On the western shores of Lake Nicaragua sits Granada, a colonial city with a troubled history. Named by Hernández de Córdoba after the ancient Spanish city over the centuries it has been the victim of numerous attacks and invasion attempts. Burnt to the ground in 1856 by the defeated ‘filibuster’ William Walker after his attempts to seize the city were met with angry revolt, the version that remains is quite different to that which Córdoba laid claim. The scars of these events are still clearly visible and following the collapse of the nation’s economy in the 1980’s the infrastructure and many of the city’s buildings have fallen into disrepair. Nevertheless within the rubble of a once flourishing port lives a vibrant community who have endured the hardships and turmoil with grace.
Playing Chicken on the Bus
Our visit to Granada came in the form of a visa run from neighbouring Costa Rica. Travelling the eight hours north we opted to endure the often painful public transport instead of the air conditioned gringo bus saving ourselves over $100. Having travelled by ‘chicken bus’ throughout Costa Rica we were familiar with the disregard for maximum capacity, loud merengue music and questionable passenger safety and our journey into Nicaragua proved no different.
The vast majority of buses in Central America are ghosts of the vehicles they once were. Seat cushions are degrading, windows are stuck either open or closed and the engines sound like old smokers, coughing and spluttering as they drag their load along the highway. It is pretty obvious that they were intentionally designed as school buses as the seats are incredibly small with none existent leg room. However the local inhabitants seem to be accustomed to this standard of transport and to my surprise I hear no one complain about the chickens living under the back seat.
The Colonial City of Granada
As we drove into the city the evidence of neglect was almost overwhelming. Walking through the back streets and into the market place the stench of sewerage and diesel fumes invades your senses. Children run barefoot through the rotting produce that litters the ground and carts pulled by oxen slow the traffic to a glacial pace. Much of the original architecture stands crumbling at the feet of the city serving as a reminder of the days gone by. The pavements are worn and in some areas huge sections have broken away into the road causing those unfamiliar with the terrain to trip and stumble into the rubble.
In contrast a walk down the main street portrays a more austere image. The plain facades of the private residences hide the handsome and often ornate interiors that branch off from private courtyards and garden atriums. Elderly gents sit on the pavement playing checkers and women gather their rocking chairs to deliberate the day’s events. Walking west towards the Baroque La Merced reveals a wealth of evocative views. The mish mash of architecture a true delight for any photographer, with colours, lines and shapes composing a wealth of opportunity for the creative eye.
However neglected the exterior may seem the interior of the city is teaming with life and there are a number of places that are well worth a visit. My favourite place in the city was the Antiguo Convento de San Fransciso and its trio of bells.
Built in 1529 by Franciscan monks the building houses a museum archiving the lives of the indigenous tribes who inhabited the land hundreds of years ago. Home to a collection of over thirty carved alter-ego statues found over a century ago on the neighbouring Zapatera Island it is believed that Nicaragua’s pre-Colombian peoples used them to channel animal spirits through their souls. Carved from basalt the sculptures depict human forms with the heads of jaguars, birds and crocodiles and provide a fascinating insight into the cosmology of the indigenous tribes. The building itself has a captivating history which mirrors that of the city. Since its completion it has been destroyed and rebuilt a number of times and played host to the United States Forces during the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Taking a walk through the Parque Colon we visited the site where William Walker was sworn in as President of Nicaragua and visited the Casa de los Leones, a colonial era home built by Don Diego de Montiel (once the Governor of Costa Rica). No longer a private residence it has been transformed into an international cultural centre housing an art, theatre and music school, historical archive and concert hall.
Tope de Toros – The Running of the Bulls
During our visit we took part in the annual Tope De Toro festival, a relatively new addition to the history of Granada. Bull Running itself is a long standing tradition dating back to fourteenth century north eastern Spain where men would attempt to hurry cattle into stalls at the market. They would use a number of tactics designed to aggravate and excite the bulls in the hope of corralling them into their pen in a timely fashion. After a number of years the process became competitive and young men would attempt to race in front of the charging bulls and make it safely out of the way before trapping the animal in a pen. Popularity grew and the competition was adopted in more and more Spanish cities, eventually becoming the traditional festival we see all over the world today. The most famous event is a week long festival in Sanfermines in honour of San Fermín in Pamplona, Spain.
On the day of the festival a crowd gathered along the main street in anticipation of the main event. Sat on a wall waiting for the action to start we watched as mobile market traders made their way through the crowds taking advantage of the increased foot fall to maximise their sales. Vendors selling cups of shaved ice were rejoicing as another day of scorching heat and increased adrenaline gave them additional custom. As the sun beat down we took advantage of the opportunity for cool refreshment and watched as the opening procession went by. Following a traditional route from la Polvora down to the shores of Lake Nicaragua the procession marks the beginning of the festival and the impending release of the bulls.
Once the procession had passed the atmosphere changed. The market sellers made their exit and the noise from the crowds mellowed. Suddenly up ahead people began to scream and waves of bodies were suddenly bearing down on us. Terrified I ran like the wind in the direction I prayed was away from any one of the three bulls. As I scrambled to grab onto some railings I realised it was a false alarm. Over the next hour or so more waves of screaming Nicaraguans descended through the streets many without a bull in chase. It was evident when the bulls arrived.
Clinging to my spot on the railings I spotted Ben, he had managed to perch on a statue in the main square. As the bulls ran through the street in front of us both I felt my heart start to pound as one of the animals crashed through the fence and into the square, right where Ben was perched. Sheer panic ran through my veins. It was clear the bulls were confused and I imagine just as terrified as the people to whom they were giving chase. Making a loop of the statue to which Ben was clung they ran through the gate and out onto the road continuing down the main street and out of sight. At this point we regrouped and began to relax.
With the streets still pulsing with adrenaline we took refuge in a café and contemplated the lunacy of those who we had seen throwing themselves at the bulls. We overheard the owner say the bulls had been captured and were to be taken to the Parque Colon where young boys were invited to test their nerve and straddle them while in their stalls. Watching as the streets emptied business as usual resumed. With just one minor casualty the festival was declared a success and revellers began to celebrate their narrow escape.
The festival is scheduled to take place each year in August and if you are planning a trip through the country it would be worth timing your stay in Granada to take part or at least watch the insanity from the safety of your hotel window.
On reflection I can see why so many have tried to claim this exquisite city for themselves. Its vibrant soul and enduring nature have given it a strong sense of self which lures visitors with ease. During the days of the Contra War a moral boosting message was stencilled in red on all Granadian sidewalks ‘Aquí no se rinde nadie’ (Here nobody surrenders). The remnants of this sentiment still echo throughout the city today. Despite its turbulent history the city and its people have not surrendered their lives to those who have fought against them, the city is theirs and it is evident that it will remain at the core of their being until it crumbles to the ground.