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.
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
Leon 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.
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.
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 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)
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
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)Bigfoot 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!