4 places you need to visit in granada, nicaragua

The sunwashed buildings of Granada and its warm colours give this city a vibe that reminded me a lot of Cuba. Underdeveloped in much the same way, Granada is the lesser known but equally charming version of Havana and packed full of gems. If I had to describe this city in one word it would be stylish, like unnattainable, born-with-it, Jane Birkin kind of style - where you question how the heck they did it and it makes you a little bit frustrated. As the style-icon of Central America, Granada's charisma has attracted many expats and their ventures (particularly from Europe) dotted all over a city that - on face value - appears to be mostly local town relatively untouched by the deluge of tourism. Here is a guide of some of the best spots Granada has to offer; 


Finding a place like Espressonista in Nicaragua was a surprise, because it looks like its been plucked out of the first-world. Receiving a coffee with latte art, after drinking nothing but filter coffee for three months was an unexpected, but pleasant surprise. It's the kind of place you just want to sit in for hours and gawk at how beautifully detailed their venue is, and that's exactly what we did. What began as a short visit for coffee, very quickly progressed to a boozy lunch. Not unlike the owners original plans to open a speciality coffee shop very quickly developed into a restaurant because of all the local beans, artisan cheesemakers, ham smokers, organic farmers and craft brewers they met in Nicaragua — a must visit. 

Pita Pita

Hands down the best Lebanese food I have ever eaten. We shared a platter with feta, dolmades, hummus, pita, tabouleh, eggplant and tzadziki between two people and were (sadly) so full that our plans to continue gorging on the rest of their menu were foiled. Pita Pita earns bonus points for having a lovely owner with good banter and cocktails that are bigger than my head, and cheaper than a cup of coffee. 

The Garden Cafe

Set in a beautiful period building with high ceilings, ornamental arches and lots of natural light pouring in, The Garden Cafe is (as the name suggests) home to a beautiful indoor garden in the centre of the restaurant surrounded by hammocks - a beautiful characteristic of many of the older buildings in Granada. Surrounding the garden is a cafe with a very large book exchange and a shop selling a huge range locally made wares. 

Mansion De Chocolate

If there's one thing Granada isn't short of, it's beautiful hotels. The city is full of grand old hotels just like the Mansion De Chocolate, but the thing that sets this one apart is its incredible art that I realised is quite typical to Nicaragua. Tropical, tasteful and a little abstract, the building is filled top to toe with beautiful things to look at. Complete with a chocolate museum that runs chocolate-making workshops, a chocolate spa (chocolate everything) and a free pool to go and hang out at - you could waste away a whole day drinking cocktails by the pool. 

Nicaragua \\ Why You Should Skip San Juan Del Sur and Head North Instead

A refreshing alternative to the overflow of tourists in San Juan del Sur is a small 20-minute drive north to a beautiful seaside town called Maderas. The terrain looks and feels a lot like Australia and the beaches are emptier than down in San Juan, with yellow sand, caves to hide in away from the sun and some pretty lively swell. A local warned us to drag our feet instead of stepping along the ocean floor to lower the chances of landing on a stingray barb — a cautionary tale from his own experience which, he said, was the most excruciating pain he’d ever felt. Not wanting to take even the slightest chance, I tried to (awkward and ungracefully) enter the water without touching the ocean floor at all. Maderas is local enough that you'll still find little tiendas on the beach selling plates of black beans, rice, plantains, fish - an humble yet addictive combination. 

For those that are backpacking, there's a couple of hostels on the main beach. We were there around new years and found a shack twenty-minutes up the beach, which, despite its rusty fan, salt water showers and sandy floors, we had a ocean on our doorstep and the solitude was bliss on hungover mornings. Another bonus of our location was living next door to a perpetually topless, hairy and entertaining Canadian expat who lives there six months of the year and is extremely friendly despite his ex-criminal past, enough to let us pat his dalmatian dogs, share his wine and show us how to fillet a fish.  

If you're partial to something more high-end; I would highly recommend staying at Maderas Village - though it's not quite as 'in amongst it' as our experience was, I did stay up there one night with some friends we met and it was amazing. A luxuriously comfy cloud of white linen under a wooden canopy with the sounds of trees rustling outside my window sure did beat the slightly musty smell and sandy sheets of our beach shack. Maderas Village is situated high on a hill and is basically a big eco village/creative utopia, attracting lots of people (mostly from North America) that are doing pretty cool things. There are thatched roofs and hammocks everywhere, an open yoga shala with views of the ocean and a music studio where bands come to record their stuff somewhere a little more remote. 

All-in-all, this town is epic and comes highly recommended; small and remote enough that it attracts a good crowd of people and a great place to get off-grid, surf and swan about with no cares. 

