I arrived in Nicaragua knowing not more much more itinerary-wise than the city I planned to sleep in that night. I was returning to Central America for the fifth time, and I was more unprepared than ever. I didn’t have a single hostel booked, a single tour planned, or a single bus schedule notated. But yet, I knew what I wanted from the four months ahead.
I wanted to move slowly. I wanted to spend more time in less places, to allow for both travel and work, and not to feel guilty for skipping other people’s “must-sees.” I wanted to pay out-of-pocket for accommodation and activities, and to mostly avoid press comps and obligations. I wanted to focus on my health, and to work out and eat well as much as possible. I wanted work to feel like a source of creative energy and pride, and not an anxiety-inducing drain. And while I had a few firm dates on my calendar — a festival in El Salvador, and meeting my family in Belize — in between, I wanted to figure out my route and itinerary on the fly.
Basically, I wanted to finally find that sweet spot where I was both a bohemian world traveler and a successful, stress-free businesswoman. And I got off to a great start in Granada.
My flight from Miami was so short that I was suspicious I was really landing in a different country. As I caught my first glances of Nicaragua from my window seat, I flashed back to my arrival in Peru about a year prior, which was planned with military precision and involved upwards of eleven pages of documents. In anticipation of this arrival, I had vaguely decided to give Managua a pass, and started looking online for a shuttle about twelve hours before my flight, which, I discovered, is a little too late. But no hay problema, I strolled out of the arrivals terminal, found myself a shuttle, made a few pleasantries in Spanish with the driver, and fell fast asleep.
When I woke up, I was in Granada. After dumping my bags in the first hostel with vacancy, I hit the streets, hungry for both lunch and my first impressions of a country I’d long ached to visit.
I’d had a surprising number of pre-trip jitters considering this is a region I’ve traveled to multiple times with a language I can easily get by on. Looking back, I think my anxiety had more to do with missing Koh Tao than anything else — but as soon as I hit those streets I knew I’d made the right decision. I was exactly where I needed to be. It felt great to be back on the road and back on my own.
At the worst of times, solo travel can be inconvenient and downright lonely. At the best of times, it’s recharging and exhilarating and so incredibly freeing. This was the best of times. After the holidays and an intense, action-packed and family-and-friend-filled month of domestic travel right before my departure, I declared myself on a people detox while in Granada, and reveled in the anonymity that a new city brings. I spent mornings wandering alone with my camera, afternoons typing away in café bliss, and evenings curled up reading or catching up on my favorite TV series with takeaway. It was perfection.
I had heard mixed reports on this tiny little colonial city of Granada — many fellow travelers seem to find it a bit too touristy and I wondered how I’d feel. When I landed, I thought I’d give it at least a few days. I stayed a week — and I loved it.
What I found was a city quaint and colorful, with cobblestone streets and horsedrawn carriages, small enough to feel like you can get a handle on it; enough to do not to get bored but no so much to feel overwhelmed. It’s touristy enough that all the amenities I wanted were on tap, but, having just landed after a few months in the US, still exotic enough to feel lost in a foreign land. The forecast was blue skies and sticky heat — my favorite. And catcallers aside — who were generally more infuriating than intimidating — I took joy in my small local interactions each day; buying fruit from a market, asking directions, and just generally hacking the Spanish language apart once again.
I was also surprised to hear some backpackers complaining that they found Granada boring (my favorite being a girl in San Juan del Sur who claimed she “really got a feel for the city” when her shuttle bus passed through it without stopping.) There is, technically, quite a bit to do in and around Granada. You can hike Volcán Masaya. You can take a boat tour to Las Isletas. You can bike the Peninsula de Asese. You can take a day trip to Laguna de Apoyo. Or, like me, you can do basically nothing.
I mean, I suppose I tried. About ten days before I left Florida, I fell on my face while out for a run in Tampa and twisted my ankle, hard. By the time I arrived in Granada it was still painfully swollen and hot to the touch after a short walk, so I decided hiking and biking were out. I did attempted to sign up for a boat tour, but both travel agencies I approached seemed puzzled that I was by myself, and insisted there was a two person minimum. Though I left my contact information for the next time they had a group, I never heard back — and that was fine. I had a lot of aimless wandering to do.
Granada had something that is a key ingredient to my travel happiness: an abundance of places with both wifi and fresh healthy food. I was extremely behind on work by the time I landed in Nicaragua, but for once I felt not frazzled but just patiently determined to get back on track. My next stop was the beach, and I knew myself well enough to know that I’d have a harder time avoiding temptation there, so I’m glad I remained so focused in Granada.
While eating fancy salads in internet-equipped cafes is a pretty pricey habit, it’s a splurge I’m generally thrilled to make.
