Six things to do in and around Granada
Beautifully tiled roofs, pastel colored homes, and vibrant flowers hanging over doorways was how we imagined Granada, and boy did it live up to the image. Add in a beautiful plaza shaded under mango trees, soft sunlight bathing the churches, and its close proximity to daily nature escapes, and it was a place we came to love pretty easily.
Though Nicaragua is a budget backpacker's paradise, Granada is a place that can easily break the bank. Between restaurants that serve all kinds of international cuisines and pricey excursions to nearby attractions, the costs can add up quickly if you try to do it all. Since we've been through Guatemala and had the most epic volcano experience there, and because we'd been told that the volcanoes in Guatemala are more impressive than those in Nicaragua, we chose to skip Masaya and Mombacho this time around. However, if you've never seen lava or haven't hiked through cloud forests, definitely do it while you're here! So while we didn't do it all, based on our experiences and what we consistently heard from fellow travelers in Granada, here are the top six things you should do in and around Granada.
Photograph the city
Granada is a city of grand churches, plazas full of activity, and walls painted in perfectly bright pinks and blues just begging to be captured with a camera. The best part? It's absolutely free! To get the best lighting and hopefully avoid the midday heat, plan to walk around before 10:00 am or after 4:00 pm.
Visit Las Isletas by boat or kayak
This cluster of 365 small volcanic islands are home to colorful birds, monkeys, and some very rich people. To explore the islands, you can hop on a boat tour or rent kayaks for 2-3 hours. But be warned, the price for both is steep! Both options are likely to set you back $25-$30 USD per person.
Hike into the cloud forests of Mombacho
Nicaragua is the land of lakes and volcanoes, and Granada is surrounded by a few volcanoes worth visiting. Mombacho, which last erupted in 1570 and whose blown out cone formed Las Isletas, is today completely verdant and teaming with flora and fauna. Depending on the weather when you visit, you'll be able to experience its moody cloud forests or catch incredible views of Granada, Lake Nicaragua, and Laguna de Apoyo.
Unfortunately, a visit to Mombacho can easily break the budget, with tours from Granada starting at around $40 USD per person. For a slightly cheaper option, you can take a chicken bus headed to Rivas and ask the driver to let you off at Mombacho. From there, you can hop on a 4x4 truck that will take you to the top for about $25 USD per person. If you're really set on hiking Mombacho and are on a tight budget, you can walk to the crater from where the chicken bus drops you off, and you'll only pay the entrance price of $5 USD. Be warned: it's a steep climb.
Take a dip in Laguna de Apoyo
About 30 minutes from Granada, Laguna de Apoyo is the perfect place to cool off in the Nicaraguan heat. The refreshing and remarkably clean and clear lake was formed in the caldera of an extinct volcano, and visitors can swim, kayak, and sunbath on floating docks. You can visit as a day trip from Granada, or stay a night or two at one of the handful of hostels on the water (we only did a day trip, but The Monkey Hut and Paradiso were both recommended). While many tourists in Granada use tour companies to arrange transport and get a day pass to one of the hostel's beaches ($10-14 USD per person), we opted for chicken buses and the free public beach. Saving those extra dollars felt even better laying in a hammock with a cold Toña (Nicaraguan beer) in hand.
How to get there on your own: Take any Masaya or Managua bound bus from the Terminal de Buses on Avenida Vega just south of the Plaza Central in Granada. Just tell the driver to let you off at Puentecito or la entrada de la laguna. The bus is C$15 ($0.50 USD). Once you get off the bus, cross the street and either wait at the intersection for the bus heading to El Valle or catch a taxi. The bus to El Valle costs C$8 ($0.26 USD) and will take you about half way down the hill to the lake, and then you walk the rest of the way (it's all downhill). The taxi option should be about C$100-C$120 ($3.33-$4 USD) total, not per person. If you're lucky and time it right, there are a few buses that go from Puentecito all the way down to the lake (this bus starts in Masaya, so if you're coming from Masaya instead of Granada, definitely catch the bus heading to La Laguna).
How to get back to Granada on your own: Fortunately, you don't have to walk up the hill to get back to Puentecito. A chicken bus comes all the way down to the lake about four times a day to drop off and pick up people from the road with all the hostels and the public beach and then heads back up to Puentecito where you can catch a chicken bus heading to Granada. The last bus leaves the lake around 5 pm, and the trip from La Laguna to Puentecito costs C$15 ($0.50 USD). From Puentecito, hop on any Granada bound bus for C$10-C$15 ($0.33-$0.50 USD).
Peak into a lava lake
Nicaragua's first and largest national park, Masaya, consists of two volcanoes and five craters. But the real attraction is that unlike most volcanoes in the world, Masaya showcases a continuous lava lake. Though you can only peak into the crater for a few minutes at a time due to toxic gases, you definitely need to visit if you've never seen lava before. Tip: to see the glowing lava in all its glory, plan to visit in the evening.
How to get to Volcán Masaya from Granada: Catch any chicken bus heading to Managua or Masaya from Granada and ask the driver to let you off at Volcán Masaya. The bus ride costs about C$30 ($1 USD). When you get off the bus, cross the road toward the park entrance. The main entrance is 5 km from where the bus drops you, and people will be there offering transport for C$100 ($3.33 USD) per person. Entrance to the park is C$100 ($3.33 USD). Note: if you are visiting at night (which is the best time to visit), you'll need to join a tour once you arrive at the park entrance for $10 USD per person.
Check out the churches
Like most colonial cities in Latin America, ornate and sometimes crumbling churches are scattered every few blocks in Granada. Our favorites? The meticulously intact and golden yellow cathedral in the Central Plaza, and timeworn Iglesia de la Merced. To get the best views of the city, climb the bell tower of Iglesia de la Merced before sunset. You'll see the perfectly tiled roofs, the cathedral, volcano ridges, and Lake Nicaragua. Entrance to the bell tower is C$30 ($1 USD), just make sure to get there by 5:30 pm when they stop allowing people to enter. Also, this is an active bell tower that rings every 15 minutes, so cover your ears when the person comes up to ring it.