not good news at all, with food shortages affecting hundreds of thousands of residents. A quick note about the safety of Nicaragua as many think of it as “dangerous”. Despite being on the lower end of the economic spectrum, it is actually the safest country in Central America. I was surprised to hear this as I would’ve thought the wealthier countries of Costa Rica and Belize would’ve topped the list. As I’m often reminded, misconceptions are the bigger danger.
The silver lining to El Niño? Fewer cases of Dengue Fever, a mosquito-borne illness with no vaccine or cure. Most cases produce flu-like symptoms, a rash and joint pain which are only alleviated through rest and fluids- sometimes requiring hospitalization and IV replenishment. In more severe cases, it can turn into hemorrhagic fever and even cause death. I know a few people who have been struck by Dengue and it doesn’t sound fun AT ALL. Unlike malaria-carrying mosquitos that usually only bite in the evening, Dengue carriers are active all day long. The best means of prevention is dousing yourself in insect repellant. And so concludes this Public Service Announcement.
Upon graduation from Spanish School Xpress, I hopped on a Tica Bus (a comfortable tourist bus with no reference to chickens of any kind). Next stop: San Jose, Costa Rica to usher in the next decade of my life.
But before we depart, some photos from around town…