Following our quick tour of the Plaza de la Independencia, it was off to lunch at the Toritos Hotel Restaurant & Bar on Calle Calzada, Granada.
To save time, Eric, our tour guide, had phoned in our orders and they served us as soon as all 20+ of us had our seats. (Lunch was included in the cost of the tour.)
My fish with salad and rice, served with a few wedges of lime, was light and delicious. We spent maybe 30-45 minutes at the restaurant then it was back on the bus to our next stop – Monkey Island on Lake Nicaragua.
At just over 3,000 square miles, Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake, is the largest in Central America, the nineteenth largest in the world. Numerous fish, including tarpon, sawfish and an endemic species of shark live in the lake that, in parts, reaches a depth of 85 feet.
Because of its size and depth, about 400 islands dot the lake. Many are inhabited and several are privately owned by prominent Nicaraguans and some foreigners. There was even one with a For Sale sign.
Climbing on to the small craft that would take us to Monkey Island, I noticed right away that no one distributed life preservers. Was I taking a risk? I pushed that unsettling thought out of my head and relaxed into my seat.
A man, who looked young enough to be in high school, took the engine and soon the boat was slicing through the brown water kicking up sprays. Ours were the only two boats on the open lake and as we glided pass small islands, we trained our cameras, trying to get good shots without getting water on to the lenses.
The ride to Monkey Island took no more than 10 minutes. I was a bit disappointed that the island wasn’t larger so we could disembark but the capuchin monkeys put on a little show, jumping from rock to rock and swinging from tree to tree as if they knew they had an audience. (They are called capuchin because their color reminded the early explorers of Franciscan monks.) One even jumped into a boat that pulled in after we did. I suspect someone might have lured it with food.
We spent about 10 minutes watching the monkeys then our boatman turned us around and headed back to the pier, the mid afternoon sun shining like diamonds on the water.
I’ve been eating pepper shrimps (or ‘swimps,’ as some of us call it), since I was in high school and I can still remember my first time (it’s the same every time).
Biting into one of these Scotch-bonnet-infused on-the-go morsels, my tongue is instantly in flames, my eyes watering, heat passing from my throat and warming my stomach.
I involuntarily pull in air, slapping my tongue against my lips and the roof of my mouth, to try to cool it. That doesn’t work; nothing does. Now, even my lips are on fire.
I take a few seconds then, my mouth still reeling, I bite into another shrimp – head and all – continue the delicious torture, which, by now, is causing my nose to run.
Pepper Shrimps, crawfish really, typically come from the Black River, the longest in parish of St. Elizabeth, one of the longest in the island.
The shrimps are cooked in a mixture of Scotch bonnet and spices and sold in little paper or plastic bags of about 6 or so by roadside vendors in Middle Quarters, Jamaica’s “Shrimp Country.”
The shrimps are small, no more than an inch or an inch and half so we eat head and all. Some people peel them skin off, other people (I’m one) don’t.
Most visitors to Jamaica stay on the northwest for the spectacular beaches. But those who make it to the south coast usually discover an entirely different side the island, one that is rustic as well as charming.
Here, small cook shops abound and vendors sell typical Jamaican fare, using fresh ingredients grown locally in St. Elizabeth, the island’s “Bread Basket.”
On my way to visit a friend in New Jersey few weeks ago, I stopped at Mac West Indian Restaurant in Hackensack to get some escoveitch fish. While waiting, I noticed they had peppered shrimps and asked the server to add a couple packets to my bill.
I was surprised to see pepper shrimp on the menu at any of the restaurants I frequent. Seeing them brought back memories of some pepper shrimps I bought in the Bronx in the 80s.
I remember Michael driving us back to Manhattan where we were staying and the two of us eating shrimp after shrimp, our mouths ablaze because Ting, the carbonated grapefruit soft drink that someone at the restaurant had recommended, didn’t calm the fire in our mouths. (Apparently, milk is better but I hate milk.)
Michael was swearing like a sailor while I laughed and called him a wimp for not being able to handle “a little pepper.” I still smile at the memory.
Though they weren’t crawfish, the pepper shrimp I bought in Hackensack took me back to Middle Quarters. I could almost feel the sun on my face as I bit into my first one.
3 fresh Scotch bonnet or habanero chiles, halved and seeded
2 tablespoons salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
10 whole allspice
1 lb large shrimp
Combine all ingredients except shrimp in a 4-quart heavy pot and bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer, covered, 20 minutes.
Stir in shrimp, making sure they are just covered by liquid, and remove pot from heat. Cool shrimp in liquid to room temperature, uncovered, about 1 hour. Transfer shrimp with a slotted spoon to a plate or bowl and drizzle some of cooking liquid on top.
I had no plans to go to Granada, Nicaragua. The furthest I considered going while I was planning my trip to Playa Potrero, was to San Jose, the Costa Rican capital to see a friend. But I’d given up the idea because I wasn’t able to speak with her before I left home. I was content with spending the time catching up, reconnecting and reminiscing with my friends.
