If ever you go to Granada town….

If ever you go to Granada town....

Most people who read this blog are friends of ours, wondering how we’re getting on. But some of you may be planning a visit to Granada and would like some pointers on what to do or see.

So here, in the name of guidance to travellers, is our potted guide to the best of Granada.

Six of the best in Granada

Iglesia San Francisto

Iglesia San Francisco

– Take a carriage ride when you first arrive to acquaint yourself with the town layout. Thereafter, you can walk everywhere. We used Salvatore (No. 20) who was helpful and spoke some English; there’s also one woman driver amidst all the men.
– Tour the churches. The mustard-and-rust hues of the cathedral dominate in the centre of town, but San Francisco’s museum is worth a visit. Guadalupe is photogenic in the morning sun while the bell-tower of. La Merced offers the best views of the city, especially at sundown. Xalteva is also worth a look.
-You will smell the lake long before you reach it at the end of town, and we wouldn’t be seen dead in the water in the recreational area nearby. But the little boats or lanchas that take visitors on a tour of the small islands (isletas) are worth a spin. Just go down to the shore and haggle with the boatsmen; there’s plenty of choice.
– Go out to the Laguna de Apoyo for the day, or even stay overnight. A taxi to one of the lakeside resorts costs about $10 one way. The waters are clean and the lake breezes ensure that it’s never too hot.

Cafe at Parque Central

Cafe at Parque Central

– Just hang out in the Parque Central and watch the world go by. Eat Vigoron or hot dogs (such as the one Luca is enjoying here) from one of the street-sellers or check out what’s happening in the Tres Mundos arts centre.
– Spend a day lazing at the swimming pool of the Hotel Granada. The salt water is gorgeous and although there are never more than a handful of people there, it’s supremely well kept.

Where to eat

The best meal we had in our three months in Nicaragua was in Leon (Le Turon) which is not the greatest tribute to Granada’s food reputation. That said, the city has plenty of good cafes and restaurants offering fresh food at reasonable prices (plus a few overpriced emporiums aimed at passing tourists).
The Garden Cafe is consistent and reliable – good food at reasonable prices, friendly staff and a nice ambience. If only they’d change the Norah Jones CD they’ve been playing for the last three years.
Our lunch favourite was Cafe de Los Suenos on the Calzada, for its fantastic salads and lovely staff. El Garaje also does a decent lunch though it lacks a bit in atmosphere.
Our favourite pizzas were in Monna Lisa while O’Shea’s Irish bar was also good for comfort food such as Shepherd’s Pie and fish and chips. Expressionista, up by Xalteva, is a cool cafe serving sophisticated fare at stratospheric prices; more New York than Granada.
El Camelo on Calle El Camito is a great spot for well priced Middle Eastern and Asian food. Order camels’ toes and deep fried avocado with roasted garlic dip. Keep an eye out for Leroy’s cakes and cheesecakes.
Pan de Vida near the Iglesia San Francisco is a brick oven bakery producing a small volume of high quality bread and cakes. Look for focaccia, banana and chocolate bread and cinnamon buns at the weekends.

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The Hole Story

Since coming to Nicaragua, we have become a bit more careful about watching our step when wandering around towns.

Beautiful, polished tiling arrangements often give way to broken up concrete, which in turn reverts to a relatively even surface, interrupted wherever possible by poles, ramps, steps and holes. Some houses treat the pavement in front as part of the property, so a concrete ramp is erected on the path to access the traditional zaguan, or garage. With a buggy, even our splendid old big-wheeled workhorse of a buggy, a stroll on the paths turns into quite the obstacle course. Small wheelers have no chance. The buggy might get pushed off the paths on to the road several times in one short stretch.

But the biggest reasons to watch where you’re going are the holes that pop up with alarming regularity on the paths. Many’s the time we’ve been ambling along when we realise one of the children is missing. And each time when we turn back to look for them, we discover they’ve dropped into a hole, sometimes of two or three feet in depth. One day, two of the girls fell into the same hole, though not at the same time.

We imagined the holes lacked covers because of a shortage of funding or the will to finish the job. It turns out the lids were removed due to the existence of a good black market for them. This photo shows the injuries sustained by one of our group (ahem) in tripping over a ramp. image

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And time stood still….

And time stood still....

