Granada's cathedral with Volcan Mombacho in the background
We were arriving late into Managua, Nicaragua - our plane was due to land just after midnight. Delays in our connecting city meant we actually showed up about an hour later than that. Thankfully, our hotel driver was still there waiting. We were staying in the nearby city of Granada, about 50 minutes away. Managua simply didn't seem interesting enough, while there were tons of things to do near Granada. It was after 2 am when we went to bed, but surprisingly, we were both ready to get moving shortly after 8 am.
Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua
The hotel breakfast was great with lots if fresh, tropical fruit. We talked to the owner and he had lots of suggestions for how to start off our day. They were also willing to set up excursions to the places we wanted to visit during our stay. We began by walking 5 blocks to the Antiguo Convento San Francisco. First built in 1529, then destroyed by English pirate Henry Morgan 150 years later (can you say, "Aaaar!"), the building serves as both a church and a museum. And since today was Palm Sunday, there was a service going on in the church with lots if singing. It provided an atmospheric backdrop as we checked out the museum and the former convent grounds. My favorite part was the pre-Columban statues lined up on two sides of one open air room. Most were from the 1300-1500s. You could see the Mayan and Aztec influence in what was depicted, what the statues were carved wearing, and so on. Most statues were of gods or goddesses from the rich Central American mythology. You saw manlike beings carved with crocodile, jaguar, and eagle features. There was also nice displays of early Nicaraguan pottery. Once again, you saw the obvious Mexican influence.
Two rows of almost 1,000 year old statues show major influence on Nicaragua's indigenous inhabitants by the Maya and Aztec
From there, we took our hotel owner's suggestion and checked out the private, "Mi Museo," which was the collection of an obviously very wealthy and very enthusiastic aficionado of early historic relics of Nicaragua. Most of it was pottery, each piece labelled in both English and Spanish. My favorites were the pots shaped like animals with faces, feet, and richly painted. I glimpsed the back, storage rooms where 4-5 times what is on display sits categorized inside plastic tubs, each labelled appropriately. What's more, the museum is free and tipping is expressly NOT allowed. Sadly, the Danish gentleman who put the collection together died in 2012. His gift lingers on, though.
Examples of of the early Nicaraguan pottery at Mi Museo, a free and interesting museum in Granada
From there, we decided to check out a couple more of Granada's churches. Unfortunately, we were hitting them near the noon closing time. So, we were unable to climb the bell tower of Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534 and considered the country's most beautiful church. So, instead of taking in a panorama of the city, we walked around the locked exterior and took photos of its baroque decoration. It is a beautiful church, even though the electrical wires running along the street made photographing it difficult!
Dome and statue that are part of Iglesia La Merced, said to be Nicaragua's most beautiful church
Lightning struck a second time as Xalteva Church was also closed. Along with La Merced, it is a favorite of the wealthier descendants of the Spanish conquistadors and colonists. Its bright yellow exterior and soaring towers made it a pretty sight -- especially from the tiny park across the street.
Xalteva Church, seen from the tiny park across the street in Granada, Naicaragua
We continued along the road hoping that Forteleza La Polvora would be open. It also boasted views of Granada from its towers. Sadly, it also was closed. I vaguely considered doing an Indiana Jones to get inside if I found a way through or over its walls. But there was a policeman on duty at the gate who (I believe) said it was closed for remodeling. Frustrating. It was after noon and I could tell the temperature was well into the 90s, with a bright sun blistering down on us. It was definitely time to head back to the hotel to rest and recover. Besides, we wanted to arrange our afternoon excursion with the desk before it got too late.
The closed towers of Fortaleza La Polvora
We ended up picking a boat ride to the Las Isletas, a cluster of more than 300 islands that are remnants of the eruption of Volcan Mombacho, which looms over Granada and Lake Nicaragua. The islands are little patches of jungle in the calm, vegetation-choked water. Egrets, cormorants, ibis,and even eagles prowl its waters. They are nearly outnumbered, though, by the boats chugging through the channels between the islands. The Las Isletas day trip is a popular day trip for visitors and locals alike. A big part if the tour is pointing out which wealthy Nicaraguan family owns which upscale weekend home you could glimpse through the trees. For Sale signs advertised others available to be snapped up by the elite and turned into a place to entertain friends or get away for it all. One of my favorite parts was the anti-pirate fortification on San Pablo island. The tiny, two story brick and stone structure still sported a couple relic cannons and overlooked the route pirates would need to take to attack Granada.
The tiny fort on San Pablo island in Las Isletas -- a cluster of 354 islands in Lake Nicaragua
An interesting aspect of the raids English pirates would make on Grenada is that they had to sail for many miles up the River San Juan River, which empties into the Atlantic Ocean, to reach their target. Coincidentally, a new attack on Nicaragua is planned by a foreign "partner" using the same Río San Juan. A Chinese company has essentially bribed the Nicaraguan government into letting them dig a canal from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. The first part will dredge the Río San Juan and destroy the habitat and two national forests to reach Lake Nicaragua. The passage of ocean going container ships will likely do zilch to help the ordinary people of Nicaragua. Only the government and elite will have a chance to snatch a piece of this destructive fortune cookie. All the animals, fish, and subsistence fishermen will have their lifestyles destroyed so that more inferior quality, "Made in China" merchandise can more quickly insinuate itself across the world. Yay! So, I guess I'm glad I am getting a chance to see Nicaragua's natural wonders before they are destroyed by the impersonal and ever-grasping hands of progress.
Tiny fishing vessels and scenes of aquatic beauty may go away and be replaced by ocean-going container ships, if a Chinese scheme to build a canal in Nicaragua happens
Spider monkeys like this one stand to lose their habitat if "progress" -- Chinese-style -- has its way...