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72 Hours in Granada, Nicaragua

The Central American country of Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in the region these days with a wealth of natural attractions including volcanoes, lakes and a breathtaking landscape as well as beautiful old colonial towns and cities . UK visitors are increasingly turning their eyes towards the country, sometimes called The Land of the Poets because of its strong poetic heritage. (The most famous Nicaraguan poet is Dario (1867-1913) but there are many others well known in the Spanish speaking world - all of who captured the nations romance and drama.)

Flying into the capital Managua, the colonial city of Granada is an hours drive away, and is the perfect introduction to exploring Nicaragua. Granada and Leon are stately colonial cities with an old world charm yet still close to adventurous activities and scenic attractions.

The centre of Granada is dominated by the lovely ochre yellow cathedral of Saint Francis in the main square, Parque Central. Dating from 1583 and then rebuilt, it overlooks the heart of the city, filled with vendors, cafes and visitors and locals alike pausing for refreshments and people watching. Picturesque horse drawn carriages line up around the square, some decorated with bows and ribbons to take tourists on a city tour. Horses are also used to transport goods and workers, and you are as likely to encounter them going about their business in the streets as you are trucks and cars. The vibrant streets which radiate off the square lead to the busy market where you can buy anything from herbs and spices to shoes, clothes and pots of hot stews and rice which locals take away for lunch. Or venture a little further to the chocolate museum where you learn about the history of cocoa in the region and get to taste various types of chocolate including some fiery chocolate rums. We made our way to the blackened Iglesia la Merced, built in 1534. Damaged by fire and invaders the embattled church is famous for its bell tower. Climb the 73 steps to the top and see a great view of the city stretching out to the volcanos and mountains in the distance . In the evening we explored the bars and restaurants of the city which range from traditional tapas bars to more formal dining places. Most cafes and restaurants are situated in buildings with attractive garden courtyards which provide shade during the day. Nicaraguan specialties include Gallo pinto, or rice and beans, or carne tapadas, vegetables and stewed beef. Local rum is called Flor de Cana and is well worth sampling. A good range of beers include Victoria and Tona. In the early morning of the next day we make a short drive from the centre to take a boat out to Les Isletas, the tiny islands on Lake Nicaragua where we spot herons, kingfishers, cormorants and other birds . Some of the islands are home to spectacular houses, the holiday homes of Nicaragua's rich and famous who come here for holidays and weekends . One of the 365 islands is called Monkey island because of its resident monkeys, one of which is called Dolores we are told. She can be seen swinging happily in the trees. Another of the islands has a small fort which we climb and watch early morning fishermen and visitors navigating the islands by kayak.

Nicaragua has 28 volcanos and 19 of them are active. We take a trip to the still active Masaya volcano, close to Granada, which last erupted in 1774 but the lava from that eruption can still be seen as we start the ascent. We are told that on the day of the eruption the people made a procession headed by a religious image to try and stop the lava at the lagoon. Their faith was rewarded.

At the summit we see grey smoke belching from the cavern and hear a grotesque growling from below ground. No wonder the people, thought a monstrous ogre or witch lived there and were even persuaded to sacrifice children and maidens in an attempt to curb her anger. A cross sits on top of the volcano, erected to ward off evil. On the way down we stop at a museum which explains the geology which created this phenomena and provides some dramatic images of the impact the volcano has had on the local population.

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