Leon’s no gem – that’s what we love about it

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After nearly two weeks in Leon, we finally decided to undertake the curious sport of Volcano Boarding (more on that tomorrow), one of the most popular tourist activities in town,which involves hiking up a volcano and then boarding down. We did this twice in a row in sweltering heat, and we returned to our hotel covered in black lava dust from head to toe, with rocks in every crevice including our teeth. We could hardly wait for a cold shower at the Colibri Hostel, but then the manager explained that the water had been cut, and no one knew how long it would last.

By this time, we had become used to rolling with the punches in Leon, so we accepted our dirty fate dealt out by a city which quickly became our favorite place in Nicaragua. Don’t take this to mean that Leon is some sort of paradise. On the contrary, the city is far from perfect.

For starters, Leon is hot, temperatures waver between 90-95F during the summer months. To make matters worse, the city, like much of Nicaragua, is subject to frequent power and water cuts. The government calls it ‘rationing’ but gives no advance warning, and the cuts tend to strike at very inconvenient times.

This particular cut lasted 24 hours and required us to walk around completely crusty, sweaty and stinky, stewing in our lava-encrusted filth, even during breakfast the next morning at our favorite morning spot, El Desayunzo, which was open for business despite having no water. The people of Leon don’t let much get them down, certainly not a few hours without water. Female guests at the restaurant had their hair pulled back into greasy ponytails similar to ours and we all got on with the day.

From the table at the restaurant, we would often watch the traffic go by – the modern roar of motorcycles and screeching brakes of the buses somehow mix musically with the galloping of the frequent horse-carts passing by.

Leon has this feeling of being stuck in a time warp. Families rock away the early evening in their rocking chairs, young couples cuddle up out on front stoops, and boys play basketball under the large-scale murals depicting the Sandinista revolution and its leaders. It was at a travel agency here in Leon that we were issued handwritten plane tickets to the Corn Islands, as though it was the mid-seventies and there might be a smoking section on the plane.

With its large student population, Leon is equally a fairly modern city. You can catch a Hollywood blockbuster at the movie theater, buy any number of international goods at the brightly-lit supermarkets and you might actually want to shop at the stores selling fashionable clothes and shoes. The difference with Leon is that the city has struck a perfect balance of tradition and modernity. For example for all of the delicious, even trendy, bars and restaurants you’ll find in Leon, there is not an American food chain in sight – quite a feat for a city with nearly 200,000 residents.  Their politics, principles and passion have managed to keep McDonald’s et al away  (though the supermarket La Union is a discreet Walmart-owned company).

We would also often grab a coffee and chocolate croissant at Pan y Paz, and spend the morning reading the national newspaper – which still prints a poetry section nearly every day. Poetry plays a large role in the country’s identity, and the nation’s greatest poet, Ruben Dario, called Leon home. His house has been converted into a significant museum.

In fact, this idealistic, intellectual city is teeming with museums, and while they can not content with the Louvre, Smithsonian or El Prado, the stories each one tells are clearly intended to educate the public rather than just to rake in the tourist dollars. This is how Leon feels in general – the city runs for its people, not for the tourists.

This is a stark contrast to Granada, Nicaragua’s supposed tourism star and showcase city. Granada has fallen into the same trap as several Central American spots which cater so intensely to tourists that they erase the genuine colonial culture that made the city worth preserving and showcasing in the first place. Granada’s city center is populated by the only people who can afford the rent – the very temporary hotel residents from the US and Europe. Tourists fill the restaurants, not locals, and beggars arrive in droves each afternoon to pick up any scraps of coins or food the people will give. They live just beyond the city’s fresh coat of paint, with unpaved roads and makeshift housing well hidden from the well-distracted tourist.

Leon is the polar opposite. People live here in homes, not houses. You can eat happily in restaurants without street vendors and beggars looking for donations. The city encompasses the passion, politics and poetry which drive the heartbeat of the nation.  As a visitor you are not ‘catered to’. Whether you visit for a day, a week or longer, you must take the city as it is – water rationing, hot weather and all.

That is not to say that there is nothing for tourists to do in Leon. There are plenty of tourist activities – and original ones at that: the volcano boarding, cooking at an indigenous family’s house, even attending a cock fight, if that’s your thing. Stalls on the main plaza sell tourist trinkets and there are hopping hostels like ViaVia and Bigfoot in addition to a few finer hotels throughout town. Leon is the perfect place to hang back for a few days to take the city in, enjoy good food and see what it means to be Nicaraguan.