Oaxaca, Mexico \\ Dia De Los Muertos

In the West, we deny it like an unwanted presence in the room and rarely speak about it unless we're taking the day off work to go to a funeral. That one-day ceremony that we attend and then leave; walking away from the funeral with no more support in place to help us grieve our loved ones. In Mexico, it's a completely different story; death is the culturally embraced elephant in the room, Mexican's dress it up in colour, make friends with it and take part in a yearly ritual that acknowledges this inevitable part of life, the part of life that makes this moment all the more precious for accepting that it's there. 

Experiencing El Dia De Los Muertos first hand in Oaxaca was a life affirming thing to witness. Graveyards are lit with kaleidoscope of freshly picked flowers, families congregate around their dearly departed's graveyard and share a meal like they're deceased is right there with them. Annually in Mexico, the somewhat dark topic for us in the West is lightened with colour, celebration and acceptance - families that have recently suffered a loss might find extra benefit in this yearly support party, perhaps for them it’s a reminder that they're not alone.

For cultures that do embrace death, they tend to - by coincidence or by parallelism - embrace celebration as well, whether it's through dancing, festivals or music. Perhaps the reason these cultures celebrate more often is because they understand life is a temporary opportunity for expression in this body. The short 100 years or less that our body is on loan is a fraction of the time that it will exist in other forms and so rather than grow attached and fearful of the inevitable, a better use of our time is to find all the ways to express ourselves while we exist in this form. 

It seems that cultures that are willing to confront the topic of death, also know how to live. Knowing that they’re on earth for a short time; these cultures allow themselves more time to celebrate, dance, make art, music and come together as a community. 

Living Off-grid in the Mayan Mountains

 Only a year before I arrived at Sattva Land, the Garofalo family packed up life in freezing Canada for a newly purchased patch of wild and uncleared jungle in the Mayan Mountains.

They cleared through the jungle for five months straight, bathed in the river nearby, dug swale trenches in the rain and slept a family of five in one small hut. It’s times like those, I imagined, would test your faith to live out such an elaborate vision in its raw and imperfect reality.

To get to Sattva Land, I hopped aboard a yellow chicken bus in Belize City and headed south on Hummingbird Highway for a couple of hours. There was only an hour of sun left and nothing but jungle and the odd hut for miles. There were no hostels or hotels to stay at if we landed at the wrong stop and we had no camping gear, so we crossed our fingers and prayed we wouldn't have to sleep on the side of the road that night. 

A local man on the bus that worked for the family signalled us to get off the bus at Sattva Land. The driver's assistant threw our bags off the bus and left us in what looked like the middle of nowhere. We walked half a mile before reaching the iron gates where Clauco was moving the fields. We introduced ourselves and he guided us down a stone path to a pond alive with lotus flowers and lillies and dived in, explaining as he emerged that he'd made it himself. We met his sister Gloria laying down on a bench by the pond as hundreds of dragonflies circled above her at dusk. 

The next few weeks was marked by a descent into the rhythms of nature; the cycles of the moon, the patterns of the weather and its influence on the jungle. The Garofalo family had accumulated most of their knowledge from the locals they employed, who'd already been living in the jungle their entire lives. The locals taught them how to wield a machete, classify and utilize plants and thrive in the harsh and wet conditions of the jungle.

Wholistic Educator and Designer at Sattva Land; Gloria teaches yoga to locals and visitors in a large thatched roof Shala with 365 degree views of the jungle, often leading dancing and healing sessions there too. Her sister Giulia was turning only 21 when I visited and yet she had such an advanced knowledge of permaculture that she'd often single-handedly direct the landscaping of Sattva Land. One of the most amazing things showed us was a plant called‘la planta sensitiva,’ (the sensitive plant), that got its name because its leaves close immediately when you touch it, it reinforced for me how dynamic and alive plants really are, they just move at slower rate than the human eye can see. 

A lot less sleep was needed while staying in the jungle, which I attributed to the fact that everything is so alive. The jungle is abundant and quickly-growing, the air is fresh, there's no radiation, no pollution. The food is organic by default and grown on fertile soil – everything is healthy and vital. We ventured into the jungle in search of Cahoon trees; the mother of the jungle and provider of so many good things; Cahoon nuts that you can eat and make milk from, its fertile soil, its seeds shaped like spoons and its huge leaves used for thatched roofs and hanging flower pots. 

Clauco and his father with their experience in carpentry drive much of the heavier workload with long but purposeful days fuelled by food from the land, deliciously prepared on wood fire oven in their outdoor kitchen. Pots and pans hang artfully around the kitchen, jars of dried grains and spices labelled and stacked high on the shelf, freshly loaf of bread is always sitting on the kitchen bench and a coconut is cracked every day for its milk, flesh and its shell for making tools – food is in abundance here and its amazing to witness its journey from seed to plate. I'd began to appreciate how long it takes for our food to grow and how much of a true gift it is, something I was otherwise so detached from. This lifestyle seems to incorporate the perfect balance of everything a human needs to feels happy and even the act of gardening became a way to meditate, relax and re-connect, as well as a form of daily physical exertion. 

