As much as I wanted to spend more days in León, it was time to explore the rest of the country. The hostel was about to close for a day due to a scheduled team building activity for the entire staff so everyone was supposed to check out. I took that as a sign that it was time to move on. For some reason I haven’t spent much money in Nicaragua, I’ve been spending way less than I expected. I’ve mentioned in a previous entry that Big Foot had shuttles running through the gringo trail from León to San Juan Del Sur and vice versa. Along that route, shuttles can drop you people off in Managua, Granada, or Rivas. Since I had a lot of spare cash, I decided to just take a shuttle to Granada. For 12 USD, it wasn’t too bad. It would save me from doing a lot of transfers. If I took public transport, I would need to take a chicken bus or shuttle to Managua, take another bus or a cab to Mercado Huembes, then take a bus heading to Granada.Once I arrive in Granada I guess i have to take a cab or a pedicab to the hostel. The Bigfoot shuttles can drop you off anywhere in town, so that would save me the added trouble of figuring out how to get to the hostel from the bus station. I figured 12 bucks isn’t that bad in exchange for a worry free journey.
If you must know, the Big Foot shuttle from León to San Juan del Sur (and vice versa) costs 20 USD. Yeah that’s not too expensive, but consider the fact that I only spent around 7 USD from San Juan to Leon by taking public transport. I would’ve spent even less if I was able to take an intra city bus within Managua. It also takes much less time by public transport. The Big Foot shuttle takes 6 hours, i was able to make it in less than 5. They also have cheap shuttles to neighboring countries. A popular shuttle is the one going from León to Antigua, Guatemala. It’s really tempting if you want to head straight to Antigua since it’s way cheaper than flying to Guatemala City then taking a bus or shuttle to Antigua. However i spoke with several people who took this shuttle and they do not recommend it. 14 hours in a cramped van is far from ideal. It’s not one of those huge buses where you can get some decent sleep. If you’re in a rush and you need to head to Antigua, you might just want to splurge a bit and just fly.
The shuttle was there at exactly 9:30 AM. We were barely 15 minutes into our journey when the van was stopped by a couple of cops on the road. The cops asked for our passports. They took their own sweet time checking our passports, and once they saw everything was in order, they let us go. After about 20 minutes, the shuttle was stopped again by another set of cops on the road. Again they asked for our passports. Again they took their time. After about another 30 minutes, another set of cops waiting by the road stopped the van and asked for our passports. Again. UNBELIEVABLE. And we passed another check point about an hour after that. I wondered if there was a wanted criminal on the loose during that time, but our driver said such checkpoints are routine and they frequently target shuttles full of tourists. I really don’t get the point. One or two checkpoints would be understandable. But 4 checkpoints along the route to Granada?! Do they distrust tourists that much? We would have probably passed through 10 check points if i rode the shuttle all the way to San Juan. If you want to develop tourism in your country, this definitely isn’t the way to do it.
We arrived in Granada at around 1 PM. Coming from León, Granada seemed like a town in an entirely different universe. Yeah there’s the same abundance of colonial architecture, but everything seemed so—clean. Spotless even. There’s this common question among travelers in Nicaragua. Which city do you prefer, León or Granada? it’s kinda funny how you’re supposed to choose just one, but for some reason, most people always prefer one over the other, some even to the point of hating the other city while professing awe for the other. I didn’t meet anyone who liked both. As for me, I preferred León because of its authenticity. I dunno, maybe it’s just me, but Granada came off as somewhat pretentious. It’s like that certain area in town that you see in all countries that’s meant to showcase culture and the best of what a country can offer.That part of town that’s mainly catered to tourists, and its main purpose is to be a tourist attraction. Only in Granada, it’s the whole city and not just a part of it. All the streets and buildings are well maintained, and the way some buildings are color coordinated to create images that are pleasing to the eye seemed totally planned. I didn’t sense any spontaneity at all. Try to eat at a random restaurant. If this doesn’t convince you that the city is mainly catering to tourists, i don’t know what will. The prices of meals in most restaurants are outrageous. Luckily, we found this hole in the wall restaurant recommended by locals. It’s more of a house serving lunch. Authentic, home cooked Nicaraguan meals. The serving is huge, it was very filling, and it only costs about 60 cordobas. The place was packed with locals, which is always a good sign. The place had no sign outside so it was a bit hard to find since it looked like a house, but i heard most hostels recommend it. It’s called “Green House” i think, and you’d save a lot of money if you head there for lunch.
