“Cities were always like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Depending on the city and on the traveler, there might begin a mutual love, or dislike, friendship, or enmity. Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality. Only through travel can we know where we belong or not, where we are loved and where we are rejected.”
― Roman Payne,
Both Antigua, Guatemala and Granada, Nicaragua are charming old colonial cities that for many years were the political, religious, and economic hearts of Central America. How do these colonial cities compare? You may be surprised to discover that there are more similarities than differences.
There are a handful of both dormant and active volcanoes close to Antigua. You can see several of them from any vantage point in Antigua. The most popular volcano destination is Vulcán Pacaya. It is always in a near state of eruption with plumes of volcanic gases, steam, and occasional flashes of glowing red lava.
There are also several dormant and active volcanoes one can see around Granada, too. Mombacho Volcano is one of the most popular dormant volcanoes due to its location only 10 km from Granada, its diverse cloud forest, and its four craters. On a clear day, you can see our magnificent active volcano on Ometepe Island, Vulcán Concepcion. Masaya National Park is a short drive from Granada. Easily accessible, one can peer into the steaming crater of this active volcano where political dissidents and prisoners were once thrown.
Catholicism has played an important role in Antigua since colonial times. Because it was one of the few Spanish colonial capitals built on an active fault line, Antigua is filled with photogenic, evocative church, convent, and cathedral ruins with skeletons laid bare.
San Francisco cathedral has been essentially reconstructed after the 1773 earthquake that destroyed the four city blocks complex. Fortunately, the tomb of Santo Hermano Pedro de San José de Bethancourt remained intact. Saint Pedro, a Franciscan from the Canary Islands who was credited with a number of miracles, was made the first Central American saint in 2002 by Pope John Paul II. It is a popular pilgrimage site, and of course, I had to have a little chat with Saint Pedro about healing those afflicted with Chikungunya.
Granada is also predominantly a Catholic city with an abundance of beautiful old colonial cathedrals, churches, and convents. As you enter the main plaza in Granada, towering above all other buildings is the Cathedral of Granada. This impressive canary yellow cathedral dates back to 1583 and has undergone a series of changes that have been forced upon it. It was destroyed in the massive fire of 1856 which was started by the retreating troops of the filibuster William Walker, who was from Tennessee, and declared himself President of Nicaragua.
Pick any day in Antigua or Granada and you will probably see a parade.
Lonely Planet says there are 46 restaurants in Antigua. I think we sampled most of them. Many are owned by expats with Guatemalan employees. We never had a bad or even mediocre meal in Antigua. The prices for meals are similar to Granada, which both tend to be more expensive in the expat owned restaurants. Both cities have large mercados where fresh fruits, vegetables, and cheap filling meals including beans and rice can be purchased.
Kathy’s Waffle House is always on my list of restaurants for breakfast when we visit Granada. We eat our way through Granada every time we visit. Lonely Planet states that there are 23 restaurants in Granada, but there may be many more. Like Antigua, the foreign-owned restaurants are more expensive.
Carriage rides can be found in both cities. The horses seem to be better groomed and fatter in Antigua, than Granada. Also, the smell of horse urine ( and other human urine smells) is not evident in Antigua like it is in Granada. Maybe it has to do with the fact that it is cooler in Antigua?
Antigua is cleaner than Granada in my opinion. There are trash cans located everywhere and they are emptied daily. We never saw any trash on the ground anywhere in Guatemala.
Antigua has a beautiful central square with a large mermaid fountain in the central park. Tourist police are on every corner. Vendors in Antigua hawk their wares in English and Spanish. Then, they speak their traditional Mayan language among themselves. Guatemala formally recognized 21 Mayan languages by name. It fascinated me to listen to their rapid cluck-like language.
The majority of the vendors are indigenous Mayan women who travel to Antigua by bus from their nearby villages. They all wear traditional clothes representing their various communities. Not only are the clothes bright and colorful, but they are handmade.
The Mayan women are some of the most aggressive and savvy vendors I have ever encountered. I sat in the park admiring their clothes when one woman approached me and sat down beside me. “What is your name, my friend?” she asked in perfect English. After exchanging greetings, we talked about her family and her job selling beautiful fabrics, blankets, and beaded hummingbirds. She then spread her wares on my lap, and tried to negotiate a good price. “They are made in my village. They are very beautiful and take many months to make,” she said. Thirty minutes later, I walked away with two beaded hummingbirds, a table runner, and a new friend. Everyday, when she saw me in the park, she would sit down beside me and talk about her life in perfect English.
I was chased from store to store by other vendors. If I showed the slightest eye contact, they surrounded me like little mother hens waving their wares in my face. The traditional Nicaraguan finger wag did not discourage them. Nothing discouraged them. It became so tiring, that I avoided the park for a few days. And they all know the right things to say…in English. They are fierce competitors.
The central park in Granada is more tranquil. There is a gazebo and a fountain among the tree-shaded benches. Vendors hawk their wares, but they all understand the finger wag and merrily go on their way. The tourist police are available and present in the central park in Granada, too.
Shopping in Antigua is a delight. The organization in all the stores amazed me! The vibrant colors and traditional crafts thrilled me. The fabrics enthralled me. There were hundreds of stores and small stalls in the market and around the square where I could find beautiful gifts for friends and family at a reasonable bargaining price.
Not so much in Granada. Granada is beginning to market handmade items, but they still have a long way to go to compare to Guatemalan handicrafts. In fact, some of the things I have seen for sale in Granada are made in Guatemala.
Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage Center. Legal protection for Antigua was established in 1944 and became a UNESCO World Heritage Center in 1979. Because of modern development and increased tourism more protection for the historic area and certain initiatives, at both the community and legislative levels, have been undertaken. A good example of this is the color of the homes. There is a list of approved colors that can be used on exterior buildings in Antigua.
Granada is a UNESCO World Heritage Center, too. In 2003, Granada was established as a UNESCO Wold Heritage Center. Since Antigua was established in 1979 as a UNESCO World Heritage Center, they have had more time to develop initiatives and legislation for protection.
Finally, since I have an elementary library on Ometepe Island, I always explore the children’s libraries wherever I visit in the world. Both cities have wonderful libraries for children.
Cities are truly like people, showing their varying personalities to the traveler. Comparing Antigua to Granada, I find they both offer incredible amenities to tourists, expats, and their local populations. I am not a city dweller, so living in either place would not be an option for me. Yet, as a traveler, I have a difficult time deciding which city I prefer.
“Where one city will rise a certain individual to glory, it will destroy another who is not suited to its personality.”
Antigua, Guatemala or Granada, Nicaragua? Which city fits your personality and why?