A haven for backpackers, beachgoers, volcano explorers and history buffs, this Central American country has something for everyone
Author Erin Brady Photography Andrew Rowat
DAY ONE | The central courtyard at the Tribal Hotel, in the colonial city of Granada, is at its best in the morning, observed from a small balcony with a cup of strong coffee. Only partly awake, I stand for a while looking down on this stylized oasis, with its banana trees, Turkish rugs and black and white tile pool. A perfect place to have breakfast, I decide, so I snag a cushioned bench and tuck into a plate of fresh papaya, eggs and toast, along with a cup or three of rich Nicaraguan coffee, of course.
The Tribal is an intimate hotel of just seven rooms behind a whitewashed exterior on quiet Calle Cuiscoma, two blocks from Granada’s center. So, feeling very caffeinated, I zip through the hotel’s tiled lobby and head out into the street, which is crowded with horse-drawn carts and taxis blasting ranchera music.
Located on the northwestern edge of Lake Nicaragua (or Cocibolca, meaning “Sweet Sea”), in the shadow of the dormant Volcán Mombacho, this nearly 500-year-old city in the western part of the country is a knot of cobblestone streets and candy-colored buildings. Two blocks from the hotel, beside the red-domed Cathedral of Granada, is the lovely Parque Central, a popular local meeting place that bustles with snack and souvenir stalls. I pick up a bag of plantain chips and hail one of the cabs.
A half-hour drive north, past chaotic jungle and the occasional forlornly grazing horse, and I’m at the Masaya Volcano National Park. Home to two cones, several craters (including the active Santiago) and a caldera, Masaya is Nicaragua’s first and largest national park. Upon learning my destination, my driver, Roberto, takes it upon himself to be my unofficial tour guide.
Volcán Masaya, he says, has been feared for centuries—first by indigenous people, who used it for religious sacrifices and named it “Burning Mountain,” and later by 16th-century Spaniards, who called it “The Mouth of Hell” and tried to draw liquid gold from its center.
While there haven’t been any major eruptions in centuries, the complex does—as Roberto puts it—“burp” on occasion. Its last significant hiccup was in 2001, when the Santiago crater launched boulders as far away as the visitor’s center, 10 minutes by car from the rim—which, incidentally, is the only rim in the Western Hemisphere reachable by road.
The drive up is relatively gentle until about five minutes from the peak, when the road jerks upward at a precarious angle. Roberto chats breezily about human sacrifice and explosions as we grind our way up to a volcano-top parking lot. Clouds of steam waft lazily from the depths of the nearby crater, drifting toward the Cruz de Bobadilla, a large cross the Spaniards erected to keep the devil away.
From here, I hike five minutes to the dormant Nindirí cone. Dotted with trees, Nindirí has a view that encompasses Apoyo Lagoon, a crater lake that resulted from one of Masaya’s most powerful eruptions, more than 20,000 years ago. There are no eruptions today, thankfully, although there are a few rumblings coming from the region of my stomach.
I head for an early lunch in Masaya, the volcano’s namesake city to the east. The big attraction here is the open-air Mercado de Artesanias, located inside the black basalt walls of an old Spanish fort. The market is packed with bright shops selling traditional keepsakes, including some rather grisly baskets fashioned out of dead chickens. I settle on a small ceramic vase.
I make my way to the market’s southeast corner and take a seat at Restaurante Che Gris, where I quickly blank on my rudimentary Spanish and panic, ordering by pointing at the plate of the person next to me. The dish, a waitress informs me, is indio viejo, a generous helping of tender beef strips, tomatoes, bell peppers and onions in a sour orange juice stock thickened with tortilla. It’s a delicious meal, but not for the faint of appetite.
Having taken possession of a few more ceramic vases, I return to the Tribal, where I slip into the pool, then flop on a daybed, mojito in hand. I awake an hour or so later to lengthening shadows and a vague sense that I’m supposed to be doing something. Oh, yes, sightseeing. My next stop is the weathered Iglesia La Merced, whose bell tower provides stunning views of Granada’s tiled rooftops and hidden courtyards, colored pink by the dipping sun.
Next, I head for Calle La Calzada, a bustling pedestrian boulevard, home to the low-key eatery Nectar. Still digesting lunch, I take it easy with a plate of tostones—a popular local snack of fried plantain cakes topped with salty cheese—and a frosty Tona beer. Nearby, a group of teenagers perform Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” Charmingly, they get some of the lyrics mixed up (“Yet I can give you more than every girl could ever describe…”). Or maybe it’s exhaustion playing tricks on me. Either way, I pay my tab and shuffle, appropriately zombie-like, in the direction of my bed.