Nicaragua revisited

by Jane B. Hanrahan, Alpharetta, GA

Travel in Nicaragua has changed considerably.

During a 1993 visit, I found that the country’s lack of tourist infrastructure made it difficult — and at times impossible — to enjoy its historical and natural attractions.

In April ’05, however, I found helpful tourist offices, organized tours, improved transportation, varied restaurants and a wide range of new hotels.

The capital

Managua, once a rather sad city with its earthquake-devastated center, has become a busy, modern metropolis with more than a million inhabitants. The new president’s home helps fill the center’s void. Large shopping malls house everything from Radio Shacks to Subway sandwich shops. One can even tempt fate in a casino.

The city has expanded in all directions, which complicates getting from the spectacular new cathedral to its deserted predecessor or from the National Palace of Culture and its museum to the Loma de Tiscapa for its city views.

Rather than confront the maze of municipal bus routes, most travelers wisely choose a city tour. (Call Gray Line at 505 88 36994 or visit for information.)

Managua accommodations

Instead of a new chain hotel such as InterContinental, Crowne Plaza or Holiday Inn, I chose the Casa Real (phone 505 278 3838 or visit in a residential neighborhood near Metrocenter Mall. This one-time private home had a single rate of $60 (plus 15% tax) that included a cooked-to-order breakfast. My room, very nicely furnished, had a balcony with red flowers covering the railings.

On my last night before a predawn flight out of the country, I chose the Best Western Las Mercedes (phone 800/780-7234 or visit www., across the highway from the isolated airport. Greatly enlarged and modernized since 1993, the hotel has pleasant rooms, two pools and extensive gardens. My senior rate of $72 plus 15% tax included a buffet breakfast and transport to the airport.

During my first visit, I could not get from Managua to anywhere. Hotel people advised against all public transport. “It’s not safe for you.” Eventually, I managed a one-day visit to Granada with a friend of the U.S. Embassy’s cultural attaché.

In 2005, I rode “express” vans, colectivos and even hand-me-down U.S. school buses. Reliable taxis were plentiful. Rental cars and private drivers abounded. Most likely, future intercity transport will even offer air-conditioning.

Continental America’s first city

Granada, founded in 1524, has become one of Nicaragua’s principal tourist attractions. In 1993, it had two small hotels, each with no sign of a guest. Today, the city has a wide range of small and moderate-sized hotels.

Visitors can ride horse-drawn carriages, purchase local crafts, visit museums and photograph churches. Some enjoy the lake’s beach, some choose one of several large discos, and nearly everyone samples a variety of Nicaraguan foods. For me, much of Granada’s attraction lies in its colonial atmosphere with small parks and a surfeit of eateries.

In contrast to Managua, Granada visitors can walk to most of the interesting places. Just a couple blocks from the central plaza, the Convent of San Francisco houses the Nicaraguan Cultural Institute. Its varied collections include pottery recently excavated from archaeological digs near Lake Nicaragua. Another section displays life-size stone statues of human figures with animal heads produced between A.D. 800 and 1200.

Some 10 blocks away, Granada’s Centre Turistico edges Lake Nicaragua. This extensive coastal area has protected beaches, play equipment, countless restaurants and large discos. Tranquil by day, the place apparently vibrates at night.

A somewhat longer walk leads to the Fortaleza de la Pólvora, a fort built in 1748 to protect the city, and its museum of arms. Nearby, a huge cemetery offers interesting strolling.

Lodgings and side trips

Catty-cornered from the cathedral, Hotel La Gran Francia (phone 505 552 6000), one of Granada’s oldest buildings, recently reopened after complete renovation. My room with colonial decor had the usual amenities for $80 plus 15% tax. While my window looked to a wall, more expensive suites have small balconies above the street. At sunset, I enjoyed sampling hors d’oeuvres on the hotel bar’s street-view balcony.

Across the central plaza, Hotel Alhambra (phone 505 552 4486 or e-mail ni) has 80-dollar rooms with views across the plaza to the cathedral.

Both hotels advertise a “swimming pool.” This turned out to be, in each case, an indoor decorative pond in which one can swim.

The city has a wide range of less-expensive accommodations.

About 20 taxi-minutes from the city, the town of Masaya enjoys national notoriety for its various arts and crafts. Some of its ceramic work is especially outstanding.

An hour’s drive takes one to Mombacho Volcano Reserve with its forest trails and biological station. The mountain’s advertised canopy tours are not the treetop walks I had visualized. Encased in a harness, the visitor is hoisted up to a platform and then, suspended from a cable, moves to other viewing platforms.

The City of Culture

The capital of Nicaragua for 280 years, León now considers itself the cultural center of Nicaragua. Some two hours from Managua via colectivo, this city of about 200,000 has narrow streets and few highrises. Certainly not a nightlife hub, the city has an art gallery, a late-19th-century archive/museum and a wide variety of early churches that made my trip worthwhile.

León’s cathedral, actually a royal basilica, offers tours to its bell tower for views of the city. The ingenious design of the building’s skylights permits natural interior lighting all day in this, Central America’s largest cathedral.

Nicaragua’s most famous author, Rubén Darío, spent his early childhood in a León house now furnished to depict life in the late 1800s. In addition to photos and descriptions of his accomplishments, the building has an extensive archive available to researchers.

The art center of the Ortiz-Gurdian Foundation merits a visit. Its restored Creole-style buildings nicely display a wide range of early European paintings as well as those of Latin American artists. During my visit, the temporary showroom had a fascinating collection of contemporary sculpture.

Just a couple of blocks from the cathedral, Hotel Austria (phone 505 311 1206 or visit has a pleasant garden and adequate air-conditioned rooms with cable TV and Continental breakfast for $35. My “suite” ($45) was a larger room with additional furniture. The hotel’s restaurant serves satisfying meals, such as the chicken breast with mushroom sauce, fries, rice and salad that I had for around $6.

About five blocks from the city center, Hotel El Convento (phone 505 311 7053 or visit www.hotelelconvento. definitely rates as the area’s prime hostelry. Built around a large garden patio, the building maintains a colonial decor. My shrimp cocktail and superb filet mignon in its pleasant air-conditioned dining room cost about $16. Regular, unexciting rooms cost $85, while a delightful suite with private garden was $111 (plus 15% tax for each).

El Sesto, a restaurant facing the central plaza, introduced me to repo­cheta: two tortillas filled with fresh cheese and beans, heated and topped with thick cream.

Island tranquility

After many days of touring colonial churches and museums on narrow city streets, I chose to visit a tree-covered island about a half hour away by taxi and launch from central Granada. On one of some 360 islets created in Lake Nicaragua by ancient eruptions of Mombacho Volcano, Hotel Isleta la Ceiba has a good-sized pool, shaded hammock nooks and a footbridge to a soccer/volleyball island.

Built about 10 years ago, this only resort in the Isletas de Granada attracts a largely Nicaraguan clientele. As with most hotels in this country, someone in management usually speaks English.

Swimming and reading, as well as paddling a kayak and enjoying good food, kept me occupied. My basic, air-conditioned unit had a small 4-channel TV and a bathroom with a hot-water shower. Its large windows looked across the lake to the volcano.

My single daily rate of $50 covered launch transfers, room, three meals and taxes. For one of the two lakefront rooms, or any of the eight others, contact Nicarao Lake Tours (

While on the island, I learned that reliable flights now exist to the east coast port of Bluefields, to the Caribbean’s Corn Island and to the North Atlantic Autonomous Region. And I began plans for my next trip to Nicaragua.