Our suggestions on what to do in Leon

Enjoy the views
Had a taxi driver not told us about the roof of Leon’s cathedral, we would have never known you can climb up. The cathedral is Central America’s biggest, and $2 gets you up to the roof to see some amazing views of the city and the dynamic volcano chain surrounding it.

Leon is absolutely fantastic for clothes shopping – so if you are in need of a few new outfits, Leon is a great place for super cheap, quality clothes. There are a ton of clothes stores throughout the town and the clothes do not only fit ‘Latin shapes’ but the sizes are suitable for other body types too.

Go to the movies
eon has a fabulous, modern movie theater right in the center of the town, within walking distance of all the hostels. The actual theatre size is not huge, but the screens are decent and movies are in English with Spanish subtitles, so you don’t necessarily need to speak Spanish. It’s hard to beat the prices: $2 for a movie on Mondays and Wednesdays, popcorn & a soft drink will cost you another $2.

Tour the churches
The town has more than a dozen colonial churches, most of which are beautifully restored and within walking distance of each other. Our personal favorites are La Recoleccion and El Calvario.

Visit the museums
Being a culturally aware city with many influential artists, Leon is home to various museums that are worth a visit. The ‘Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones’, located in a former prison, displays life-size traditional folk heroes of Leon as well as depicting the cruel torture methods used here.
($1, 4a Calle SE / Avenida Central).

Art lovers should pay the Fundacion Ortiz a visit, which showcases a wide selection of Nicaraguan, Latin American and European art.
($1, Calle Ruben Dario / 3a Avenida Norte).

Anyone interested in literature should check out the house of Nicaragua’s number 1 poet Ruben Dario which has been turned into a museum and archive of his work. (Calle Ruben Dario, free entry). Another great poet’s house is just up the road – the Museo Alfonso Cortes ($1).Discover new fruits on the market
Leon’s central market is one of the cleanest we have come across in Central America and it is fun to walk around, discover new fruit and veg, such as Zapote or Caimito, taste the popular corn drink ‘Chicha’, or dabble in rather dubious culinary delights like fresh (as in still alive) iguanas. Since the market has such a variety of fruits and vegetables, we would advise staying somewhere with a kitchen, in order to sample the market’s offerings.

Hike volcanoes
Leon is close to a chain of 7 volcanoes, most of which can be climbed. Quetzaltrekkers and other tour operators offer volcano hikes (including overnight hikes) or volcano boarding for the more adventurous climbers.

Take a cooking class
Learn how to make a typical Nicaraguan dish. In our post, How to cook an Old Indian, we describe the experience of a cooking course in Leon – from going to the market where you shop the ingredients and stopping by the tortilla makers to try to make your own to and cooking with a Nicaraguan lady who welcomes you with open arms into her home. It is a truly remarkable experience.

Our suggestions on where to eat in Leon

Leon has loads of international eateries and cheap Nicaraguan joints in town, and unlike in Granada, the restaurants in Leon do not add 15% sales tax to your bill.

El Desayunazo
El Desayunazo is easily our favorite breakfast place in all of Central America. A large selection of Nicaraguan and American breakfasts, bottomless coffee, friendly service (who explain Nicaraguan dishes and drinks with a smile), CNN en espanol on a flat screen and free wi-fi – what more can you ask for? The food is excellent and El Desayunazo is stuffed with locals and tourists alike, so it’s best to get there early, as they are only open til noon.
(3a Calle NE, at the corner of 2a Avenida NO)

BarBaro is a relatively new restaurant and bar which gets packed on the weekend thanks to a huge cocktail menu and creative drinks for $2 – $4, or beer for less. The dinners didn’t impress us as much as the cocktails, but we went back for breakfast and didn’t regret it. BarBaro also has free wi-fi.
(1a Calle SE, at the corner of 2a Avenida SO)

Pan Y Paz
If you fancy a Brie baguette or a chocolate croissant, head to Pan Y Paz! This little French bakery has the most affordable baguettes and French sweets we’ve seen in Central America. The organic coffee is good and there is a daily changing selection of fresh fruit juices for less than $0.70. The Brie baguette ($2.50) is perfect on whole wheat or white baguettes, while the chocolate and almond croissants for less than $1 are to die for! (1a Calle NE, at the corner of 3a Avenide SE)

Earth Café
This little vegetarian café is connected to the Bigfoot Hostel. The menu is basic and cheap: You can choose between pasta and sandwiches, and Wednesdays is pizza night where they offer a good pizza & beer deal.