A day or two after I arrived, though, I noticed a one-day tour to Granada. That it as the first European city in the Mainland had me almost salivating with delight. Suddenly, my plan for a seven-day do-nothing-but-relax vacation evaporated as the thought of traveling to a second country and seeing a colonial city filled my head.
It didn’t matter that the trip would involve traveling 8 hours on a bus or that I was the only one of our group who wanted to go. All that was nothing compared to the adventure I imagined I’d have, the treats I knew I’d discover. I contacted Claudia at LEP Costa Rica to make the arrangements (Claudia also arranged my Congo Trail zip lining tour) and all I thought of for the next four days was the tour to Granada.
Like a lot of people, the most I knew of Nicaragua was what I remembered from reading about the Somoza dictatorship, the Sandinista Revolution, and the explosive Iran-Contra Affair – the scandal that tainted the second term of the Reagan Administration over their covert arming of the Contras, a guerrilla group that was fighting to depose the Sandinista government.
Because of these events, I knew of Managua but not of Granada. I didn’t know that Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, that it was named in recognition of the Spanish defeat of the Moors in Granada, or that the Sandinista war never reached this historic city.
Granada is the capital of Granada, one of Nicaragua’s 15 departments. About 130,000 people live in the city which sits on the shores of Lake Nicaragua, a freshwater lake, the largest in Central America (the 19th largest in the world).
I also did not know that from 1856-7, an American lawyer and journalist, William Walker, took up residence in Granada and declared himself president of Nicaragua (his election was fraudulent). Walker envisioned taking control of Central America and began by Americanizing his colony, making English the official language. He also tried to reinstate slavery. While this brought him some support in the U.S. South, it made him no friends in Central America.
In December 1856, he fled Granada ahead of an advancing coalition of troops from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Before they abandoned Granada, one of Walker’s generals ordered the city burnt. So sure they were of their success that they left this note, “Aquifue Granada” (Here was Granada).
From the moment we entered the heart of the city, I was tickled by vibrant colors everywhere – from the buildings to the ‘chicken’ buses, as the woman sitting next to me called them. (She had spent time in South America and said that’s what the expats there called them as they were as likely to carry people as they would poultry and livestock.)
I couldn’t wait to get off the bus as it pulled to a stop. All around us were historic buildings, many flanking narrow cobbled streets.
We followed Eric, our tour guide, stopping to take photos along the way and trying to keep up. Then there it was, the pièce de résistance: Granada’s Cathedral (Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción).
Built in 1583, the Cathedral was destroyed by Walker’s fire and rebuilt several times. This current building was completed in the early 1920s. Although we didn’t have time to enter the cathedral, Eric explained that it had four chapels and three naves.
Before we left the bus, Eric had told us that the town square (Plaza de la Independencia) was to have been our second stop but we were late making our first stop – a boat ride on Lake Nicaragua – so he had to switch things around. It was then that I realized how focused I’d been on seeing Granada’s colonial buildings that I’d ignored everything else about the tour. (I’ll be writing about the rest of it later.)
The Plaza de la Independencia is a large open square anchored by the impressive Cathedral, which is located on the east side of Columbus Park (Parque Colón) and several buildings, including City Hall (Palacio Municipal) and the Alhambra Hotel. On one side of the bustling park were vendors selling T-shirts and souvenirs.
We spent about 30 minutes in the Plaza, way too short to see all there was to see. Next up was lunch at a local restaurant. I can’t wait to return to Granada for a longer visit.
It’s been years since I ate a coco bread, that soft, sweet, usually warm, folded-over bread that is the perfect folder for the flaky, spicy and usually hot, patty.
Perhaps it might seem redundant to marry a patty, a meat pie, with a puffy, buttery coco bread (one inventive student at my high school called the combination a coco-pat) but it works, somehow.
It’s like biting through layers of dough and finding a sweet spot — the spicy meat filling — the coco bread absorbing the heat that builds in the patties as they bake and tempering its spiciness.
The coco bread and patty combo is a filling, inexpensive on-the-go meal that is popular with everyone, from students to working people.
And because of its price, ubiquitous in Jamaica. Every fast food outlet and food shop sells it. The same is true here in the New York area. In fact, it is even sold online at amazon.com. Despite its popularity, no one I asked could explain why it’s called a coco bread since it’s not made from coconut or cocoa.
But coco bread shouldn’t be confined only to a meat filling. It’s delicious with cheese and, I would add, stews, even soup. And with its buttery flavor, it can even be eaten as is.
Yesterday, the distinctive fresh-baked smell of the coco bread tickled my nose and brought back such delightful memories, I stopped and bought one on the way to work. With a cold blast of winter air here in New York yesterday, instead of a patty, it made me feel for soup. Biting into its warm deliciousness took me momentarily back to the sun.