Granada and León: A tale of Nicaragua’s two cities

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By Karlie Marrazzo

The colourful colonial town of Granada is one of Nicaragua’s main tourist draws. Low buildings splashed with paint in every shade of the rainbow line cobblestone streets, people on bikes and on foot lazily ambling in the heat while active volcanoes loom in the not-so-distant background. After hiking through Mombacho volcano’s cloud forest, my travel companion and I were deposited in the historic centre of town.

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The throngs of tourists the travel literature promised were nowhere to be seen. We settled into our casa, cozy rooms dotted around a courtyard with a shallow pool, reminiscent of the riads we loved so much in Morocco. We walked the sun-drenched streets without aim, settling in to the slow pace of life. On occasion we passed small squares with pretty trees and fountains at their centres. Our meanderings took us to Iglesia de Merced, a church was originally built in the 16th century, destroyed by pirates, and rebuilt in the late 1700s. It was damaged and repaired yet again in the mid-1800s. For the price of a mere dollar, we climbed the narrow stairwell to the top of the bell tower for the famous postcard views of the low-slung buildings with Mombacho to the south and Lake Nicaragua to the east. The rooftop is small and the bell is never far from your ears. As I was serenely enjoying the views, the giant bell was rung violently by men out of my sight, causing my head to spin for hours afterward.

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That evening we decided to see what Calle Calzada, the main tourist drag, was all about. Open for pedestrian traffic only, tables and chairs spilled into the street, yet most of them were empty. Restaurant after restaurant waited for customers. We popped into the very cool El Tercer Ojo for after-taco drinks. On the edge of a courtyard that was open to the sky, chill music played as a silent movie was projected on to the walls. I slipped in and out of the funky stores selling fashions by local designers, returning to the table to sip on sangria.

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The next morning we made our way north to León, enduring a terrible driver who paid no mind to speed limits and felt the need to aggressively test his brakes every couple of minutes. After resisting the urge to vomit for three hours, we arrived in the heart of León and checked into our hostel – our first time in six and a half years of traveling staying in one. Our private room was sparse and I quickly learned that the floor would be more comfortable than the mattress, but for only $19 a night, I couldn’t complain much.

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I don’t like to compare the places I’ve seen, but as I wandered the streets of León, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Havana, one of my favourite cities in the world, The elegant Colonial architecture that has seen better days, the walls of each building painted a different bright colour, some fresh, some faded, the sun and heat permeating into everything. There were people everywhere but again, there were hardly any other travelers.

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León is an important city in Nicaragua. It was the capital for hundreds of years until 1858, is home to the second oldest university in Central America, has many significant churches and landmarks, and still boasts a proud revolutionary spirit. In that vein, we decided to visit the Museum of the Revolution, interestingly omitted from our American-published guidebook. The museum, facing Parque Central and the Cathedral of León, one of Nicaragua’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, is housed in a building that used to house a communications company before it became the HQ of the Somoza dictatorship. We paid an extra dollar for a guided tour that turned out to be in Spanish. My friend was able to translate a few words for me with his beginner knowledge of the language. Otherwise we got by with facial expressions and hand gestures. Our guide was Carlos, a short man in his 70s who was passionate about the information and tried to share as much as he could with us. As we looked around the first small room, the walls covered in photographs, he made sure we were aware of one in particular. It showed a young Carlos at the age of 19, a machine gun in his hands, ready to fight for the revolution. Even though I couldn’t understand most of his words, seeing Carlos beside his young self gave an extra weight to what he was saying. He led us through the crumbling building, down hallways with peeling paint, up the stairs and onto the roof. We gingerly crossed the hot metal, rusting in some parts and with holes in others, for an uncommon view of the cathedral and main square that we hadn’t expected.

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Central America has produced dozens of wonderful, interesting and brilliant artists that are unfortunately not nearly as famous as their European counterparts. I was first introduced to some of the Cuban masters at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, laying eyes on pieces by Wifredo Lam, Alfredo Sosabravo and René Portocarrero, to name only a few. Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz-Gurdián is Nicaragua’s equivalent, housing works from the Renaissance through to modernism and postmodernism by Latin America’s finest – Rivera, Tamayo and more. The gallery itself is almost a work of art, spread amongst four low-slung mansions and connected by Zen-like courtyards with fountains and perfect landscaping. The open ceilings let the cool breeze flow through and added to the laid-back atmosphere in which to enjoy the art. A compelling piece by Emilio Falero, essentially a mash-up of Las Meninas by Velázquez and Guernica by Picasso – two paintings that I have been fortunate to see myself – proved to me yet again that everything is intertwined; memories and moments follow us around the world and back again.

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Stay tuned for my next post – hiking to the mouth of an active volcano!

5 thoughts on “Granada and León: A tale of Nicaragua’s two cities”

  1. Been to Granada 3 times and Leon twice. Leon used to get few tourists but that changed last time I was there a couple of years ago and was disappointed. They have started creeping all over Granada when they used to stay near the Park. Still I go for the locals, the horse carriage operators know me well. It is a comfortable place to be, will go back in Jan 2017 for a month but will pretend the gringos are not there.

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