Cocinarte is a little walk away from the town center, but if you are looking for decent international vegetarian cuisine, you should make your way there. They have Indian or Thai Curry, Falafel, and heaping plates of salad and pasta. The food is organic and pricier than other restaurants in Leon. (4a Calle SE, corner of 4a Avenida NO)

Our suggestions on where to stay in Leon

Hostel Colibri
is not a party hostel, but if you are looking for a quiet space with clean rooms, a big kitchen and a shaded courtyard where you can swing in a hammock, this is a fantastic little hostel. You can read our detailed review here. (1a Avenida NO, 50 meters north of the church La Recoleccion. Dorms $7, double rooms $15)

The ViaVia hostel has a busy restaurant and bar in the front, which means it can get loud in the rooms in the front, however, most of the rooms are set around a second colonial backyard in the back, far away from the noises of the bar. (2 blocks East and then 2 blocks North from Parque Central, opposite BigFoot hostel; dorms $6, double rooms $15)leon hostelsBigfoot Hostel
Across the street from Via Via is Bigfoot, Leon’s ultimate party hostel, with an always busy bar. The dorms are not as nice as in ViaVia, but it has a basic kitchen, is close to the big ‘La Union’ supermarket, and also has a great courtyard with hammocks. There’s also a pool, but it wasn’t in use at the time we were there. (2 blocks East and then 2 blocks North from Parque Central, opposite ViaVia hostel; dorms $6, double rooms $15)

Have you been to Leon? What are your suggestions for what to see and do in Leon? Have you ever fallen in love with a city that others might not consider a gem? We’d love to hear your stories and suggestions!

Tags : leonnicaragua


    1. Matt – we said exactly the same thing: it wasn’t SO hot, we could see ourselves living there 🙂 It would help if the beaches near Leon were nicer, then you could cool off every now and again!

    1. In situations like that you realize what it really means to be a ‘dirty, sweaty traveler’ 🙂 It wasn’t the best day to be left without water, but it was interesting for us to see how the people of Leon dealt with it. And we love the city nonetheless!

  1. Yay I love this post, you know how Leon really holds my heart.

    Two things:
    I stayed at Big Foot before moving in with a family, would NOT recommend it. It’s like staying in a deep dark cave.
    I also think ViaVia is too loud, did not stay there but wouldn’t either.

    Love BarBaro, I used to blog there with a big beer and a spinach quesadilla – plus some of the waiters are cute.

    Also I never had water cut off but we had power outages all the time,

    Leon is far from perfect but I love it the way it is.
    Ayngelina recently posted..How I Quit Happy And Got Much More

    1. Hey thanks Rebecca, that’s so nice! We really just want to give people a good base for their own discoveries. Everyone has their own interests, but we write what we would have liked to know before we get to a place. If you’re going to Leon and need any more tips, let us know, we’d love an excuse to go on and on about the place. 🙂

    1. Hey Claire, well thanks for stopping by, and glad you find our stuff useful! That’s what it’s there for 🙂 Great that you’re headed to Nicaragua! For how long? Where are you going? We’re a little jealous, we miss it and love it so much there…If you need any other tips or have questions, don’t hesitate to send us an email. Good luck!!

  2. Wow, Leon sounds awesome. Thanks for covering the town so thoroughly. There is a future Central American romp taking shape in my skull as we speak, and Leon has definitely been added to my list.

    And Ruben Dario is amazing! His was the first Spanish poetry I had the pleasure of reading.

    1. Hi Jenna, thanks for the kind words. And yes, Leon really is AWESOME! If you are into Ruben Dario’s poetry you will appreciate the city even more. I hope you get to visit Leon soon.

  3. Sonati is a nonprofit hostel and trekking company that provides free environmental activities. You can drop in on the environmental activities or volunteer for free or go on a tour and your money goes to provide free environmental activities.

