Summary: Granada, Nicaragua
Granada, the conservative sibling amongst Nicaragua’s twin second cities, makes several positive impressions but seldom truly impresses. It offers authentic colonial charm and the large, thoroughly ingrained expat community that has earned it the moniker “Gringolandia”. As a city of over 110,000 people with close proximity to the capital, it offers an array of luxuries that some first worlders aren’t quite ready to part with.
Pros: Cheap, well located in relation to Lake Nicaragua and Managua, safe, low priced produce, beautiful colonial architecture, first world cuisine, affordable and usable gyms, friendly locals
Cons: Hot, streets can be overcrowded with people, vehicles and vendors in certain areas, panhandlers and street vendors can be relentless and destroy any otherwise idyllic setting, IVA (value added tax) is in effect and when combined with automatically included tips your bill can increase 25% beyond the menu price
Distortions: Our time in Granada occurred around March of 2011.
The Girlfriend and I thoroughly enjoyed our month in Granada. Our rental, a one bedroom house with a central courtyard, high ceilings and more space than we could even appreciate, was probably the best we’ve had thus far. Outages were almost non-existent, affordable meals and groceries were nearby and dependable internet access kept us easily distracted for our 30 days, even if the heat made us dread mid day errands. I’m told it’s not so bad as Leon or Managua, but it’s far from fresh. Granada more than meets your needs but left us ultimately neutral. I wouldn’t mind living in Granada; in fact, I suspect I’d enjoy it. But I found very little to get excited about.
Gringo throngs appear most places you go and gringo involvement is apparent in many of the cities programs. We lived in a “Nicaraguan neighborhood”, a specificity whose very existence confirms a strong expat presence. We got on well with our Nica neighbors though the language barrier prevented anything more than casual, friendly recognition and acknowledgement. The norm was for everyone to congregate in front of their homes after sunset to avoid the heat and socialize. We also met several travelers, both at our hostel (La Casita) and after moving into our house during visits to Euro Cafe and other restaurants and bars around town.
Though Granada sits on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, the waterfront has no apparent beach and little festive atmosphere. There seems to be a push to develop this area of the city into something a little more welcoming or interesting, but as it stands now the water access should be viewed as a plus only in that it’s convenient to catch boats to local attractions like the nearby islands and Ometempe.
Pali supermarkets seem to offer consistent selection and pricing across the three towns in which we’ve frequented them. This isn’t surprising, as they’re Walmart owned and the meticulous application of the economies of scale lies at the heart of their business model. The now familiar selection of local produce, purchased in the central market or immediate surrounding area, was surprisingly cheap. I’m not sure what the major factor is, it could be seasonality, proximity to Managua or the vagueries of gringo pricing, but the prices we paid for produce in Granada were noticeably less than what we paid for similar goods elsewhere in Nicaragua. Luckily we had a spacious and well functioning kitchen that allowed us to take advantage of all this cheap produce. Beans, rice and vegetables such as peppers, garlic, onion and potatoes dominated our home made dishes, as has become the norm, with a weekly addition of a rotisserie chicken.
