Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Finding Solace in Nicaragua: Part 2

Granada was impossibly charming, and it was easy to understand why people often said they got stuck here. The same colonial ambiance that pervaded León was even more present in Granada. The buildings were painted a little crisper, the streets a little cleaner and the whole town was just a few kilometers from Lake Nicaragua and the immense Volcan Mombacho. Granada was much smaller than we expected. At just over 100,000 people it had the small city feel that León lacked. The central park was crammed with food and art vendors and lined with horse carriages waiting to take you on a tour. Just behind the gorgeous yellow cathedral was La Calzada, a pedestrian avenue lined with trees, shops and restaurants with alfresco dining. We spent hours passing up and down the street, taking in the relaxed and artistic atmosphere. It seemed that almost every other shop was an art gallery of some kind boasting original prints and paintings from local artists. We ended up buying two interesting prints on handmade paper that caught our eye, plus a beautiful painted jicaro fruit Christmas ornament. We fell in love with a juice bar that whipped up a calala-naranja (passion fruit-orange) smoothie which we ended up drinking once a day. We also tried some yummy street food including doughy fried balls (possibly made of yuca) with a sweet syrup, tostones con queso (fried crisp plantains with chunks of fried cheese), yuca con cerdo (boiled yuca topped with spicy roasted pork and cabbage salad), and more local juices like granadilla which tasted like cream soda.

Cathedral on the central park
Tostones con queso

We took two wonderful tours while in town. The first was a boat ride visiting the islets in the lake just off the coast. Our guide was a bubbly young man who spoke not only English and Spanish but was also working on his Dutch and Italian to communicate with the thousands of tourists that visit each year. Our fellow tour takers were a pair of older Swiss men on holiday who also spoke six languages combined. We felt glad we had at least two solid languages and a little Italian and had a fun time chatting with everyone in all of them. We motored slowly around the islets, of which there are 365 (one for each day of the year our guide said). Created mostly from volcanic eruptions, the islets are mostly just big enough to fit a luxurious house and little dock, which is what most had. You can buy your own islet and build a house if you wish, something we almost considered doing until realizing the price was a little out of our range. From some islets you could see out across the windy, choppy lake to the dome of the Granada cathedral. Another island featured an old fort, and yet another had a pair of monkeys brought there for protective purposes since they can’t swim off. We stopped at one island which had a restaurant for a drink and our guide explained about local bird life and the ongoing rivalry with León. It was relaxing and calming, the weather breezy and warm.

One of the many personal isletas
Monkey showing off on the Isleta del mono
Then, we decided last minute to sign up for a chocolate making tour which ended up being our favorite part of the trip. Our guide was a rather witty guy from Managua who spoke English, but seemed thrilled that he could give us the tour in Spanish. First, he taught us about the plants. Cacao pods grow on trees in tropical regions around the equator, on trees that can get up to 15 meters. Each tree produces hundreds of pods between September and December and each pod has 20-50 beans. Some pods turn from green to yellow when ripe, but others are always red and no one knows why. The beans are harvested from the pods and fermented in their pulp before being dried and then quickly toasted. We were able to toast our own beans over an open fire and then hand shell them, taking out the warm, chocolatey smelling beans. We ground the beans into a paste called chocolate liquor with a mortar and pestle which really took some arm strength. Surprisingly enough, that was pretty much the whole process – so simple!

Toasting cacao beans
Grinding the beans to make chocolate liquor
We mixed the chocolate liquor with some water and spices and viola, hot cocoa! The Maya were the first to make a cocoa drink and used just cinnamon and some honey for flavoring. The Aztecs later on added other flavorings like chili powder and vanilla which made it tangy. Then the Spanish added milk, giving it that creamy flavor we know today. We tried each kind, preferring the Aztec flavoring the best. Our guide then explained the process of making a chocolate bar. The liquor gets mixed with sugar and blended for several hours to make the chocolate which is simply poured into a mold to cool. The respective ratios of liquor and sugar give the chocolate’s percentage you read on the package, i.e. 70% is 70% liquor and 30% sugar. Tempering makes the chocolate last longer and keeps it shiny, but we didn’t need to go through that process. In the end, we knew all about chocolate from how to select beans and toast them to how to prepare hot cocoa and chocolate bars at home, and we had two homemade bars to show for it. Fabulous!

Making hot cocoa
We spent most of our time just wandering around taking in the beautifully restored buildings, most of which have only been redone in the last 10 years or so. There were kids playing jacks in the street, fountains within every courtyard and, as in León, abundant rocking chairs. We climbed the bell tower of La Merced church to get a view of the cathedral with the lake in the background. We visited the old town train station, wandering through the steam engine and cars in the small but well-restored station that is no longer in use. We finished our trip with a delicious splurge at a restaurant that caught my eye, Imagine. The owner/chef was from New Mexico and had some delicious fusion dishes made with local ingredients. We enjoyed a bottle of Carmenere, pork tacos and chicken enchiladas surrounded by art in homage to John Lennon, perfect!

Just be careful that you don't rock yourself off the edge
Us with the cathedral in the background
Old steam engine at the train station
Imagine all the people, living life in peace...
We savored our last relaxing moments in Granada, enchanted by the people, food, scenery and architecture that never failed to impress us. Even our early morning taxi ride into Managua to catch the bus home was fascinating, our driver yammering on about local political issues, his family and his views on Costa Rica. We left Nicaragua feeling lucky (and a little guilty) that we were able to take our vacation and escape Honduras for a few days and a little sad that our week of sunshine and solace had to come to an end.

Enjoying our time in Nica before heading home to pack up and leave...

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