    1. We actually asked around for some places to rent but there were none with wi-fi when we were there two years ago. That might have changed though – I would suggest asking around in some of the expat-run businesses (restaurants and hostels). Let us know if you find a great place – we’re dying to go back! 🙂

      1. loving my time in Nica so far…spent 9 days in SanJuan Del Sur, 4 days in Ometepe…currently in Granada fro 2…then off to Leon for three….travelling by myself…if you have great ideas for when im there, id love to hear them. After to Little Corn for 9 days before heading home to Whistler! Love to hear some “musts” from you guys….excellent posts by the way!

        1. Wow! That’s an awesome trip in Nicaragua, totally thorough, seeing all the sights. Love it! In Leon, definitely eat at Desayunazo, do one of the cultural tours offered by Nicasi Tours – our post about that is The Day We Cooked An Old Indian, go up on top of the main cathedral in Leon (it’s a set of stairs to the left or right just past the entrance, only open when someone is sitting at a nearby desk looking official) – very cool to be up there and very cool views. We did the volcano boarding, which, while isn’t as cool as you imagine it or how the pictures make it, is still something we think about to this day. That post is The Day We Boarded Down A Volcano. Have fun and let us know if these tours and things are still good to do, since it’s been over a year and we’d love to know about anything that changes! 🙂 Thanks!

  4. Hi guys, really loving your website.. its making the planning of my trip a million times easier, so thank you!
    Just wondering if you made it down to Poneloya/La Penitas whilst in Leon? I’m a surfer so am pretty interested in another stop that includes waves, just wondering if the girlfriend will be bored stupid while i’m in the water. Or if the area is worth visiting just for a day or maybe a night or two? i’ve read so many mixed reviews I cant make up my mind.
    Any advice would be moy appreciado! Cheers!

  5. Hey! I spent the day in Leon on Monday and was planning on going volcano boarding but unfortunately the volcano has been closed for a few days. I found your blog and followed as many of your recommendations as I could find into four hours! Thank you so much for this great post! We went to Desayunazo for breakfast which is delicious, toured the Cathedral, went to all the shops, got some Macua cocktails at Barbaro and unfortunately didn’t make it to CocinArte because we were still so full from breakfast but we will definitely be back for that! I am a vegetarian too so I am really looking forward to that restaurant! Thanks for your help 🙂

    1. Courtney, hi! So great that you were able to do so many of our recommendations. I just had a look at your website, what a cool story! Will definitely try to keep up with your story and if we make to Nica any time soon, we’d love to see the hostel you’re managing! Buena suerte 🙂

  6. Hi girls,

    What a great site!

    I’ll be in Leon end of July for a week or so. The volunteer project suggested Toruga Booluda hostal. Is it safe enough in Leon, I’ll be alone so probably will want to go to Via Via etc. Love the cooking course, definitely want to do that and the overnight volcano boarding. Which trip did you do?


    1. Hi Leona, great to hear that! It’s definitely safe in Leon – and the city is small enough that you can walk everywhere, especially in the center (from Tortuga Booluda to ViaVia for example) We didn’t do an overnight volcano trip – we only went for the day with Quetzaltrekkers (they support the local community). There were two guys on our tour though who went straight on an overnight trip after the volcano boarding. Quetzaltrekkers has several overnight trips – check them out when you get to Leon 🙂 Enjoy Nicaragua!

  7. Currently typing this from bed at Bigfoot and it is defintely a party hostel and interestingly enough I like the dorms here as opposed to ViaVia. Great write up and thanks for additional food suggestions.

    Also, they opened up a Burger King here now right next to the supermarket, I guess the west is moving in unfortunately
    Chanel @ La Viajera Morena recently posted..KAWS in New York City

  8. Hi every one, has any one ever been to Puerto { Wilbi } on the Caribbean side? I am planning to go there end of this year on a visit and then to maybe move there as a volunteer later. I would really love some info on what the place is like, hotel, food, restaurants and the people in general.

    1. Three months in Leon!! I am so jealous 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the city too! And Nicaragua in general. I have to get back there soon!

