Granada, Nicaragua: Strong history and traditions
The Nicaraguan city of Granada was in a fervour of activity leading up to Semana Santa or Holy Week.
Processions, precursors to the main event wended their way through town with floats crammed with children in costume, little girls in bright satins, boys in more sombre garb with Middle Eastern-style headdresses (occasionally topped with a baseball cap to ward off the sun that had pushed the temperature up to over 35 degrees Celsius).
Inside the cathedral and churches, altars were shrouded with Lenten purple and the statues that would be carried through town on Good Friday were being readied on their biers.
The sound of these Easter-time processions was the background to exploration of Granada's cobblestone streets and historic houses – their walls painted in bright, sometimes garish colours, a counterpoint to the strength of the tropical sun.
Granada is one of the oldest, if not the oldest city in Central America. It was founded by Spaniard, Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba in 1524. Situated on the shores of Lake Nicaragua and connected to the Caribbean (and thus Europe) by the San Juan River, tonnes of gold, silver and other treasures plundered by the Spanish conquistadors as they passed through Granada.
This wealth attracted the attentions of others too, with Granada pillaged by British, French and Dutch pirates. But, if stories of pirate attacks weren't enough to enrich Granada's history, the town also has connections to an American adventurer who once schemed to rule vast swathes of Latin America.
William Walker, a physician, lawyer and journalist, dreamed off setting up kingdoms ruled by English-speaking white Europeans, at times even calling on the support of the conservative white slave owners of America's southern states.
He did succeed in declaring himself president of Nicaragua in1856 and for a time lived in Granada but by 1860, after attempting to take over Guatemala, he was instead arrested and shot. He was only 36.
Since the 1880s, horse-drawn carriage tours of Granada have been a popular way of exploring Granada and it was from a carriage that we viewed Walker's house and later stopped at a 19th-century railway station (now a vocational training school), one of the few reminders of Nicaragua's railway era (the last rail line was closed in 2001).
Across the plaza from the station is a historic house, painted a particularly lurid shade of pink. Our local guide explained that Rosario Murillo, the wife of the current president Daniel Ortega, has a particular love of bright colours, pink especially. I guess when you're married to a man who is now into his fourth term as president (Ortega led the Left-wing Sandinistas in their struggle against the rule of the Somoza dictatorship) you can do pretty much what you like…
Granada is regarded as probably Nicaragua's top destination for travellers but in the nearby town of Leon it has a serious rival. Nothing new in that, however, the two towns have been competing for ascendancy for nearly 500 years.
Leon was founded by Cordoba in the same year he established Granada but over the centuries both towns developed very different political leanings. Leon was a stronghold of liberal politics, Granada of conservatives. The decision as to which city would become Nicaragua's capital after it gained independence from Spain in 1821 and then subsequently became an independent republic looked to be an impossible one. So, a compromise was found – neither of them was chosen, instead the new city of Managua was built in between the two.
Granada has in recent years attracted more attention from travellers but Leon, especially now that more renovations are underway on its Spanish colonial houses and churches, is on the rise.
Leon was also preparing for Easter when we arrived, but the central plaza in front of Central America's largest cathedral, St Mary of Leon, is always the town's beating heart, no matter what time of year. Students and tourists vie for bench space and hawkers seek out buyers of Nicaraguan cigars and rum.
We stayed at El Convento, a hotel built on the site of the San Francisco convent, the first such religious institution to be founded in Leon. The original building dated back to 1639 but financial crisis, wars and earthquakes over the centuries took their toll. The hotel is relatively new, but was built to reflect its religious heritage with cloisters surrounding a central courtyard garden and public areas filled with antiques from wealthier times.
Just outside Leon is the Isla Juan Nature Reserve, a sandy barrier island that separates mangrove wetlands from the Pacific Ocean. We puttered up the waterways in a motorboat, spotting birds and sleeping iguanas before alighting on the island and taking a path to the sea.
Here there is a small sanctuary dedicated to caring for the four species of sea turtle that return to the beach every year to nest, making this one of the most important nesting sites on the Pacific coast. Olive Ridley, hawksbill, leatherback and green sea turtles all lay eggs here and although we were out of the nesting season there were still a few tiny leatherback turtles for us to see.
I was handed one of the baby turtles, which barely covered the palm of my latex-gloved hand. Only about one in 500 of these babies will make it to adulthood … the desperate dash from nest in the sand to the sea alone accounts for thousands of turtles each season.
Then it was back to Leon for dinner, where ceviche (raw fish salad) and some of the best beef I've ever eaten was on the menu, with the grand finale being Tres Leches, a cake (not a solely Nicaraguan treat but very good here) soaked in three kinds of milk – fresh, condensed and topped with cream. It was just as well I wasn't on a Lenten fast.