Other than my work, I focused on being active every single day. Granada was surprisingly health conscious — I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many gyms in one small city. My favorite was Pure, a gorgeous gym and spa housed in a beautifully restored colonial building and packed with a diverse mix of locals, expats, and tourists. Pure was a place that made me think, um, could I live here? That’s how much I loved it. Originally, I found myself walking through the doors in search a massage, which turned out to be the best one I’ve had in Central America, for a very reasonable $30 for an hour. But that was just the beginning.
I found myself returning to Pure almost every day. First to take a yoga class, then to use the gym, and eventually, to try something I swore I’d never do — Zumba. (And seriously, I wonder why it took my ankle a solid two months to heal.) Granada has Zumba fever — I’d walked by three different gyms in which enthusiastic classes were taking place. I couldn’t help but wonder why I was paying so much for a yoga class filled with other Westerners when the locals were next door sweating up a salsa-inspired storm. I became intrigued.
So, finally working up the courage to be the only gringa in a class of sexy writhing Latina ladies, I made my way to Pure, paid my forty cordobas (about $1.50 — a fraction of the price of a yoga class), and prepared to shrug apologetically at my helpless lack of rhythm. An hour of non-stop movement, reggaeton hits, and choreography that would make your grandmother blush later, I didn’t know if I’d ever had so much fun inside the walls of an exercise studio. I quickly caught on to Granada’s obsession and I sought out classes all over the city. A great workout, a hilarious local experience, and an unbeatable price? I take back everything I ever said about Zumba — at least the Nicaraguan version.
I look back on my week in Granada with such fondness. I will still finding my footing on a grand new adventure, and I only had an inkling of all that lay ahead.
I don’t think I can sum it up any better than I did writing in my journal one night before bed: “I am so grateful for where I am in this moment, focusing on the fact that I love my own company and thinking how spoiled I am with time and space — time to hear my own thoughts, time to work selfishly, and mental space to immerse myself in a beautiful new place.”
Stay tuned for one more post from lovely little Granada.
Where I stayed: First, Backyard Hostel, where I paid $16 for a private with shared bath. It was colorful and had a pool (which I never saw anyone use, probably due to the cleanliness) but a bit too loud and unkempt for what I needed out of the week. Next, Entre Amigos, which was $12 for a private with shared bath. It was quiet, impeccably clean and had the best stocked kitchen I’ve seen in a Central American hostel.
Where I ate: Garden Café was my go-to for healthy salads and smoothies and I ate there for lunch or dinner almost every day. El Pizzaiol was my delicious and well-worth it caloric splurge, and El Tercer Ojo had creative international fare in a trendy setting.
How I got there: I paid $35 for a private shuttle from Managua airport, which took about an hour (I’m not sure if it would have been cheaper with more people — I tried and failed to find other travelers heading in the same direction.)
Bonus tip: If you’re a single woman traveling alone, seriously brace yourself for the catcalling. It was the worst I’ve experienced anywhere in the world and at times it truly tested my affection for an otherwise lovely city.
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I have been really looking forward to your Central America posts as its an area of the world I’m not totally jazzed about (gasp!) which I think stems from not really knowing much about the various countries. What strikes me most is how amazingly colourful Nicaragua is…how can you not be happy in somewhere bursting with colour?
P.S I absolutely love Zumba…even the unoubtedly less sexy and more lame British version!
Well I hope I can give you a little idea of the region, Caity! I think starting with Nicaraguan Zumba has spoiled me for life… even the Guatemalan version couldn’t live up to the spiciness 😉
LOVE this post – I’ve been looking forward to reading about this leg of your journeys and your excitement really shone through in this kickoff post 🙂 Can’t wait to hear more!
Yes, I’ve been dying to start posting about this trip 🙂 Glad it came through! Thanks Erin.
I have to admit I had mixed feelings about Granada. I loved the vibe of the city, and it was super gorgeous, but the kids selling trinkets really broke my heart. I’ve never seen anything quite as bad as I did in Granada (hopefully it’s changed in the last 5 years since my visit). Other than that, it was a lovely city, with great food! I did not try Zumba there, but kuddos to you for trying! Also, I really liked flor de cana 🙂
Hm, it is possible I blocked that out but I have no memory of kids selling anything! Definitely not on the level I’ve experienced in Southeast Asia. Maybe that is something that has changed for the better. Oh, and I loved Flor de Caña as well — but didn’t have my first sip until I got to San Juan del Sur! (No looking back after that…)
This place looks so beautiful! Yet another motivation to learn Spanish in 2015… going to Puerto Rico made me seriously regret not feeling comfortable in another language, and Spanish is something that would be so useful in so many places!
Love the pics, as always!