  9. You nned to stay in a neighbourhod or family in Granada. However the tourists are growing and in the past where they did not go beyond La Merced they are everywhere. I am going to Leon Friday. Went last year. The people there are friendlier and yes it is more authentic Nica. Going to have ac at the Cacique Adiact

  10. Hey chicas thanks so much for your post! I’m in Leon right now and my boyfriend took off to Miramar for a surf session so I’ve got the day to myself to do whatever I want. First on the list is the Cathedral 🙂 then I’m heading to the museum. I could drag him around to these things but it will be a lot better by myself although he might get jealous later when I show him the photos.

    Thanks again, keep on posting and traveling !

    1. Hi Mackenzie, I hope you’re enjoying Leon as much as we did! Go volcano boarding! It’s something so unique to Leon 🙂

  11. Amazing post! I lived in Leon with a family for 2 months when I was 15. I’m now 19 and I’m back in Sutiava with the same family for two months again. Everything you said about Leon is true and I think the most important part for me is what we could stand to learn from the people of Leon; family is more important than wealth, and nothing is worth too much stress.
    When I stay here I help out in the school where the mother I live with is the director. I did not get around to seeing some of the things you have mentioned here and now I most definitely will.
    Thank you for this post, you said everything I have always thought about this beautiful place and so very eloquently and accurately.

  12. We just returned from Leon. Loved it! One question: we bought some cocoa powder at the market but when I got it home and tried to make hot cocoa, it thickened and got lumpy so it has corn starch in it. Does anyone know how to properly use the cocoa? Maybe it’s only for cold cocoa?

    1. Hi Meridith, glad to hear you loved Leon, too! Such a great little city 🙂 Sadly I can’t answer your question about the cocoa, but I hope you were able to figure it out.

  13. Sitting in Hotel Flor De Sarta as I write, a couple blocks off the central square. I’ve been coming to Leon annually for 9 years now. This is my 11th trip! I stay usually with a friend who lives here. If you can find an expat who lives here, you are golden. You can find rentals, you can get wifi installed if it isn’t already there: my friend pays about $500 a month for a BIG house in Guadalupe, which is a short walk from the center, and his wifi is pretty good. Got good internet when he lived in Subtiava, too. I’ll add to your excellent recommendations Cafe Libélula. Their cappuccino Libelula is amazing. It is right next to the incredible art museum you mentioned, which I love and visit often. The power is out in most of the central part of the city this morning because a big storm last night that knocked a power pole down. This can be a frustrating city if you depend on internet for a living, but I depend on internet for a living and I’m still living. The trick is to work hard when you can.
    The most important thing to do is head to the center at night, go around back of the cathedral, and get carne asada at the street stands. THAT, friends, is good food. For the most part, restaurant food isn’t my favorite part of coming here, but the street food most certainly is. And the fruit is incredible. Even bananas are unusually excellent here.
    I like the beaches here. Unless it’s holy week, they are usually pretty empty compared to anything comparably beautiful in the states. The surf is pretty big, but there are some protected estuaries that are nice to swim in (so long as you stay away from the mouth of them when the tide is going out, which can drag you out). There are a lot of restaurants and bars, none that are all Cabo style tourist spots. This reminds me a lot of Baja California 25 years ago, actually. It’s a beach for locals, more than international tourists. Eat at Barca de Oro in Poneloya. I can’t overstate how gorgeous the beaches are. There’s some rocks out there that maybe make people say they aren’t nice? Or maybe the surf is too strong? Or not enough palm trees? Whatever. The beaches are wide, sandy, and endless, and the water goes straight on to Japan from here. It’s too awesome to last, the way it is. In 10 years, I expect it will get infiltrated more and more by extranjeros and get more commercial.
    International tourism doesn’t exist here, really. Mostly it’s dreadlocked kids from Europe, pale flocks of missionary girls in cut off shorts, and a few intrepid expats clustered around the cathedral. Walk through Subtiava as a white person and turn around quickly once. You’ll see a lot of people suddenly look away. Anglos are rare enough outside the city center to be a curiosity. It’s perhaps the thing I like the most, which you articulated really well. It’s authentic to itself, still. It’s a true place. It hasn’t been veneered with a glossier simulacrum of its original self like Granada has, and like so many places in the world have, to the extent that you can’t tell what is legitimate and what is imitative. Leon is legit.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Polly! It put a huge smile on my face. It sounds like Leon hasn’t changed much since my last visit (at least not yet), and yes: authentic is the best word to describe Leon. I can’t wait to return!

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