L: What’s that bird? It sounds fantastic.
L: No idea. I’m asking you. Listen.
They walk out of the hotel and along the pedestrian street towards the cathedral, following the trilling and whistling, peering into trees. At this time of the morning, Granada is peaceful.
L: It’s louder here. Get the camera ready. Where can it be?
D: Got it! Wow. It’s impressive. Beautiful colours. Can’t you see it yet?
L: No, where? All I can see is a man with…. Oh. You’re mean. It’s not a bird. It’s a guy selling song stones.
D: D’you want one?
L: (crossly) No I do not.
They cross the wide open central plaza, admiring the grand and brightly coloured buildings around the edges of the square. In the middle is a park filled with mango trees, where locals are sitting on shaded benches reading the papers, and drink sellers are setting up stalls. A line of ponies and traps stretch along one edge, waiting calmly for tourists seeking a city-tour circuit. The ponies seem painfully thin. Beyond the plaza, shop keepers are opening up, washing down pavements, bringing out displays. Further still, paintwork turns faded and streets residential. Doorways secured by wrought iron gates open into elegant parlours with bright polished floors, rocking chairs and low tables, beyond which are glimpses of green courtyard gardens. As the day warms up, occupants rest in the cool dark interiors, and rock, eased by the through breeze between courtyard and street.
This morning they walk, keeping to the shade like everyone else, strolling through bustling markets, and around several small museums. They admire church facades and peaceful interiors with dark wooden pillars and ceilings. At the Iglesia San Francisco, they stop.
L: Right – this is the highlight. Are you excited?
D: By the façade? It’s quite pretty, I suppose.
L: No – follow me. There’s a museum next door. It has some amazing black-basalt statues. 1000 years old. They come from the nearby island of Zapatera. They’re ceremonial – of gods in human or animal form. You’re going to love them. Here we are.
Ticket office: Welcome.
L: Two people please.
Ticket office: The museum is closed. For restoration. You can walk around the cloister but there’s nothing to see.
L: What about the statues?
Ticket office: I’m sorry.
L: Damn. But I’m not sure you would have liked them anyway. Right – now for the highlight. Follow me.
They walk for a kilometre, in rising temperatures, to the white painted Fortaleza la Polvora at the west end of town.
L: It’s got the best views, from the towers. You’re going to love it.
They reach the main gate, which is closed. They speak to a guard.
L: Buenas dias. Two people please.
Guard: The fort is closed. For restoration. You can take a photo through the gate but there’s nothing to see.
L: What about the views from the towers?
Guard: I’m sorry.
L: Damn it. Never mind – it might not have been that great anyway. Now, for today’s highlight, follow me!
They walk the increasingly hot kilometre back towards the centre. At the Iglesia de La Merced there is a service going on. The large space is filled with people, standing and sitting and milling and singing. They climb the narrow winding staircase to the top of the bell tower. Views stretch in all directions, across terracotta town roofs, to the lake, to hills and volcanoes and green wooded plains.
D: It’s great up here – you can see for miles! This is better than statues. And forts.
L looks towards the blue line of water visible behind the cathedral dome.
L: It’s odd, don’t you think, that although Granada’s on Lake Nicaragua, it doesn’t feel much like a waterfront town. It hasn’t got a harbour or a quay for fishing or leisure boats. And the street layout hasn’t really included the lake shore as part of the town, has it? All the beautiful stuff seems to have sort of turned its back on the lake. The poor lakeshore must feel a bit left out.
D: You’re right – it does look a bit left out, a bit unloved. I ran out along there this morning. There are some parks and playgrounds and a few bars, but I’m not sure how much anyone goes there.
They circle around the bell tower, gazing across the carpet of terracotta rooftops spreading out in all directions, with bursts of greenery and colour from courtyard gardens.
L: D’you think it was named after Granada in Spain?
D: Yes, I do. It’s one of the oldest colonial cities. The Spanish built it in the 1520s as a sort of showcase to prove that there was more to them than just guns and Catholicism. And it’s still in good nick despite earthquakes and wars, because it’s always been rich, so if things fall down, they get “closed for restoration” and rebuilt. As we’ve seen.
L: Why’s it rich?
D: It was a trading centre. Between the two oceans. We’re only a few miles from the Pacific on one side, and on the other the lake and the Rio San Juan mean that boats can get all the way here from the Caribbean.
L: And sharks.
L: There are bull sharks in the lake, which have also come all the way up the river from the Caribbean. Weirdly they’re happy in both salt and fresh water. And they eat people.
L: I’m serious! They’re famously aggressive, and they like warm, shallow water so they come much closer to the shore than other sharks, as well as up rivers. Bull sharks have probably attacked more people than any other type.
In the afternoon they take a boat around Las Isletas, several hundred tiny tree-covered volcanic islands scattered just offshore. Some are uninhabited, while others have just one property – their own little kingdoms. D admires the gardens, the quays and the varied architecture.
D: I didn’t expect this. It’s just like being on a Thames river cruise!
L: Don’t put your hand in the water. Apparently Jaws was a bull shark.
D: Of course he wasn’t. He was a great white.
L: In the film, yes. OK, and in the book. But the shark attack on which it was based was probably done by a bull shark. Say some. So. Keep your wits about you. That’s all I’m saying.
They pass two men, standing chest deep in the water, fishing.
L: Yikes, aren’t they afraid of the sharks?
Their guide, Ramon, laughs.
Ramon: No, they stay on the other side of the lake, by the river mouth. And anyway, there are very few of them now. We sold them all to China.
Ramon: Violeta Chamorro, our President in the 1990s, sold the sharks for their fins and skins and meat. Now they’re rare.