I know people do it all the time, but I can’t imagine traveling in this region without at least basic Spanish. I use it all the time! I really enjoy the struggle, too 🙂
From your gorgeous shots, Granada doesn’t look boring at all – in fact, it kinda reminds me a bit of Cuba….I guess I don’t need to go now as I’ve definitely ‘got a feel’ for it through your post;)
Ha! Oh man, I want to go to Cuba so badly! Dream stop…
Zumba is a guilty pleasure of mine, although I think I would also feel intimidated to try it in Nicaragua! Granada looks so charming and colourful and I look forward to another post about it!
I was DEFINITELY intimidated. It was one of those things I really had to psych myself up for, but you know what they say… do one thing every day that scares you!
Granada looks so beautiful and like others have said, the colonial architecture reminds me of Havana. It seems like a great place to hang out for a week!
Well, you guys have not succeeded in giving me yet another reason I need to head to Havana! So many of my favorite places get compared to it…
I can definitely see the appeal of Zumba. What I have a harder time with is the idea of working out in such a climate! Somehow Central America seemed wayyy hotter to me than Thailand ever did. I suppose the gym has air conditioning?
No air con in this open air gym! There were fans… like I said, things got super sweaty 🙂
Love the vibrancy of the city! It’s always interesting to hear the variation of opinion when it comes to first impressions of a city. I guess it depends what your expectations are and what you hope to get out of each experience. Cat calling makes me nervous and it one of the reasons I have been debating about whether or not I want to attempt Latin America alone. Great linked-in article about the subject by the way!
Thanks Andrea — I loved the response to that piece. The cat calling deeply disturbed me in Granada, but luckily there were many positives to outweigh it.
Wow! I love all the colors! I’ll have to put Nicaragua on my list. And I looove Zumba. It’s one of the few things I can do to burn a lot of calories without feeling like I’m working out. The hour just zips by!
I couldn’t agree more! The only thing I feel the same way about is Muay Thai. So glad to have another new fave workout!
I’m so glad you loved Granada! So many bloggers and other travelers lately have said how much they hate it. I loved it while I was there for a day in 2011. I’m a sucker for Spanish colonial architecture though! And you’re brave for trying Zumba. I will never ever do it, just out of principle. 🙂
Ha, I used to say the same Katelyn, I used to say the same! However, I’m worried that no other Zumba will ever live up to Nicaraguan Zumba. I tried in Guatemala and it definitely didn’t have the same magic 🙁
Once again Alex reading your posts ignites a travel craving for part of the world I never thought I’d want to visit… My bestie had a horrible 7 weeks in Central America so I’m looking forward to hearing your more positive perspective!
Really! I’m so curious to hear more, Francesca! What went wrong?
I think they did 7 countries in 7 weeks, so just too rushed. Plus she felt scared walking around without her partner (catcalling etc!), got eaten to death by mosquitos and had a bad stomach for the entire time. She came back almost shell shocked from the trip and on the brink of a breakup it was so stressful!
On the other hand another girlfriend spent 10 weeks in Costa Rica and loved it! So the key is probably travelling slow which it looks like you did.
Oh wow, yeah, I can see how being on buses the whole time (seven countries in seven weeks!) would definitely make me miserable too! I’d be carsick, bored and crabby 🙂 A good reason to take it slow!
I though Granada was a beautiful city with a great mix of western amenities and Latin American charm. We only spent 2 nights there as we only had a short time in Nicaragua this time around but will definitely go back next time I am in the country
I think that’s the average, and a perfectly decent amount of time to see the highlights! Of course, more is always better, but we work with what we’ve got 🙂
Amazing colors! I love the wall of masks & most of all, the fishy on the wall.
If I had to sum up Central America in one word, it would be “colorful!” I can’t get enough of it…
Those cafes look divine — its my guilty pleasure too, and I rationalize it by the fact that I am being way more productive than if I was in unpleasant surroundings, had poor wifi connection, etc )
Couldn’t agree more. And it’s worth it to have a really healthy meal every once in a while since so often it’s not even an option.
I love the colours! The pictures are just amazing!
Thank you Sarah! I was so inspired in Granada. I guess it shows!
What a lovely introduction to Granada, Alex. And cool that you tried zumba ^^ I have yet to cross that bridge 😉
If you ever make it to Granada, I can’t think of a better place to start 😉
Ha, on a different subject, any good looking guys in Granada? 🙂
Well, as noted, I was on a people detox 🙂 So none that I noticed! San Juan del Sur, on the other hand…
I can’t believe that was your FIRST time trying Zumba! I have no hand-eye coordination nor do I have rhythm, but I go to my Zumba class weekly with the confidence of an Italian grandmother making gnocchi! Hahaha… All that is to say: Zumba is awesome! On a more related note, it’s great to know Granada is generally friendly (not to mention safe!) for solo female traveler!
