The oldest colonial town in the Americas, Granada, Nicaragua is a photographer’s dream. Paved with old-world brick roads, navigated by horse drawn carriages, the dramatic Spanish churches are backdrops to brightly scrubbed and colored homes. We felt like we had arrived in a colonial settlement from another time and the vistas from every angle were enchanting. We enjoyed a total sense of place.

A pleasant day trip (45 minutes from Managua or 1 hour 30 minutes from San Juan Del Sur), we wished that we could spend a night as well. Careful for what you wish; more of that later.

Accompanied by ubber-realtor Ellen Winter (a blonde hottie from Holland who came to Granada for a visit 7 years ago, and moved there permanently within one week), we peeked into the various homes that were for sale in the city. Nothing to speak of from the outside, once you enter the threshold of these old colonial homes, it is a virtual paradise. Most of the homes have a similar layout, although some have been redone with polished splendor. The homes have lofty cane ceilings, gorgeous polished wood stairs and banisters and miles of old pavers surround two courtyards open to the blue sky. The first of the courtyards always is a tropical garden, and the second contains an inviting pool of cool blue water and intricate small handmade tiles. Various rooms are usually on a second floor, and some of the nicer homes afford upper views of the old town’s skyline. One home we peeked into was smack against a colorful church with views that made your jaw drop.

El Zaguan
Costado este de la Iglesia Catedral
Tel: 552-2522

The restaurants are equally charming, and although there are a variety of them, we were told that El Zaguan de las brasas al Plato (“The Gate…from the grill to the plate”) was one of the best, and we weren’t let down. With the same sort of set-up as the homes, we sat in the front part of the restaurant at the edge of the tropical courtyard. With a bubbling fountain in the center, we started our meal with an assortment of salsas and some of the best warm thick chips we’ve encountered south of the Yankee border. The place is known for steaks, and so Michael ordered the house specialty, a thick sirloin wrapped in smoked bacon and grilled so the center was pink. It was served with a jalapeno sauce that sparked his taste buds. The rice and beans were pretty bueno as well. Scott ordered chicken in an orange sauce, which sounded so weird that he couldn’t resist. It turned out to be a delicious combination and the grilling created a special rustic flavor. Although the atmosphere was worth the price of admission, the slim price of lunch at less than $50 for 4 people was equally pleasing.

The day we spent touring Granda was wonderful, and we wished we had more time in this fair city; or did we say that already? Our friend Johnny “Goldy” Goldenberg, realtor, investor, muy bueno surfer, pro-tennis player and all around general great guy, dropped us off at the airport in Managua where we were way early, again, for our flight home. Sadly, as we navigated customs and the other nasty trappings of traveling these days, we told the customs official that we wish we didn’t have to leave. Did we mention that you should be careful for what you wish? After sitting in the airport for about three hours, we were suddenly in the midst of what seemed like some Central American political coup when they abruptly announced that the flight was cancelled.

Suddenly Scott was really tested on his Spanish language skills as a massive group of excitable Latins rushed and crowded the desk screaming and yelling and demanded to know what was up. Michael watched the luggage as Scott was immersed in local madness. Welcome to a third world country as the airline officials were useless and couldn’t answer anything other than that the flight was cancelled and that we needed to go downstairs to reschedule. All at once, droves of people ran for the downstairs. We may be Gringo, but we were leading the pack through the airport until we got stuck at the elevator. It was “The Amazing Race” and the Dining Duo intended to win. By the time the elevator took us downstairs with all our bags, we were in the middle of the pack; but we had a trolley and they didn’t so we gained on the crowd of frantic Latins. Finally, we made it downstairs, where all hell broke lose. Shouting Latinos, a steamy airport, uncooperative and nonresponisve airline agents and everything in Spanish proved to be a scene out of a movie. A horror movie.

The line was enormous, but we were optimistically tenth in line. We were soon to discover that being in the front ten was just a silly as being in the last ten. We were there for hours, as nothing happened. It was a microcosm of the Central American culture and politics blossoming right in front of us. One passenger took charge and stood in the front of the crowd, fists waving in the air, inciting the group to revolt. Despite his call for revolution, from what we could gather, all the hotel rooms in Managua were taken due to some convention, and they intended to put us in a Best Western dump across the street directly under the planes. When we finally got to the front of the line, we were told that the flight for the next day was also now sold out, but there was an early morning flight to San Salvador with a seven-hour stop over to Los Angeles. Oh joy.

So, the D.D. decided to make the best of a bad situation. We phoned our new best friend in Granada, Ellen-the-Broker, who got us booked into the charming Hotel Daria in the town’s center, and we decided to take a taxi at the airport back to Granada. The first taxi that came along was a total dump, with a 500-pound driver sweating profusely in the front seat. Michael refused to get in. The second one that arrived was a slightly better dump with a cracked windshield; but the driver seemed pleasant enough and we were exhausted. Scott honed his language skills by negotiating a fare and confirming that there was air conditioning. The Duo jumped in, and that’s when the driver quickly took off the “taxi” sign from the top of the car and put it into the trunk. Hmmm.