A photographer we’ve met, and whose exhibition of pictures of Nicaraguan life has just ended in Granada, has remarked on how timeless daily life is here. Bill Stanton’s rather excellent photographs span a series of visits over 30 years but, as he says, it’s hard to tell which pictures date from the 1980s and which ones were taken last year. (That’s one of his lovely images above.)

There’s been an influx of Western money into Granada over the past few years, mostly from North Americans lured by the once faded colonial grandeur of the place. That’s given rise to the usual dubious side-effects – a property bubble, gushing real estate prose and the gradual conversion of the main street into the Nicaraguan equivalent of Temple Bar (but no need for expensive rain umbrellas here).

But in the rest of town, and certainly beyond it, life goes on pretty much as it always has under the tropical sun. There are no shopping malls, chain stores, branches of McDonalds or virtually any multinational. People buy their groceries from family-run corner stores, and they eat out at street stalls manned by casual vendors. Most homes have televisions, but there are few other electrical appliances – vacuum cleaners, even fridges. Washing machines are toploaders only. The police drive Ladas. Government offices echo to the clack-clack of manual typewriters, and store vital information in dusty, over-sized paper ledgers. The carriages pulled by teams of skinny horses are an essential means of transport, and not just for the tourists. The push-carts in which rubbish is collected have wooden wheels, while bicycles are used to transport entire families. Some motorcyclists do wear helmets; it’s just a pity there is no strap to secure their headgear in the event of an accident. I’m sure there are taxis with working seatbelts, but I just haven’t been in one yet.

It might be nice if people had greater access to Western consumer goods, but I wonder if it would make much difference to the quality of their life or state of contentment.

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Is this burger a vegetarian and other unanswerable questions

Is this burger a vegetarian and other unanswerable questions

We have started a compendium of questions for which there is no answer, several dozen of which we are asked every day by the children. The recent car rental was a perfect forum for the interrogators to really get stuck in. Questions range from the innocent to the perplexing. Here’s a flavour:

Q: “When are we there?”
A: “We’re on a dirt road shortcut, with no map worth talking about and no idea when the paved road will re-start, so no, no idea when we will be there. Maybe you want to work on your grammar meantime.”

Q: “How do you say pinkie in Spanish?” Eh.

Q: “Why do we need petrol?” Okay, okay, it’s a good question, but have you ever tried to explain the workings of the internal combustion engine?

Q: “Where is the ice cream shop in this town?”
A: “We just got here, how should I know?”

Q: “Why is it only adults can drink wine?”

Q: “Are geese vegetarians?” (This was in search of reassurance, after they had been chased by a noisy gaggle, who thought they had food up their sleeves. Pictured above are selfsame geese, enjoying the previous night’s (pescatarian) pizza.

Q: “Why is it so hot in this town?”

Q: “Why is it so cold and rainy on this mountain?”

Q: “Is there wifi outside in the air?”

Q: “Do nachos come from cows?”

Q: “Is this beefburger a vegetarian?” (You’ll notice a recurring theme here)

Q: “When are we there?” Indeed.

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What we did for New Year – 1,000 miles on the road and a small bribe

What we did for New Year - 1,000 miles on the road and a small bribe

Central America is teeming with backpackers traipsing from hostel to dorm, not to mention the odd thin-as-a-whipppet cyclist grinding out the miles from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, or the reverse trip. So there’s nothing particularly special about the six of us hitting the road in a rental car for a couple of weeks. After spending six weeks in one place, for us it seemed like a big adventure.

So we ignored the admonitions never to drive in Nicaragua and struck off to the north; the Pacific coast, Nicaragua’s “cutural capital” Leon and the coffee growing mountains of Matagalpa and Jinotega.

The city of Leon, so often compared with Granada, is baking hot and much more of a workhorse of a town than its southern counterpart. As a treat for New Year, we blow the budget on a stay in a gorgeous hotel, arranged around the most stunning garden, creating a fantastic backdrop for dining on the terrace. Yet day after day breakfast is a Fawlty Towers-esque comedy of errors from which we emerge with barely a slice of dry toast.

Sharing a room with five other people is never easy, but when you throw in a range of ages and a baby who’s not sure if he has ambitions to be a good sleeper, it can make for some very overtired parents.

So you cope, whatever way you can. You might find you can mount the cotbed, complete with baby, on the bath, where it fits perfectly. This may or may not have happened. Or you go horse riding without helmets, no questions asked.

