I happened to arrive in Nicaragua's oldest city on Sept. 14, a day before the anniversary of Central American independence.
Upon checking into my hotel, La Gran Francia, a two-story building dating back nearly 500 years, the receptionist warned me that the next morning might get a bit festive. If I heard celebrating, he said, don't be alarmed. It's just the holiday in action, he said.
It seemed an odd warning — until morning arrived.
With curtains drawn tight and just a glint of golden light seeping through, I awoke to the sharp crack of drums. And then the roar of a crowd. And the bleating of horns and heaving of tubas. Had I slept strangely late and missed all the fun?
I fumbled for a clock and found that, nope, it was 7 a.m. — prime time, apparently, for celebrating Central American independence in colonial Nicaragua. I wiped the sleep from my eyes, found some coffee and walked down the block to join the gathering in Granada's historic square.
The whole town seemed to be there: boys in polo shirts, men already selling shaved ice from metal carts, teenage girls in matching green-and-white cheerleading outfits and women wearing long dresses and holding umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun.
The boys with the drums that had awakened me sat dressed in red-and-white uniforms at the edge of the town's handsome, historic cathedral, painted mustard yellow and receiving a steady flow of visitors.
By noon, the party was finished. But Granada's historic charms didn't end with the celebration; they endured around the clock.
One of the oldest European-settled cities in the Americas, Granada was founded by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba (who named the town for his home in Spain) on the shores of Lake Nicaragua in 1524. The city grew into a center of trade and opulence as a conservative ruling class came to dominate the city.
The city clings tightly to those roots. Though relatively small, with a population of about 120,000, Granada remains among the most essential and vibrant examples of Central American history. The chains peppering the capital, Managua — TGI Friday's, the local Tip Top fast food chicken restaurant — are not here, thankfully. Instead, Granada boasts generations-old buildings of stucco and cement painted vivid rainbow hues: sherbet orange, lime green, deep grape and beyond.
Without a modern construction boom to its name, much of Granada dates to the 1800s, including, for instance, both the hotels where I stayed: La Gran Francia and Mansion de Chocolate, which was built in 1860 as the home of former President Evaristo Carazo.
Even the city buses — former school buses imported from the United States — have been painted and refurbished to contribute to the worn-in vibe: trimmed with red and green and adorned with a colorful beach scene, New York Yankees logo, Bible verse or the Playboy bunny.
Not that I was missing it, but I asked a woman working at the hotel whether there was anything modern in the town.
"Maybe the supermarket with the sliding automatic doors," she said.
I asked if there was a movie theater.
"The one here is very antique," she said. "It is better to watch at home."
Yet, like anywhere else, Granada grinds with daily life. It's a relaxed, easygoing place, with life centered on the cathedral square, where you'll see far more locals than tourists socializing, getting their shoes shined and cooling off with shaved ice.
The streets surrounding it are a swarm of horses, scooters, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians and bicycles that are just as likely to carry two or three people as one.
Packed into a maze of narrow streets just off the downtown square, the town's market sees women carrying babies, hunched seniors, kids, infants, teens, everyone coming or going, buying or selling while bikes, cars, taxis and buses squeeze through the humanity. Raw chicken is for sale, as is cheese in large spongy blocks, produce, shoes, notebooks, clothes, electronics — anything, really.
Granada adds up to the sweet spot between hardscrabble and historic, with just enough tourism infrastructure to ensure that the hotels and restaurants make for a comfortable stay (while also offering world-class chocolate, coffee and rum).
The country gets about a sixth of the visitors of Costa Rica to the south, which keeps it far from being overrun by tourism. Granada is a tourist center for its proximity to attractions that include the Apoyo Lagoon Nature Reserve, Mombacho Volcano and the lake, which includes Ometepe, an island featuring two more volcanoes. But even spending just a couple of days in Granada on the way to the coast is worth the effort. It's a great walking city, both for the history and for contemporary life.
It even has a mighty little food scene.
Espressonista offers an eye-opening menu of fresh, creative dishes (the breakfast in particular is memorable) and makes a point to highlight the country's infant craft-beer scene. The Garden Cafe abounds with fresh, creative and vegetarian dishes and an eclectic menu throughout the day. And El Zaguan, a tourist steakhouse favorite, turns out to be quite worth the reputation and the fuss.
Between the history, the food, the colonial architecture and the gentle buzz of activity, the 7 a.m. Granada wake-up call became most welcome before long.