Ha, Pauline, I laughed out loud at your gnocchi comment! As for the solo female traveler in Granada thing… did you read the catcalling post I linked to in this one? Give it a read. Honestly, I would say that yes, Granada is safe to solo female travelers, but unfortunately I wouldn’t classify it as friendly to them. I was deeply tested by the relentless unwanted attention I received on the streets. Luckily there were many positives to outweigh it, but, be forewarned.
I’ve always dissed Zumba too, but it does sound fun. Cat-calling is gross and I don’t like it.
Yup… and yup. It was unfortunately a defining factor of my time in Granada.
Sounds like a truly rejuvenating experience!
I too was reticent about zumba, and also fell in love after my first class. I’m trying to find my first class in Brazil, although I’m sure I’ll be danced under the table!
It’s better to surround yourself by those more talented than you, I believe 🙂 Even if it does mean you have to laugh at yourself a bit in a Zumba class… ha.
Been very interested to read about these experiences given how recently we were there ourselves (okay, so it was many months ago, but still on this trip so it feels recent).
We spent a night or 2 on the worst dorm bunks we’ve ever experienced at Backyard Hostel (the English couple managing the place were nice though).
Did you get out to the old, ruined hospital? A very photogenic location for sure!
Had a chuckle when I saw the photo of the Farmacia, as the kind folks there helped us with some cream for some majorly bad insect bites Sarah had.
Can’t wait for the next post 😉
No, didn’t make it to the hospital — this is the first I heard about it, actually! Yeah, Backyard Hostel wasn’t my favorite. I was much happier at Entre Amigos.
Hey I just found your website today and I love it! If you are planning to go to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro any time soon check out my blog too! I give a lot of insider tips of how to enjoy the city like a local. I hope you like it!
Welcome, Bruna! Thanks for the kudos on my site. I’d love to head to Brazil someday — will check it out when I’m headed your way!
Ah, so excited to finally read all of your posts about Central America! I loved Granada – I thought it was a great place to be based for my 3 months of volunteering in Nicaragua, though unfortunately I only ended up being there 3 months before I came home.
Kate and I ate at the Garden Cafe one night…yum! The one time I tried for their wifi it wouldn’t work so I ended up spending most of my time at Reilly’s across the street. Did you make it to one of the ladies nights at Reilly’s? SO much fun. The volunteers and I ended up there every Friday night because who can say no to 3 hours of free rum+coke? 😉
I did not! I saved my partying for San Juan del Sur and used Granada as a work and work out retreat, and a people detox 🙂 Gotta have one every once in a while!
Thanks for posting about TBS! I’ve been waiting for a sale for a couple of months now and I’ve decided to go ahead and take the leap.
Awesome, Gwen! I’m so happy to hear that. See you in the FB group!
For good food also try El Garaje, on Calles Corralles ( same street as Pure gym, towards the lake. Great for lunch. Also Cafe de los Suenos on Calzada but further down, away from the center. Both our fave food spots during the years we lived there. Also, do NOT miss the market!! One of the best aspects to Granada…..!
I kept hearing great things about El Garaje but somehow never made it there! I will definitely be back though… so next time 🙂
Ha ha, that’s hilarious that the girl thought she got a good feel for the city only by driving through it. Looks to me as if she missed out on a lot.
Yeah, I was definitely doing a bit of chuckling when I heard that one 😉
We lived across the road from Pure in Granada, for six years! GREAT place to live!
Wow! I bet you went for the monthly membership in that case, huh? 🙂
Full Nicaragua planning mode now! Yes! Gyms in Granada, that fills me with delight. Great post, dreamy photography – very excited!
I would go back to Granada again just for a week at Pure 🙂 Good times!
What month were you in Nicaragua?
I’m looking at a Trip in March but am wondering about if it will be dry and dusty.
Hey Lisa! I was there in January and it was lovely!
Thank you! 🙂
Also if you’re still looking at options after after a ton of research I found a good liveaboard option for the northern part of the Red Sea (great reviews, low price) called the ‘South Moon’.https://seaqueens.com/
Can’t wait to read about your experiences there!
When will you be in Jordan/Petra and Israel? I’ll be there the middle of March!
I think I’ll be there around May! Looking forward to sweating my bum off 😉
I hear you! I’m doing the opposite and going to be cool in Jordan in March but burning up in Egypt in September!
Have amazing travels! I hope to cross paths with you someday someplace in the world!
That would be lovely, Lisa 🙂
Thank you for making me excited about Granada (and Central America in general)! Also, thanks for making me feel better about not being the only one who falls on my face during runs…
Ugh, that twisted ankle still haunts my nightmares! It was THE WORST. But Granada is incredible — and so is Central America!