On our way out of the aeropuerto, the police promptly pulled over the driver and asked for papers. The driver--clearly irritated--opened the trunk, literally threw the taxi sign from the top of the car at the police, and took off, the Dining Duo in the back seat just a bit panicked. Despite our many questions, his muttering was incomprehensible. Suddenly he pulled over, and took a dive under the dashboard, fiddling with the wires; apparently this is what one has to do to connect the air conditioning. We then took off again at breakneck speed, honking at every moving thing we encountered, when the driver suddenly hooked a turn that didn’t look familiar on the way into the airport. “Why are you turning right?” Scott asked in Spanish. We’re not sure why we even ask questions in this country since the answers don’t really make any sense. The next thing we know, we’re in some trashy quasi-residential area where seedy looking guys were hanging out shirtless (no, it wasn't West Hollywood) and Michael’s Rolex watch was looking more and more like a fishing lure. Was there anyone in the world who knew where we were? Were we destined to be robbed and dumped in a field somewhere in some Nicaraguan field?

After extremely raised blood pressure and several more turns through neighborhoods that make an East L.A. barrio look appealing, The Dining Duo was speeding down the highway and in need of a new change of underwear. Only by the grace of god, we arrived at the Hotel Daria, gave the driver a big tip for not robbing and killing us, and went back into the paradise that Granada had to offer.

Hotel Dario

Only $100 for the night, this was one of the various hotels in the city to provide charm and a roof over your head. We got a fairly basic room with comfortable beds and soft pillows, and even body lotion (apparently a national treasure in this part of the world). The shower spit water on us at the very best, so we took off for the pool in the courtyard. Scott made the mistake of requesting the hotel start the fountain, and so the Dining Duo spent their time in the pool as the lights went on and off, the pool equipment went on and off, and the landscaping lights went on and off. Repeatedly. The fountain never came on. Never mind, we were alive and safe and about to enjoy a dinner out in the town.

Mediterraneo Restaurante
De la alcaldia, una cuidra y media hacia el lago
Nuria Clark
Tel 505 552 6764

Right around the corner from our hotel is the highly recommended Spanish restaurant, which is the brainchild of the warm and hospitable Nuria Clark. When she sold the successful magazine she created in New York called “VEA NEW YORK” (“See New York”) for visiting Latinos from around the world, she dreamed of a warmer climate and the opportunity to do something new. We’re certainly happy she did.

As we sat at our table on the edge of the interior garden, water trickled down a wall fountain playing a sort of rhythm to the sounds of the palms rustling by the warm evening breeze. A pitcher of the best sangria we’ve ever tasted came promptly to the table and we voraciously enjoyed the divine mixtures of fresh fruit and red wine (after our taxi adventure, it especially tasted good). We started with gazpacho, which we anticipated to be the same more or less throughout the world; it wasn’t here. The soup base was served in a bowl and it was creamy and delicious just like that. Along side of it were small dishes of freshly chopped onions, tomatoes and cilantro. We added the three to our base according to our own tastes—a nice touch—and then slurped down the concoction. In between slurps, a father and son guitar cantata team came to our table and serenaded us with lively regional music. Just as we were enjoying the combination of warm breezes, a sangria buzz and each other’s company, the paella came to the table in a giant skillet. It was loaded with fresh muscles, clams, calamari and chicken, and it was layered around rice that enjoyed the reduction of its sauces and sweet flavors. It was a perfect balance of authentic spices and enough for four hungry people. We finished dinner with a superb chocolate and ice cream crepe, and although it didn’t sound terribly Spanish, we didn’t much care as we gobbled it up with zeal.

We had earlier enquired about gay and lesbian places around town, and at the end of our meal, Nuria came over with information she gathered by calling a few of her gay friends for us. We realized that if we lived in this enchanting and picturesque town, we would quickly have a group of fun and interesting friends, starting with Ellen and Nuria.

Purgatory in Paradise

AeroConnections Restaurant
Next to the Duty Free Shop/Airport Channel/Ultra Light

Stuck in the San Salvador airport for seven hours, we scoured the entire place for something to do. After looking at all the duty free stores that carried merchandise that cost more than at home, we went on a hunt for something edible. Past all the fast food shops, past all the stands, beyond the candy sold in the stores, we suddenly found a real restaurant: AeroConnections restaurant. Okay, so it needs a new name, but the tables were neat and clean and the chairs comfy, so it was worth a try.

Michael had the chicken cordon bleu and Scott ordered the chicken alfredo. Both were very tasty, especially considering it was an airport restaurant. The food was only the beginning of our extremely enjoyable experience. Behind the restaurant is their lounge, which is about ten times nicer than the first class Taca airline lounge nearby. It is equipped with a full bar, comfortable leather chairs and recliners, desks with internet access, big screen TV and a young wait staff that is eager to please and swap some English practice for Spanish lessons. For five dollars you can enjoy 15 minutes in a fabulous massaging chair, and for 60 cents they will make calls to the U.S. for you, and put it all on your meal charge. We spent a great deal of our time talking with Eduardo Salazar Trabanino, a 23 year old university student doing a six week stint to further his degree in Tourism, and Gerson Escobar, a jovial and accommodating 22 year old who was working 12 hour/ 5 day shifts to further himself. When the guys asked if we had ever tasted the national dish, “Papusas”, and we had said no, they rushed over a complimentary dish of a cheese and bean sort of soft tortilla, and a sauce, along with cole slaw that complimented the dish. It was quite delicious and gave us a taste of the local dish, and the local hospitality. Their boss, Oscar Maruicio Castro made certain that we were taken care of and comfortable, and by the time we left for our flight, they were all our new best “cheritos” in all of San Salvador. Although we never left the airport, we experienced a taste of the gracious and warm Salvadorian hospitality that waits for us on our next trip to Central America.

We arrived home safe, sound and happy, knowing that our trip to Central America was fabulous, and most importantly, Mercury was no longer in retrograde.

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