Though I wasn’t too fond of the city, I think Granada is still a must visit. Despite the impression that the city seemed to be all for show, i can’t deny that it is really beautiful. One can take great pictures from practically anywhere. If you hated how crowded it was in León, Granada would be such a welcome change. Everything seems to be in order, it never gets really crowded even during busy hours. When we arrived that afternoon we actually found it odd how some parts seemed like a ghost town. Like other colonial cities, the main attractions of Granada are the churches. The main cathedral at the main plaza seems to be the most famous one, but I wasn’t too fond of it for the same reason why i wasn’t too fond of Granada as a whole. The Catedral de Granada looked too pristine to me, that it somehow looked artificial.
Not far from the main cathedral is the Iglesia de Guadalupe. This church looked really authentic, which is a complete contrast to the surrounding area. It’s near the end of the main street, La Calzada.
Another church that I liked is the Iglesia de la Merced which was right next to the hostel I stayed at. It’s also an old church that looked really authentic, complete with wear and tear. This church also has an added bonus. Pay 1 USD or 30 córdobas and you can climb up the bell tower. The views from the bell towers of the other churches are great, but none of them are as good as the one from Iglesia de la Merced. It is nothing short of amazing. Because of its location, you’ll get a sweeping view of the entire town including the lake. I wanted to spend more time up there but then it got really crowded late in the afternoon.
Apart from the sights within the town itself, Granada‘s location is also perfect for a lot of day trips. This is one reason why a lot of travelers spend many days in Granada. Lake Nicaragua is just beside the city. Lots of people rent kayaks and visit the islets. I skipped this activity though. I looked at pictures of the islets and i didn’t find them interesting. What I wanted to do was to visit Masaya Volcano National Park, where I could see an actual lava lake up close! To get there by public transport, you could ride one of the many buses heading to Managua from Granada for only 30 córdobas. Just tell the driver that you’re heading to the Parque Nacional de Masaya (at Kilometro 23) so that he can stop near the park entrance. Keep in mind that if you plan to go their on your own, you have to call the park in advance and reserve a spot since they only let a certain number of people in. You can ask someone from your hotel or hostel to so this for you if you’re not fluent in Spanish. Almost all hotels and hostels offer day trips to the park though if you want to save yourself from all the trouble of planning. I heard hotels charge anywhere from 50-100 USD, while hostels just charge around 20 USD.
You have the option of taking a day tour or a night tour. If you go during the day, you can roam around the park. Day trips are popular for people who love hiking. A lot of people prefer the night tour though, where you get to explore caves and observe bats for a bit before getting a view of the crater lake. The hostel staff recommended this tour as well, they say the lava lake looks better at night. The 20 USD i paid already includes the payment for the shuttle to and from the national park, the 100 córdoba park entrance, and the additional 10 USD entrance if you’re taking the night tour. If you wanna save 10 bucks, just do the day tour instead. I’ve met someone who did both, and he said the two tours are quite different.So if you have time, you might want to do both, ideally in a single day to save you from trips to and from the park. For the night tour, the shuttle picked us up at the hostel at 5 PM. We passed by other hostels to pick up other travelers, and we were on our way to the park by 5:30 PM. Oh by the way, guess what? On the highway, the shuttle was stopped by a couple of cops on the roadside and asked for our passports lol. This time though a lot of us didn’t bring our passports. I mean, why would we? For a shuttle ride less than an hour away? For some reason they just gave us a pass and reminded us to always carry our passports. Seriously, all those check points targeting tourists were really annoying. I know their purpose and I am aware that checkpoints are necessary. It’s just that Nicaragua has too many of em.
