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Granada, the most popular tourist attraction in Nicaragua, is a very strange place. On the surface it's a picture-perfect colonial town on the shores of Lago de Nicaragua, with cathedrals silhouetted against pure blue skies, horse-drawn carriages plying the streets, and plenty of restaurants and watering holes.
As far as tourism is concerned, Granada ticks all the boxes. It isn't all smiles, though. Sit down for a beer in one of the bars along the tourist enclave of Calle La Calzada and look around, and you'll see child labour, hard drinking, prostitution and thievery, all threading their nefarious ways through the oblivious American tourists. Lack of tourism has helped keep both Nicaragua's natural environment and its heritage intact.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Granada. I rather suspect that in today's Granada, the complete opposite is true, as a tide of tourism rolls into the city and encourages a side of Nicaragua that is considerably less appealing than the tourist board would have you believe. Granada is physically attractive, there's no doubt about it. The Parque Central is utterly charming, and is the cleanest and crispest colonial plaza I've seen in the whole region; squint as the sun sets, and you could easily kid yourself that you're in Spain rather then the poorest country in Central America.
As with most colonial towns, it's all about the churches and the plazas, and Granada has plenty of options, from the crumbling Iglesia de la Merced whose tower you can climb for a classic view over the city to the sparklingly clean white-and-earth tones of the cathedral's new paint job. You can't help clicking your camera every time you turn a corner, and there are lots of corners in this grid-based city.
It was hot when we visited, too hot for us to explore on foot, so we took an hour's ride in a horse-drawn carriage to see all the main sights. They are delightful. We then walked down to the lake shore and explored the rather downtrodden Centro Turistico park to the southeast of town, and yes, if you ignore the tired tourist park with its ugly restaurants and piles of litter, it is all very pretty. We also met up with Pamela and Matteo, whom we'd last seen in Suchitoto in El Salvador; they'd gone on to Honduras and the Bay Islands, but the weather had been terrible and they found Honduras to be scary and dangerous, so they'd come back to Nicaragua and got in touch when they reached Granada.