One morning, Clauco took us on a tour to see the families houses under construction, they each had their own house on their own handpicked piece of land. On the way we filled ourselves with sugar cane, passing pineapples, banana and cacao fields until finally reaching Clauco’s beautiful cylindrical double story house, still unfinished and inhabited with fruit bats for the time being.

Having grown up in a small city, everything was brand new and novel to me and I soaked in every detail. Discovering fruits and veggies I'd never heard of, like Coco Yams, Cahooon Nuts and Hikoma. Cooking was an opportunity for creativity and experimentation, much like everything else at Sattva Land. We roasted coco yams (they're like potatoes but they're creamy and taste like coconut) and made ‘jungle sushi’ from its leaves. It was amazing to see not only how nothing was wasted, how much more effective and practical it was to live that way. Dishes were cleaned with the ashes from the wood fire oven which I noticed would keep pans cleaner than using detergent and there was no need to use a scourer because it exfoliated everything off the pan. Left over wood-chips from construction sit in a wooden barrel next to the outhouse and are scooped with a ladle made from coconut shell to ‘flush’ which kept the bathroom smelling fresh and the resulting matter is used for fertiliser. 

I noticed beauty is priority at Sattva Land - whether it was through inspiring words on a chalkboard, fresh flowers on the bench tops, hanging handmade sculptures made from jungle matter, gardens, paintings and murals. The little things were treated with as much importance as the big things; from small rituals, taking the time to make something beautiful and practice creativity. Each morning we'd gather at the outdoor dining table and eat a breakfast of fresh bread baked by Pina - the mother of Sattva Land - French press coffee, herbal tea and chia seed pudding. Each night at dinner, we'd laugh, tell stories and have thoughtful conversations and it was opportunity to learn more about this incredibly brave and tenacious family with a big vision. Just being around them made me feel more courageous and willing to take risks.

If you're passing through Belize, I would highly recommend stopping by Sattva Land and meeting the Garofalo's. There door is always open to people from all over the world to come work, stay learn and experience that return to nature that we've likely all felt the need for. 

Goa, India - Inside the Shiva Shakti Yoga Teacher Training

[October 2015]

The Monsoon Season in Goa dries up around October, where you'll find a once empty beach propped up with the scaffolding of soon to be restaurant fronts, bars and nightclubs. The Shiva Shakti Yoga Centre is on the bank of a beautiful river, surrounded by palms and dotted with colourful wooden boats. The accomodation is very basic and consists of a small tin shack with no hot water, but you'll eventually become accustomed to the thud of coconuts falling the roof every night or the odd visit from furry eight legged creatures. 

The teachers at the centre are extremely dedicated to their practice from an early age and both of them have practiced yoga from a really early age as it had been passed down through generations. At $1300, it was one of the most affordable trainings available and also one of the most authentic.

After only two years of a consistent practice, I thought it was too soon to do a teacher training, but when I arrived, I found that everyone's experience level varied from 2 months of practicing yoga to 5 years — one couple booked their training a week in advance just for the experience. 

The day-to-day included practicing Kiryas or 'cleansing practices," which involve things like pouring water through your nostrils or 'flossing' them with a piece of string, but you can opt out on these practices, though our teacher encouraged it, he said ultimately to listen to our own truth. 

Each morning began with a half hour Kiryas followed by a half hour Pranayama session or 'breathing practices.' We then had a short food break before doing a two hour yoga practice. After lunch we did theory with our teacher Jagi, including philosophy, anatomy, mantra chanting and a short half hour meditation. The last part of the day involved teaching methodology, where our teacher Chida taught the alignment of each pose in detail, it's contra-indications, benefits and how to teach. 

The food at the training was vegetarian and mostly cooked food, including curries, rice and all the usual suspects, but they were cooked with very little oil, salt or spices. This yogic way of eating, avoids over-stimulating foods, as it's said to bring balance to the mind and the digestive system. It felt really good to eat this way. 

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On our breaks, we would take a Rickshaw called Palolem just 20 minutes away. Palolem is filled with stores selling Indian textiles, jewellery, crystals, bookstores and healthy vegetarian and vegan cafes including Space Goa; a beautiful oasis of healthy food including kombucha, juices and fresh salads. 

40 minutes north of the yoga centre is a waterfall and a Sacred Bubble Lake, where it's said bubbles surface when you chant to it. We chanted one of the 9 mantras we learned at the training at the Netravali Bubble Lake and watched the bubbles miraculously surface. The locals believe that the bubbles happen because they worship Shiva deity in Gopinath temple next to the lake, but scientists say that it's the ;limestone, co2 or sulphur dioxide content in the water. 

The faith and spirituality present in India is woven everywhere, from the things you buy to the food you eat, the rituals you take part in and the cab drivers with their religious iconography strung around their rearview mirror. The Shiva Shakti Yoga Center wasn't a Balinese luxury experience, but I felt like an honour to learn yoga in the country it originated.