I’ve been told in the past that there’s a rum for every budget in Nicaragua, from 25 year old Flor de Cana to something unnamed being scooped out of a bucket in a ceramic mug. The same seems true of a meal out in Granada. Vacationers gorge at El Zaguan (with good reason) and other pricey gringo joints like El Garaje and Kathy’s Waffle House, all three of which we loved. I’ve never seen anything like Kathy’s Waffle House in this region and, as a guy who prefers breakfast to all other meals out, I was overjoyed to have it around. Other favorites like national fast food chain Hamburlooca, which we had come to know in Esteli, and Telepizza, which has endured long enough to have been around during my previous visits fill a niche for more mundane indulgence. I spent many mornings at Euro Cafe, who’s garden ambiance provided the perfect backdrop to some domestic drip and internet surfing. Just around the corner and down the street from our rental we had Pimpollo carry-out rotisserie chicken and a sit down place that served nothing but great pupusas and drinks. The liquor store (named “Insomni@”) around the corner from the theater serves a small buffet of filling, affordable options most nights as well. My favorite place to eat and/or split a liter of Tona was, hands down, Casa Bohemia. The restaurant is charming and the food is both delicious and affordable. Their mole sauce is especially good, but I was happy to sample as many of their menu items as time and budget allowed. Another recommendation is a Mexican Restaurant whose name, unfortunately, I did not note. They’re a few blocks West of Parque Central, in the general vicinity of El Club. Good Mexican food is often frustratingly hard to come by in Central America and it’s places like this that keep me going. Outdoors, there were few impressive street food options, though we never got around to patronizing the vendors in the park. There were no fritangas akin to Esteli, which is really too bad, though Nuestro Mundo (on along Parque Central) hosts an approximation on weekend evenings. Likewise there were few breakfast options (another reason Kathy’s is a god send). I get the impression there just isn’t much of a local tradition of eating breakfast out.
We only experienced a few outages of any kind, though we heard about more in other neighborhoods. Some of the roads were rough and lots of the sidewalks outside of the immediate central area were intermittent at best . Utilities were included in our rental, so we were not exposed to power or water costs. Internet wise, the town was well wired, with wifi wafting through hostels, cafes, bars and restaurants, often carrying over 1Mb of downstream throughput. At home we never experienced an internet outage unless it was due to a general loss of power. I tried several ATMs and all of them charged fees, but none of these were exorbitant.
Granada has one theater which shows one title per week once nightly on the weekends. The facilities are mediocre and the audio/visual quality of the particular copy of a movie may not rise to even that modest level. Being a major tourist destination, the town is awash in bars and restaurants. Most of these are clustered down a pedestrian district called La Calzada and amongst them is O’Shea’s, an Irish pub that hosts a weekly pub trivia night. We placed 2nd. There’s a decent cafe culture with good local beans and espresso machines, including Euro Cafe which I mentioned above. We frequented a gym near Pimpollo (a few blocks west of Parque Central) that had a strong array of equipment (including free weights) and only cost US$0.77 per visit. The girlfriend enjoyed one or two of their aerobic classes, which were also very affordable. Outdoor pursuits include nearby Lake Apoyo and numerous activities centered around the famous and easily accessible archipelago just outside of town. For a price, tour companies can extend you reach into a wide array of pursuits. Like I said, this is a tourist town.
While scouting a rental home we looked at 7 places, including an approximation of Hard Rock, Granada; a very nice apartment that we were very tempted by, owned and run by a local club (true loft style with water, electric, AC, internet and possibly maid service included for US$500/month). We opted for a casita that was an easy walk from the market and Pali and it’s probably the best place we’ve had yet. It was US$350/month with all utils, 1 bedroom with large kitchen/dining/living area and a central private garden. It’s pictured below. We noticed it’s also available for purchase while sitting in a Remax office hunting for other options (asking price: US$50k). The major downside was the dust (on a dirt road between a woodworking shop and what I think was a lumber yard). We also saw a rental room from an older woman who’s large home bespoke her devotion to Catholicism every where you looked. She wanted US$70/week, but using the small galley style kitchen would have involved battling household staff for access. We found another reasonable house for US$400 with all utilities that became US$420 plus electric when we were shown it by another realtor days later.
By the numbers, Granada cost us US$881.89 for two people including 34 meals out for two (at a total of US$223.21, which works out to an average and median of right around US$3 per meal per person). We bought US$98.20 in groceries and sundries, US$91.09 in booze (10% of our total outlay) and, again, US$350 in rent. For a bit more detail, see the spreadsheet. I encourage you to download it and play with your own numbers (up the rent, half the booze, remove the coffee… whatever you think might suit you in a warm colonial lifestyle).