At a little past 6 PM we were already by the park entrance, where there was already a long line of shuttle vans, all of them carrying tourists. We were told that it was a popular attraction, we just didn’t realize that it was that popular. We got in before 7 PM. Normally they would let people in early since walking inside some of the caves is part of the tour, but they had to cancel that part due to volcanic activity. No worries, I didn’t really sign up for the tour to do some night spelunking and see some bats. The vans stopped right by the crater lake. Like, only a few meters from the crater lake. And man, once i saw all that molten lava below, I had no words. The entire experience was surreal and dream like. People were crowding around the viewing area and it was difficult to find a perfect spot at first, but once you find one, you’ll be totally in awe. After about 20 minutes we were all told to head back to the shuttles because the park was about to close. We were only there for a very short time and we didn’t get to see the underground caves that’s supposed to be part of the night tour (and part of what we paid for), but i still think it was worth it. I mean, how many times in your life would you get to see a lava lake up close? It truly was a once in a lifetime experience. The shuttle drove us back to the hostel and we were back by 8:30 PM. If you plan on taking a bus back, keep in mind that the last bus back to Granada passes by the entrance at around 8 in the evening. So be sure to be by the park entrance before 8 or else you might miss the bus and you’ll be forced to take an expensive cab ride back.
Another day trip I did was the one heading to Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake that’s only 30 minutes away. Most hostels offer round trip shuttle rides for 8-10 USD. If you plan on taking public transport, you also need to take a bus heading to Managua or Masaya from the local market. It only costs about 10 córdobas. Tell the bus driver to drop you off at the la entrada de la laguna. The path is a clearly marked road uphill. There are a lot of taxis waiting at the entrance and they will take you to the lake for 100 córdobas. That’s not exactly cheap if you’re traveling alone. The cheapest way is just to walk all the way to the lake. I didn’t do this, but i heard that it take about 2 hours by foot. A better option would be to take a bus from the entrance. If you arrive at 11 AM or 4 PM, there are buses coming from Masaya that will take you to the lake. These buses have a sign that says ” La Laguna” in front, and you only have to pay 10 córdobas. If you don’t arrive during those times, there are buses with signs saying “El Valle“. You only have to pay 4 córdobas, but they only take you to the rim. From the rim, it only takes about 45 minutes to get to the lake by foot. For me this is the best option and the one we took. You get to do a short hike and you get to see the more of the scenery. It’s mostly a downhill hike anyway so it’s not really hard. You’d also appreciate taking a dip in the cool refreshing water more after this short hike.
Since a lot of people do day trips to Laguna de Apoyo, most hotels in the area allows the use of their facilities for a fee (about 6-8 USD a day depending on the hotel). I didn’t find the scenery that spectacular, but it was a very relaxing place to spend the afternoon. You could just lie on the lake shore, swim all day, kayak around the lake, or just float on one of those lifesavers and get sun burnt— which was exactly what happened to me lol. I would have loved to spend at least a night in the area. Actually, I wouldn’t mind spending a couple of days by the lake, if it wasn’t too expensive. Hotels vary in rates, but even the cheapest one was quite over my budget. One should also consider the fact that the area is pretty isolated from everywhere else, so for meals you have no choice but to eat food served in the hotel restaurants, and the prices weren’t exactly cheap. One traveler told me it also gets really boring at night. But you wouldn’t go to a place like this to party, you go to places like Laguna de Apoyo to relax. And in that aspect, the lake delivers. Heading back, if you don’t have a round trip shuttle ticket, you can arrange a shuttle back to Granada from any hotel by the lake for around 5 USD if you don’t want to walk back uphill. Just make sure to reserve a spot in advance cause shuttles out of the lake get filled quickly. The cheapest way of course it to just walk back up to the entrance and catch a bus back to Granada on the highway. Just take note that walking back up to the rim could take a while depending on your level of fitness.
I may not have liked Granada too much, but it’s still a must visit place in Nicaragua. And as I’ve already mentioned, it’s in close proximity to a lot of other attractions in the country so it’s convenient to use this as a home base of sorts.It’s also about an hour away from the airport, so a lot of travelers even choose to remain there until the day of their flight instead of spending their last night in Managua. Even if you feel that you’re not too fond of the city when you first arrive, give it a day or two. Somehow, its subdued charm grows on a lot of people.