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The Glories of Granada, Old and New

Nekupe Sporting Resort and Retreat

Photo by Ryan Forbes

Although it’s Latin America’s oldest city, dating back to 1524, Granada is abuzz with new energy. Thanks to Granadians and international expats opening restaurants, stylish boutiques and hip hotels and bars, the city is emerging as Central America’s au courant hot spot.

“What I love about Granada is that it’s a quintessential small town. There is a very strong sense of community here and everyone wants to do their best to impress. It's nurturing and inspiring,” says Andres Lazar, co-owner of Espressonista, a trendy third-wave coffee shop by day and farm-to-table restaurant by night.

Set on the sapphire jewel-toned Lake Nicaragua and teeming with colonial Spanish architecture, Granada, named after Spain’s Granada, is an ideal hub for both outdoor enthusiasts and culture vultures. Luckily, you can get a taste of both in a single day.

For a jump start, head to Espressonista for coffee and freshly baked croissants while rubbing elbows with the hipster artist and student crowd. A few blocks away, walk to the town square, Parque Central, and hail one of the colorfully decorated horse-drawn carriages for a clip-clop hourlong tour through pastel-painted historical sights and neighborhoods. Stop at Iglesia de La Merced, a Spanish cathedral built in 1534, and climb the bell tower for arresting views of red-tiled rooftops, hidden courtyards and, in the distance, the verdant Mombacho volcano. Other photo-worthy churches of antiquity include Catedral de Granada with its Pokémon-yellow façade and looming Iglesia de Guadalupe.

Upon returning to the square, grab a quick snack—like a quesillo, a warm tortilla stuffed with Nicaraguan cheese and onions pickled in banana vinegar and topped with sour cream or vigorón, boiled yucca topped with cabbage, tomatoes, onions and pork rinds atop a banana leaf—from one of the many food vendors. Or have lunch and a glass of Nicaraguan Flor de Caña rum on nearby Calle La Calzada—a car-free street lined with alfresco cafés and bars

And no visit to Nicaragua— known as the country of lakes and volcanoes—is complete without reveling in at least one of its 78 nature reserves, parks and wildlife sanctuaries. For a more low-key encounter with nature, drive up to the top of Masaya Volcano National Park until you reach Santiago crater, one of the world’s most accessible active volcanoes. Magic unfolds as voluminous white clouds billow from its fiery belly and parakeets that have adapted to the toxic fumes dramatically swoop in to nest on the perimeter. It’s especially photogenic at sunset.

Seeking thrills? Opt for Mombacho Cloud Forest Reserve—a dormant volcano with lush green landscapes and exotic wildlife such as howler monkeys, parrots and sloths. On the way up to the 4,409-foot summit, stop for a scream-inducing 15-platform zip line through the rainforest. Once at the top, take the hiking trail along the rim through dense vegetation—keep your eyes open for friendly tree frogs—and fields of ochre-colored wild orchids for top-of-the-world views of Lake Nicaragua.

For dinner, El Zaguan, a longtime Granada favorite with both locals and visitors, serves up high-quality steak—beef is one of the country’s biggest exports—with unique marinades such as jalapeño or pineapple. After a hearty meal, recount the day’s highlights over a nightcap using Nicaraguan ingredients at Spanglish, the country’s first craft cocktail bar that opened in June.

Opening November as Nicaragua’s first luxury countryside resort, Nekupe Sporting Resort and Retreat features eight tricked-out rooms on a 1,300-acre nature reserve, located roughly 30 minutes outside of Granada. Prefer to stay in town? Check into celebrity favorite and trendy bohemian hideaway Tribal Hotel or the five-bedroom Bubu Hotel, a regally refurbished colonial home.

Take advantage of the nation’s abundance of quality leatherwork and head to Soy Nica for vibrant, Danish-designed belts and bags or pick up a pair of eye-catching sandals at Cocobolo Artwear. Snag beautifully handwoven hammocks—made by blind, deaf and otherwise impaired weavers—at Café de las Sonrisas (Café of Smiles). For cigar aficionados, Nicaraguan cigars are on par with Cuban stogies, thanks to the country’s rich volcanic soil. Roll your own organic ones at Doña Elba Cigars. Hit Mercado de Artesanías de Masaya, roughly 15 minutes outside of Granada, for kitschy souvenirs after visiting nearby Mombacho volcano.

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