Sunset granada.jpgWe were up early to head out towards Granada. The plan was: no plan. Drive along and stop along the way at anything interesting.

We rented a truck from the same hostel that had provided my hut earlier in the trip. We packed overnight bags and all piled in. Complete with my hosts’ french bulldog Mister Pants. This was the first time I spent time outside of the little town of Playa Gigante. Since I landed at night I hadn’t seen much of the countryside. What I saw were dark mysterious landscapes that managed to romance your imagination. Enticing you to speculate in awe at the wild unknown. Starry skies juxtaposed against the fiery glow of volcanoes at rest send a different vibe than what I’m used to in back home in Atlanta.

    Seeing the countryside in the daylight was another delight entirely. We passed by countless people on motorcycles, most people riding without helmets. There were colorful houses lined newly constructed roads. Some parts of the country almost felt like a desert, while other parts seemed a lush rain forest. Driving through that day we got a good sense of the spectrum of what’s there.
   We stopped at a roadside cantina for lunch. We were met by a smiling older lady who cheerfully invited us in. She offered us piping hot bowls of fresh beef soup or Caldo de Res.  Her smile as warm as her soup, and her kindness seemed to warm the souls as much as her soup nourished the belly. Even though it was warm outside, the hot soup hit the spot. It was a simple broth, that was both ageless and ancient in technique and flavor. It was a thin clear broth, made heartier with the addition of yucca and potato.  I had never eaten yucca before that soup.  I marveled at the waxy potato like texture that lent the clear broth soup added substance. Delicate greens (perhaps collards or cooked kale?) contributed subtle notes of freshness that helped to lift the overall flavor of the broth. Large chunks of bone with clumps of meat clinging to rounded out the ingredients and gave the soup its main source of sustenance. That soup, maybe more so than any other dish I had while traveling in Nicaragua seemed risky- but it didn’t give me any trouble at all.
   Our roadside hostess reminded me of another, Kechita, from the night of the fish fry,  who so welcomed us to her home and graciously fed us all while smiling the biggest most genuine smile you’ve ever seen. Her smile as warm as her soup. Again I found myself humbled by a simple act of kind acceptance and welcoming, and ashamed of how she may be potentially treated in my own country. I witnessed grace in a shack by the side of the road.
   Our next stop on the way to Granada was Catarina. Catarina, from what I’ve heard (and I could definitely be wrong) used to be a town sort of known for torture. After the Sandinistas everything settled down, the locals got pretty good at making crafts and growing plants. Today you can go and walk around and see various artists stalls of all kinds. The main things we were looking at in Catarina were plants and furniture for the house back in Gigante. The road was lined with lush garden nurseries in front of people’s houses. Again and again, I was welcomed, invited to look at these treasures.  We browsed and made mental notes on where to stop on our way back the next day.  Each place all specialized in something unique- one stall sold honey that tastes of orange juice and sunshine. Another sold plants that looked like a prehistoric crime scene, another sold giant, beautiful handmade planters.
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    After Catarina, we headed to the Artist Market in Masaya.  Masya was a bigger city with a more organized market in the city center. Catarina in that there were rows of people selling their crafts and souvenirs. It differed in that Catarina was more organic- many craftsmen had their stalls right in front of their houses, so if you were lucky they might invite you in. We wandered the stalls of the Masaya market with Mister Pants in tow- he was very popular with the locals. Almost anyone curious or adventurous enough would ask if he was “Es amistoso?” or if he is friendly, followed by enthusiastic petting.
In Catarina, I picked up some cocoa pods with the ambition of making my own chocolate from one of the stalls. From another stall, we got pretty yummy pina colada they made fresh right there  and garnished with star fruit. After we finished perusing the goods on offer at the market in Masaya we headed on towards Granada.

