Quick Guide to Colonial Nicaragua

Locals who live in Granada, Nicaragua, are used to tourists—maybe now more than ever, especially since The New York Times recently named Nicaragua #3 on its list of “Places to Go in 2013.”

It’s not hard to understand what makes Granada so popular. Less than an hour after landing at Nicaragua’s international airport in Managua, you can be sitting at an umbrella-shaded table on Granada’s popular Calle La Calzada, a cold cerveza Toña (just 75 cents) in hand.

 There, as the sun casts its goodnight light across the facades of centuries-old buildings, you’ll be entertained by an endless procession of roving musicians, break-dancers, twirling “gigatonas” (giant folkloric puppets), trinket peddlers, and more.

 Tourism has exploded in Nicaragua in recent years, and Granada has quite possibly reaped the rewards more than any other destination. Even if you’re bound for one of the country’s dramatic southern Pacific Coast beaches, you should try to stop off in Granada.

 It’s well worth the trip. Horse-drawn carriages still clip-clop atop cobblestone streets past some of the best-preserved colonial architecture in the Americas to the edge of Lake Cocibolca (also known as Lake Nicaragua), the largest freshwater lake in Central America.

 But here’s an insider tip: Don’t neglect Nicaragua’s second-best-known colonial city…

 León (pronounced lay-OHN) is larger than Granada… It is Nicaragua’s second-largest city, after Managua, and is also only an hour from the capital city—this time to the north. And it’s blessed with just as much graceful architecture and fascinating history.

 Plus, it’s home to several of Nicaragua’s largest and most important universities, giving the city an edgy, intellectual vibe. Even though current-day students weren’t yet born during the Nicaraguan revolution of the 1970s and 80s, you’ll find graffiti and murals everywhere that urge “Accion!” and “Solidaridad!”

 History and literati buffs will be spoiled for choice in León… a city where you’ll find plaza after plaza, each anchored by a uniquely historical Catholic church.

 The perfectly square blocks, lined by cobble- and paved-stone streets, are rimmed by high-walled, tile-roofed buildings with enchanting interiors and courtyards.

 In the crypts of the Cathedral of Leónbuilt between 1747 and 1814 in a colonial-baroque style with thick walls that have endured earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and public uprisingsyou’ll find the remains of some of Nicaragua’s most illustrious public figures. Among these are political heroes, musicians, and poets, including Nicaragua’s beloved Rubén Dario, who spent his childhood in this city. (Poetry in all forms is Nicaragua’s best characteristic.)

 Still—despite its treasures and charms, León is not a city where you’ll find luxury hotels, ultra-chic restaurants, hoity-toity spas, and boutique shops. It’s a real, honest-to-goodness working city, not much dependent on tourist dollars.

 As a friend who lives there says, “As a tourist in León, you’re able to stand back, unnoticed, and observe the city life. But as a tourist in Granada, the city is watching you.”

 In fact, say my contacts there, tourism is in the beginning stages in León, making it a very good place to start a tourism business of just about any kind. (A restored 6,450-square-foot home, complete with guesthouse and landscaped gardens, recently sold for just $185,000—perfect for a bed-and-breakfast.)

 The low cost of real estate in this city—lower than in Granada—lends itself nicely to the entrepreneurial spirit.

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