Exploring Granada with Kids
One of the best ways for kids (and adults!) to see Granada and learn more of its history is by taking a tour of the city in a horse-drawn carriage.
The horse and carts can be found lined up outside the Hotel Plaza Colon in Plaza Cristobal Colon (also known as Parque Central). Our hotel advised us to pick a cart with healthy looking horses as this encourages owners to take extra good care of them. I’d also add that if you don’t speak Spanish it helps to pick a English-speaking driver who can double up as a guide.
One detail I noticed was that none of the horses wore bits (the metal bar that is placed in the mouth). According to our driver, horses that serve tourists are not permitted to wear them. This eliminates the risk of nasty mouth wounds. A positive indication, I think, of how Nicaragua tourism’s industry is developing.
The kids did a good job in picking out a cart. I suspect what caught their eyes though were not the polished horses but rather the brightly painted carriage! Like so many other colonial cities that we’ve seen in Central America, Granada is an explosion of colour.
A Brief History of Granada
We took a one-hour tour with Manuel. In the comfort of a shaded carriage we happily trotted about town soaking up the vibrant streetscapes. As we clattered down the cobbled streets towards the shores of Lake Nicaragua, Manuel gave us an overview of the city’s long history.
The Arrival of the Spanish in Granada
Founded by the Spanish in 1524 (around same time as León) Granada is one of the oldest cities, if not the oldest city, established by the Europeans on the American continent. There is some debate as to which city was founded first, León or Granada. Set against a backdrop of lakes and volcanoes, the city is steeped in Spanish colonial history and is often described as Nicaragua’s jewel.
The city soon became one of Spain’s key commercial hubs owing to its strategic positioning between, and ease of access from, the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Located just inland from the Pacific coast, on the northwest shores of Lake Nicaragua, Granada is also linked to the Caribbean Sea via the Rio San Juan. This river flows east out of Lake Nicaragua and was once the lifeline of the city. Prior to the Panama Canal this trade route was the easiest way to transport goods (or, in the case of the Spanish, New World treasures) across the continent.
The Golden Age of Piracy
With its immense concentration in wealth, Granada also became a prime target for pirates and freebooters, many of whom carried out raids on behalf of the British crowd. One of the most violent and notorious was the English pirate Henry Morgan. In 1665, Morgan paddled up the Rio San Juan in the dead of night (in canoes stolen from Mexico) to attack the city. They made their getaway up the Coco River and into Honduras with half a million sterling silver pounds!
Remnants of the ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, as it’s often referred to, is still evident in Granada today. Manuel pointed out some of city’s main defences such as the rusty canons in a lakeside wall and La Polvora Fortress, an 18th century stronghold that used to store the region’s gunpowder. He also showed us the remains of a wall that once divided the Spanish colonists from the native Americans. It’s positioned just south of the Xalteva church.
After Nicaragua gained independence from Spain in 1821 Granada fought internally for control against Leon. A compromise was eventually reached in 1858 when both cities agreed to make Managua (located between Leon and Granada) the country’s permanent capital.
The Arrival of William Walker in Granada
It was during this time of instability that the North American filibuster and megalomaniac, William Walker arrived in Nicaragua. Taking advantage of the country’s instability, he declared himself President. His aim was to make Nicaragua an American state to alleviate some of the anti-slavery pressure on US plantation owners. When things didn’t go as planned, he set fire to Granada and bolted.
Tragically, many buildings were destroyed and some still show the scars today. Manuel pointed out the charred facades of many churches, walls and buildings. One little house to survive the fire was Casa El Recodo. As Granada’s oldest house, it has now become something of a tourist attraction. We didn’t have a chance to look inside but if you get to visit there’s also a souvenir shop here.
In spite of, or perhaps because of, its many facelifts over the years, Granada is now one of the most picturesque and well-preserved cities in Nicaragua. It is certainly one of the most visited on the tourist circuit.
Horse Drawn Carriage Costs
A one-hour tour costs around $20 per carriage.
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