Granada is, arguably, Spain’s loveliest city. But its American namesake, Granada, Nicaragua, needs little argument: wedged between a volcano and the vast Lake Nicaragua, the new-world city might be the most romantic town in all of Central America.
Year-round sunshine illuminates the bright pink domes that crown a maize-yellow cathedral that is outlined in lacey white trim of the Granadine style. Along the verdant Central Park and the wide, sunny plazas, the steady clop-clop of horse-drawn carriages echoes on the cobblestones.
Though far less known than its Iberian counterpart, Granada, Nicaragua, shares its Moorish majesty and comes as a revelation for travelers. So much of Central America is picturesque shabbiness, messy urbanity and untamed jungle, that Granada’s Old World elegance can seem like a mirage.
Indeed, even before Nicaragua emerged as the hottest destination in Latin America, Granada was one of the region’s crown jewels. Founded in the early 1500s by the Spanish conquistador Francisco de Córdoba, it is one of the oldest cities in the Americas; despite a spicy history of pirate lootings, burnings and more recent Marxist conflict, Granada’s colonial splendor is well-preserved.
The city is also a convenient base for discovering southwestern Nicaragua, where luxurious beach resorts are cropping up on the still-unspoiled (and stunning) Pacific coast in places like San Juan del Sur. Granada is a mere hour’s drive from both the beaches and the Nicaragua’s capital city, Managua, site of an international airport.
Nicaragua suffered mightily during its years of war – and the Ortega government, back in power, has had a fractious relationship with the country’s tiny Jewish minority, which is re-establishing a community after years of exile. Yet here in sleepy, humid Granada, the only tension perceptible is that between some locals and a recent influx of more-affluent foreign retirees, whose investments have driven up real estate prices.
That investment has had its bright side. Streets full of colonial buildings have been quietly rehabilitated, their facades restored to the frothy, white-trimmed wedding-cake look that defines the city. Anyone who has wandered around colonial Mexico will feel at home amid these cobblestoned streets lined with low-slung houses in yellow, pink and blue.
Granada is long on atmosphere and short on the kind of formal museums you might find in its counterpart in Spain. Even the most urbane will find it hard to resist an excursion to the top of one of the volcanoes that ring Granada: from there the very air seems to shimmer along with the vast lake below.
Along Lake Nicaragua, a waterside promenade is alternately charming and tacky; further on is a string of beaches popular on warm afternoons. Tiny islands — some developed, some not — break the placid blue expanse, beckoning to kayakers.
Apart from its stunning natural surroundings, Granada’s most impressive sights are religious ones: convents, churches and missions.
An exception is Mi Museo, an earnest and immaculate collection of pre-Columbian stoneware. Installed in a pretty adobe villa by a European philanthropist, Mi Museo is free to the public and pleasant, with its period decorations and shady courtyard. I personally find ancient pottery a bore, but there are plenty who disagree, and this well-catalogued collection is among the region’s most comprehensive.
The unquestioned standout among Granada’s sights, though, is the Convent of San Francisco. A church, monastery and museum are tucked within a lavish sky-blue façade with white trim that looks like it was designed by Wedgwood.
Inside is a variety of exhibits that illuminate the spirit of Nicaragua from various angles: pre-Columbian artifacts, yes, but also photographs of Granada from decades past, a gallery of folkloric paintings, and ethnologic displays that explore Nicaraguan mestizo culture.
With a history of right-leaning politics and a religious skew, Granada is frequently described as Nicaragua’s conservative city. It is certainly a deeply Catholic one — and the ornate churches of Old Granada are worthwhile both historically and aesthetically.
Unexpectedly, these churches form part of the city’s Jewish history as well. While their Iberian cousins were converted at sword point, many European-Jewish immigrants voluntarily became Catholic in a bid to assimilate. Yet unlike the Spanish anusim who hid their roots in fear, Nicaraguan families are often proud of their richly textured heritage.
Proof of this is to be found in the tiny Jewish cemetery — the “Cemeterio Ysraelita” — where some graves bear Stars of David, others crosses. Symbolic coexistence is further underlined by the cemetery’s location within the Catholic city burial ground.
The complexion of Granada is once again changing, as American retirees, expats and backpackers converge in ever-growing numbers.
But even as tequila bars and sushi restaurants sprout up, Granadinos aren’t too worried: from pirates to Marxists, they’ve seen just about everything in the last half-millennium.
Whatever comes next, they’re pretty sure their paradise can survive it.