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Granada is an old mission city, with roots stretching back to the conquistadors. The streets are busy with horse-drawn carriages darting past cheerful buildings in shades of turquoise and canary yellow.  We arrived at a cute hotel next to a big lake in Granada. But they were fully booked, so the owner suggested a new hotel that had just opened up around the corner. They were even kind enough to show us the way so we wouldn’t get lost and made sure that Mister Pants was allowed ( talk about customer service!!). We were all a little skeptical since it was a new hotel in a highly touristy area of a big city. Naturally, we thought maybe it would be devoid of character or half finished. We had to eat our unsaid words as we entered the Boutique Hotel Maharaja. It’s an East Indian owned courtyard style hotel. It feels like you’ve stepped through a portal to a place ruled by timeless charm.  There was a turquoise pool in the middle of a courtyard adjacent to their restaurant surrounded by perhaps 20 rooms. Our room was comfortable. Consisting of two beds, an en-suite bathroom and an air conditioner (which we needed for Mister Pants who does not cope with heat well). There seemed to be an interesting theme of art on the walls. There were 3 individual prints on each wall- but each of the three prints hailed from the Kama Sutra. There was a little giggle about the interesting choice in decor. After we settled into our sex-themed lodgings for the night we ventured out into the city center for a look see. Our first stop was right next door to a little cafe that sold pretty fantastic falafel. The girl behind the counter was gracious when I overpaid her.  She honestly gave me the correct change, in addition to the best falafel I had during my visit. (It was also the only falafel I had while visiting so this is a true statement). I found the textural simplicity of the café inspiring. I sat quietly basked in the old world charm while waiting for my food.  After falafel the three of us wandered onwards towards the city center.
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   We didn’t have any real plans other than to walk towards the yellow church and see what seemed like fun. We walked along stopping leisurely to peruse vendor tables. There were all kinds of things, similar to what we had seen in Masaya and Catarina. One vendor quickly captured our attention was a small table on the sidewalk full of beautiful handmade leather purses. Eve is an expert bargainer. She began talking them down on price, but then we walked away promising to come back. We walked on until we came to the big yellow church. It too was surrounded by vendors. It seemed like everywhere you looked there was someone catering to tourists. One of the most memorable items were paintings of men and women sitting on toilets. A lot of people use them as bathroom signs, but they are charming none the less.
   The most notable building is the Yellow Church in the city center. It’s actually called the Cathedral de Granada, and a couple of dollars will earn you passage up the stairs to the top. It’s a great view- but we opted not to on this trip. Instead, we wandered the church admiring the ancient-seeming sculptures of Mary and Jesus and other religious icons. The yellow church is certainly the largest and most historically important building in Granada. It’s still a monument to the reach of the Vatican and Catholicism. Entry is free to walk around the main part of the church- but there is a small charge if you want to walk up the bell tower. We opted not to and instead wandered around marveling at timeless icons of Mary and Jesus.
After our tour through Catholicism, we wandered into the town square. It was Saturday evening and there were mariachi bands playing to crowds of locals and tourists alike. My friends remembered a chocolate museum that was nearby. We meandered in that direction stopping off at an exhibition of Nicaraguan paintings. We ducked in for a few moments. The works were largely colorful and cheerful, depicting jungle scenes of lush forests and vivid birds and waterfalls.
When we entered into the chocolate museum we were met by a cheerful staff member who invited us to sample varieties of chocolate liquors that they make there. The flavors included familiar combinations like chocolate mint, but also more exotic flavor profiles like chocolate hibiscus. After a round of samples, we explored the museum which was also attached to a hotel with an atrium. The lovely surroundings invited us deeper into the hotel where we found a living oasis complete with a bar and pool with a waterfall. Feeling excited by our discovery we ordered pina colada at the bar- they were made fresh with frothy coconut milk and served in coconuts. Sipping our beverages we journeyed through the oasis/bar to the rooftop where we had an excellent view of the city, and volcano in the distance. Below us, we could see the pool and the wild ducks and bunnies that seemed to be happily cohabiting with sunbathers and hotel guests. I think being in the company of good friends having such a delicious drink, witnessing so much authentic exotic beauty- made the day. I felt like a kid in never land, and I didn’t want to go back to reality.
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Ginger Liquor Recipe

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1 quart of Clear Rum – I used Fleur De Cana
1 large ginger root
1/2 cup of honey ( I used macadamia honey)

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I cut up the ginger and allowed it to sit in the rum in a sealable jar for a couple of weeks. In hindsight, I don’t think this immediately flavored the rum. However, when I added the honey a few weeks later it brought out the ginger and sweetened the rum. It’s great when mixed with a sparkling water served over ice. This is inspired by the ginger liquor served at the Chocolate Museum and Hotel in Granada.

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