On a day trip from Leon, we enjoy the swooping waves and hot sands of Poneloyo, but we are way more taken with the sleepy cove at Las Penitas.

Then we head for the hills and the first damp chills we’ve experienced in weeks at Selva Negra, an organic coffee farm-cum-hotel with German roots. To warm up, we make trips to the bustling town of Matagalpa where the baby, heretofore merely celebrated in the lowlands, is practically mobbed on streets where gringos are a more unusual sight.

Driving in Nicaragua is not a problem so long as you stay razor sharp to avoid the assorted pedestrians, cyclists, horses, cows, chickens, holes, broken down trucks and ice cream vendors liable to wander into the road without notice.

It would be nice to think you could as easily avoid the law enforcement services on the make. In fact we are within 10 kms of home when we are hit for an “infraction”, at a cost of 400 cordobas (around $16). After a somewhat terse exchange, the policeman flashes us the widest of grins as he trousers the cash.

Many times we find ourselves off the paved road, on dirt tracks, wondering, always wondering if we should have gone for the 4×4, rather than a low-set Toyota Corolla.

It’s quite the adventure; full of surprises. We were charmed to meet a young Swedish family in a very remote village, just as we were trying to find a person locally. Their landlady helped us to find the person we sought, travelled with us up there and the Swedish mother, Linda, was able to translate for us. We marvelled at their packing skills (just two rucksacks for five of them for four months) and their capacity to integrate into a local village in a family home. Our children played together, oblivious to language barriers and we all enjoyed a meal in their ‘home’ at the end of a lovely day.

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Christmas Day, 5,132 miles from home

The big people were contemplating spending Christmas away from home for the first time in their lives, but others had more pressing issues. Even though you could drop an articulated lorry through the hole in our roof this year, some of the group expressed doubts about whether Santa would be able to find them so far from home. When Santa’s modest deposits were found to have arrived safely on Christmas morning one was heard to say with audible relief: “I love my Santa presents. Now that we know he can find us, we can come here every Christmas.”

We enjoyed comparing last freezing Christmas, when we all became ill, with this one. It was spectacularly good not to be assembling a multi-part Christmas dinner, trying to remember not to leave any of the elements in the oven/fridge.

It was fun to amble through the quiet city streets on a warm, bright Christmas morning. It was great fun spending the day at the Laguna Apoyo, swimming, messing about with water gear, enjoying the barbecue and sunning ourselves.

It was not fun being the only people left behind by the shuttle bus to the lagoon, as adult backpackers elbowed us out of the way to ensure they all got on. We could almost feel them willing the bus to leave as the issue emerged and we were about to be left fuming on the side of the road. Never mind, when we finally did get to the resort, we were able to glower at the same backpackers from the high moral ground. Which is always better.

It was sortof fun having ourselves and our Christmas dinner rained upon mid-mouthful in the restaurant back in town later.

A round of ice-creams were bought to finish off our stripped-down, far-from-home Christmas Day. To their parents’ relief, the little ones gave a resounding thumbs-up to the experience. Most satisfying of all was seeing the children really engage with their few, simple gifts, instead of being distracted by multiple, complex gadgets.

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A new start

A new start

When I first came here, I thought it would be school-free, all except for a bit of home-schooling. But I was wrong. I mean, how do you think I became a student at a public school on the fourth day of our time here. OK, so here it goes…

My mam and dad happened to mention to the woman renting our house that they would love us to attend school here. As it happened, she and some other parents had set up a school in Granada because she wanted a good education for her children. She said it would be no problem for us to attend and so it was arranged the next day.

On the first day at the school, Sacuanjoche (which is also the national flower of Nicaragua), I wrote in my diary: “First day at Sacuanjoche. Met all of the grade teachers who are called Ms Lauren, Ms Laura and Mr Manuel”. We were at the school for just a couple of weeks, when all too soon, it was the Christmas break.

We met lots of kids of our own age at the school. In third grade are Diego and Moises, in second grade Anthony, Vilheanea, Nikolai, Sophia, Solen and Litzy. And then in first grade Sasha, Abbey, Chilo, Declan, Jade and Nadia.

Lessons at the school are in Spanish and English. So, what other differences are there between Sacjuanjoche and my school in Ireland? There are fewer students, they serve lunch in school and there are more subjects…

I really felt part of it and I am looking forward to going back there in January.

Ella, aged 9.

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