For a city whose 485-year-old history has been intimately linked to and influenced by LakeCocibolca, one could reasonably presume that Granada would identify as a city on a lake rather than as a colonial city that just happens to be built next to a lake.
But for most of its modern history – perhaps since the last lookout folded up his telescope, convinced no pirate attack was imminent – Granada has, in good part, rather coldly and inexplicably turned its back on the lake. The city, with few exceptions, has grown in a westward and northerly fashion, moving away from the lake, which has been reserved for pluvial drainage and other runoff.
Today, much of LakeCocibolca’s shoreline remains relatively abandoned and underdeveloped, rather than being Granada’s prime real estate, as one might expect.
Despite recent government efforts to clean up the lakefront tourism strip and make it a slightly more appealing place for people other than the habitual drifters and lunatics to gather, one only needs to look at the weed-consumed roller skating rink, or the half dozen vacant establishments lining the street to realize that the recovery is incomplete.
But as Calle La Calzada, the city’s newly emerged “zona viva” of bars and restaurants, continues to grow towards the lake, it’s only a matter of time before development makes it to the shore and Granadinos rediscover the giant lake at the edge of town.
LakeCocibolca, one of the largest freshwater lakes in the hemisphere, has always had enormous potential for recreational water sports, photography and nature tourism. The boat tour of Las Isletas – the 360- plus little islands that dot the coastline of Granada – is a singular experience that has become one of the most popular day tour outings in Nicaragua.
For those looking for a more intimate isleta experience, El Roble is a 2,000 square meter private island for rent, just a short boat ride from Puerto Asese. El Roble is complete with a four-bedroom house, kitchen, kayaks, swimming pool and thatched-roof rancho slung with hammocks that are perfect for reading or watching the fishing birds gather in the nearby trees.
There are full-day and overnight tour packages available, both of which include an hour-long motorboat tour of the isletas.
Visitors are free to use all the facilities on the pleasantly flowered private island, including the kayaks to explore the others isletas in the area. A tasty typical lunch is served at noon.
El Roble has a wonderful view of Mombacho Volcano and ZapateraIsland, and Ometepe’s Concepcion Volcano can be seen on clear days.
For those who want to visit an even larger island, the mysterious Zapatera Island, a verdant and dormant volcano that looms above the lake to the south of Granada, is one of Nicaragua’s most under-visited and underappreciated tourism spots. It takes about 40 to 90 minutes to get there by boat from Puerto Asese, depending on the horsepower of the engine.
A famous archeological site and national park, Zapatera is like an island that time –and tourism – forgot. The mountainous island and the surrounding isletas that form the Zapatera Archipelago are mostly undeveloped, and visiting can be a rustic and wild experience.
One way to visit the island is by organizing a trip through the SONZAPOTE rural community tourism cooperative that lives on the island.
The cooperative is made up of 32 campesino families that fled to Zapatera as refugees in 1995 to escape violence from rearmed rebel groups up north. The group heard about the deserted island and decided it would be the perfect place to hide.
The military, however, found them and tried to forcibly remove them from the island in 1996. But the community fled into the mountains and hid for months until the next government agreed to let them stay.
Now the group’s claim to the land is recognized by the government and they work with the authorities to protect both the land and the animals living on the island.
To help it survive, the community has developed a modest tourism offering. The cooperative can pick up groups from Granada, give guided hiking tours to the petroglyphs, and even provide a typical lunch of fish and fresh juice served on picnic tables on a plateau overlooking Granada and Mombacho Volcano.
The cooperative has very modest cabins available for overnight stays, or tourists can arrange to do the trip in one day.
For adventurous souls who want an even more rustic experience – like one-step-removed-from-marooned rustic – Playa Arenas Blancas, a 20-minute boat ride south of Puerto Asese, is about as deserted as you can get without having to consider cannibalism.
From the lake, the desolate, white-sand beach lined with palm trees and jungle looks like an inviting place to visit for a picnic. But sailors beware of this siren’s song: Playa Arenas Blanca has a deceptively large beach break whose waves can swamp and sink a smaller boat – and then you really will be marooned.
But those who are able to navigate their way onshore are treated to what is undoubtedly the most exotic beach experience on LakeCocibolca, proving you don’t have to go to San Juan del Sur to play in the waves.
Isleta El Roble: www.nicadescanso.com, tel. 8894-6217, ask for Boris
Zapatera Island: SONZAPOTE Cooperative www.sonzapote.org, tel. 8899-2927, 8462-2363
Nicaragua Dulce Tour Operator: Office at the Marina Cocibolca, www.nicaraguadulce.
com, tel. 8977-2346.