While L knows that this is a bad thing, she cannot help but be a little bit relieved.
Ramon: And she sold all the trains.
Ramon: We used to have railways up and down the Pacific coast, but Chamorro sold all the trains. Now we have no railways.
They ponder that for a moment.
L: Wasn’t that rather inconvenient?
Ramon: I’m not sure they were used much. And lines were often closed because of flood damage. Or earthquakes. But it’s the principle. Now we are a country without railways.
He looks despondent. L tries to lighten the mood.
L: Costa Rica’s got no railways either, and they seem to be alright.
At this, Ramon’s face falls further. L has blundered into an age-old rivalry between the two countries.
Ramon: Costa Rica. We’ve got everything that they have, and more. In 20 years Nicaragua will be as rich as Costa Rica. We’ve got wildlife and volcanoes. And mountains and beaches. And activities and adventures for tourists. And coffee and cows. Have you ever tried our churrasco?
D: Last night, actually. Best steak I’ve ever eaten. Seriously.
Ramon: Exactly. And we’ve got things they haven’t got, too! We’ve got beautiful islands in the Caribbean. And beautiful cities, full of history. AND, we’ve got the river.
He smiles triumphantly.
D: Ah, yes, it’s true, you’ve got the river.
They nod and grin at each other.
L: What are you talking about? What river?
D: The Rio San Juan. Nearly half the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica is the river. Before the Panama Canal was built, it was seen as part of a possible alternative route. But get this – although pretty much all the border rivers in the world are shared between two countries, not this one.
L: How come?
D: Someone reckoned it would be easier for any potential canal developer to be negotiating with one country instead of two, so the border was fixed on the southern bank, giving the whole of the river to Nicaragua. Costa Rica has been extremely cross about it for 150 years.
Ramon nods happily at this. He has cheered right up. The sun sparkles on the water, which is murky but clean. They spot egrets, herons, ospreys. In the distance is the craggy backdrop of Volcan Mombacho.
Ramon: They say there are 365 islets, one for each day. Mombacho threw them down, 10,000 years ago.
Electricity cables stretch from islet to islet. They pass an impressive villa on one.
Ramon: Owned by Carlos Pellas. Flor de Caña – you know, our famous Nicaraguan rum? He’s the richest man in Nicaragua. In all of Central America. At one time he talked of becoming our President. But he was too busy.
They pass another, even grander.
Ramon: He owns that one too.
Nearby is a third islet, with an extensive jetty.
Ramon: And that one. It’s a miracle he survived the plane crash.
L: The plane crash?
Ramon: In Honduras, in 1989. Terrible – but 10 people survived out of 158. He and his wife were two of them. She was very badly injured, and burnt. Now they give millions to charity, for burned children.
Ramon continues as they pass by each islet.
Ramon: That one is owned by Canadians. That one by Swiss. And that one by Americans.
They watch children playing on a wooded slope above the shoreline, and two pigs rootling under the trees.
Ramon: There are local people on the islands too. Some of them live as they always have, and some look after the houses of others – the foreigners are a good source of income. A few of the islands can be rented for a night or a week, by tourists.
They pass a boatyard, a half built ferry on the slip.
Ramon: That’ll be the biggest ferry on the lake when it’s finished.
L: When will that be?
Ramon: Who knows? They’ve been building it for two years. Another two? Maybe longer. Work has stopped. I think they’ve run out of money.
Ramon: Over there is a cemetery island. That one has a Spanish fortress. And this tiny one has only monkeys. They bite.
A rowing boat makes its way slowly along, close to the shore, heavily laden with wood.
Ramon: Collecting fuel. For cooking.
The gaping discrepancy between richest and poorest, both making a home on these islands, sits uneasily, like an elephant in the boat.
They return to the mainland and disembark. Ramon looks around. He taps his phone.
Ramon: OK, guys…ummm. Let’s take a walk. My driver hasn’t returned quite yet.
They follow a dusty track from the boat quay back towards town. To their left are parched pastures and to the right is the lake. In contrast to the neat and tidy islets, the shore is an untended expanse of earth, gravel and scrubby yellow grass. There is litter by the track, on the shore, around the remnants of bonfires. Families picnic under trees, or from their cars, ignoring the plastic bottles and carrier bags left by others. The muddy water is shallow – too shallow even for bull sharks – and people are wading, knee deep, 100 yards out from the shore.
They pass several cows, meandering along the verge. Ramon walks ahead, talking impatiently into his phone. They are overtaken by a pick-up, a dozen people sitting or standing in the open back. It is followed by a skinny pony pulling a roughly-made wooden cart, not much more than a flat platform, on which are sitting another half dozen people. A kilometre further, the driver arrives, cheerful, chatty and entirely unrepentant. They set off, only to pause again almost immediately by a bar. The driver gets out.
L: That’s nice. He’s going in to buy us some cold drinks, to make up for the delay.
The driver heads over to a fruit stall next to the bar, buys a melon, gets back into the car, puts the melon under his seat, and drives on.
D: I think he was just buying his supper.
That evening, they join the throngs on the pedestrian street. The atmosphere is friendly, relaxed. They walk towards the central plaza, where both locals and visitors are standing in clusters, chatting. Music drifts out of the cathedral interior. Several Italian ice cream parlours are still open. For less than the price of an English ice-lolly, D receives such a mountain of ice cream, balanced precariously on top of a wafer cone, that he is afraid to move. And a little embarrassed to leave the shop.
L: Don’t worry – I’ll help you eat it.
D: You most certainly will not.
They amble back through the crowds and the music, the kids and the bicycles, the buskers and hawkers, and look up at their balcony, feeling fortunate to belong, in some small part, for just a few days, to the noisiest street in town.