Colonial Cities : A Trip to Granada (La Mariposa Adventures)

Written by Hannah Chinn, La Mariposa Intern

Less than an hour away from La Mariposa stands Granada, the oldest colonial city in Nicaragua. Rich with history and filled with colonial-era architecture, it’s also a popular destination for La Mariposa students… and for good reason. As we cruise through the narrow streets, each new turn leading us to brightly-painted houses and views of tall cathedrals, our guests point from one thing to another. One student’s excited for the chocolate museum, another one can’t wait to see the fancy buildings; there’s something for everyone.

We start our tour by climbing out of the Mariposa bus and onto a sidewalk, where Chester announces that we’re visiting a cemetery.
“A cemetery??” one person murmurs, “why a cemetery?”
It’s true, the cemetery isn’t exactly the first place you’d expect to start a city tour… but this particular cemetery is actually extremely important in Granada’s history and identity.
You see, Granada was originally founded (colonized) in the indigenous Xalteva area by the Spaniard Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, who named Granada after his hometown. During the colonial period, it became one of the central cities for commerce… later, it disputed political and historical importance with León (its rival city), saw multiple pirate attacks and invasions, and withstood William Walker’s attempt to burn it to the ground.
sidenote by Hannah: Nicaraguan history is incredible and you should look it up. Also, William Walker was a US American and a Very Bad Person.

The Europeans were the ones to build the enormous cemetery of Granada, as well. Today, it’s the only one of its kind in Nicaragua, marked by chapels and religious statues, mausoleums and marble. The graves near the center of the cemetery are the most elaborate ones, owned by extremely wealthy (and often famous) families — Fruto Chamorro, the first official president of Nicaragua, was buried there. The other graves, with names and dates in a larger structure, belong to soldiers, or are rented out to various families. And the smallest ones on the outskirts of the cemetery, marked sometimes only with a cross or a stake, belong to the poorest families. Inequality persists into the next world, it seems!

After this brief lesson on colonialism, cemeteries, and capitalism, we climb back into the buses.
We hop out again briefly to see the Fortaleza de Pólvora. Originally built to store gunpowder, as the name suggests, this fortress was used to accommodate soldiers and later to imprison people. Today, it acts as a museum with a rotating schedule of exhibits, open to the public. We couldn’t go in that day, though (it was closed?) so we took some pictures and moved on.

We take a quick break at the cigarmaker’sNicaragua is well-known for its handcrafted cigars, apparently, and a pleasant man explains the process while another demonstrates how to bind the tobacco, press it into molds, and wrap it. He hands around a fragrant leaf for us to look at; it’s dark, papery, and unexpectedly sweet smelling. For $5 USD, he adds, you can even buy/make your own cigar here!
(A few students try it, but most of us are content to hang back and watch.)

Our next stop is a church, the Iglesia la Merced. Albeit the facade looks rather old and a little crumbling, it’s lovely and quiet inside, with dark wooden benches, several statues, and a stained glass window. There’s also a small sign advertising the “best view of Granada”, and for thirty Córdoba (about $1 USD) paid to the man at the front, you can climb a short (but narrow and pretty steep!) set of stairs to the bell tower and see the view for yourself. Once we’ve gotten to the top, we can look east towards the Granada Cathedral — the bright yellow and white one near the central plaza — and Lake Cocibolca, or south towards the Mombacho Volcano. Tiled rooftops and colored houses are all around. It’s definitely worth the climb.

From the cathedral, it’s a quick walk to the chocolate museum, the Granada ChocoMuseocomplete with a pool, a hotel, a small café, and a shop where they sell everything from chocolate bars to “Nicatella” to chocolate liqeur to cacao tea. After a brief (and energetic) history of chocolate and some enthusiastic sampling, we browse the shop a bit and then we’re ready for lunch.
We head to the Cafe D’Arte and make ourselves comfortable for an hour or two (and talk to some street vendors who are selling ceramic bird whistles and handmade vases and personalized maracas —  I love the whistles and I can’t help buying one). Then those of us who are heading to the islands pile back into the bus and head for the lake… it’s time for a boat tour!

The islands are mostly owned by Nicaragua’s rich and famous, or rich and famous foreigners who decided that they’d like a personal island in Nicaragua, and our guide seems to enjoy pointing out random islands and namedropping as we go. He also points out the view of the volcano — “we were there last weekend!” one boy notes — and the other islands along Lake Nicaragua. We spot several birds, a heron, and a few spider monkeys, too.

It’s fun for all of us, even the excited four-year-old across from me who keeps leaning out the side of the boat to put his hands in the water; he leans so far that I reflexively grab onto the back of his lifejacket to keep him in the boat, and decide that it’s probably a good idea for me to keep an eye (and a hand) on him at all times. “I wanna swim!” he tells me, and I start to laugh. But he gets his wish when we dock at a small hostel and restaurant, where a small swimming pool (built, apparently, around a huge rock) invites all of us to splash around.

After all, there’s something for everyone in Granada.