Sweet, seductive Leon is an alluring metropolis with crumbling church facades, shady central squares, tranquil boulevards, and an array of delightful bistros. This impressive city is well worth a few days to unwind and learn more about Nicaragua’s history, stroll the markets, and hang out with friendly locals.
Things in Leon move a bit slower than they do in Granada, Nicaragua’s other hot spot. These two cities are in a neck-in-neck battle for most popular tourist hub, though they certainly stake out opposite ends of the “sight-seeing” spectrum. Visitors usually have a favorite depending on their traveling tastes and levels of comfort. If they were sisters, Granada would be the well-coiffed prom queen with carefully applied lipstick and a permanent, straight-toothed smile. Leon, on the other hand, is the disheveled tomboy with scrapped knees, a messy ponytail, and a bit of an attitude. True – some of its buildings are in decay, and graffiti blemishes the sidewalks and park benches, but these imperfections only enhance the city’s appealing personality.
Leon was Nicaragua’s capital until 1857, and though Managua is now the capital, Leon remains the country’s intellectual center and home to the National University. Flocks of college students hang out in Leon’s cafes and bakeries or study in one of Leon’s many parks.The students add to the inviting atmosphere, and they don’t hesitate to approach tourists for friendly and engaging conversations.
Travelers be warned. Leon is HOT. Most days, the temperatures soar upwards of 95 degrees. Take my advice. Wake up early to tour the city. Then take advantage of the more afternoon sweltering hours following lunch to relax, sway in a hammock, sit in the Central Plaza, or take a well-deserved siesta. (and wear a sun hat at all times, please)
What to do in Leon: Leon offers something for everyone: museums, art galleries, colorful markets, colonial architecture, delectable eateries, and a maze of remarkable, aging churches The city center boasts an imposing cathedral and pretty Parque Central. For $2, tourists can walk along the cathedral’s roof and be rewarded with epic views of the sprawling town and imposing volcanoes bordering the city. Also, it’s worth a few hours in the morning or late afternoon to fawn over all of Leon’s churches. My favorite was the Iglesia La Recoleccion, a charming, mustard-colored church located just across from my Hostel Calibri, I stalked the church and caught it at various times of day. The light was especially wonderful when the lower angle of the setting sun set the facade awash with spectacular hues.
As my days in Leon ticked my, I felt that I was stuck in a time warp. Perhaps the intense heat makes everyone a tad lazy for even the dogs moved a bit slower. Or maybe people are just taking their time to appreciate life and savor the day. Locals rock away the hours on rocking chairs, young couples cuddle on park benches, and ice cream vendors gently wheel their carts up cobblestone streets.
And another beautiful church in Leon ,Nicaragua.
Leon’s Revolution: Leon (and Nicaragua in general) has a remarkable history, and I urge everyone to learn more about the 1979 battle between the Somozas and Sandinistas. During the revolution, the Sandinistas took over León during some very violent street fighting, and thousands of lives were taken when the city was then bombed by Somoza. Today, Leon humbly celebrates this bloody history and political war with murals, museums, and statues, including one of a Sandinista guerrilla holds a handmade bomb.
Visit the Museum of the Revolution: Located just across from the Parque Central, this fascinating, little museum offers a brief history about the Sandinista movement and the end of the Somoza dictatorship. The building was actually the former Palace of Communications of President Somoza until it was taken over by the Sandinistas during the revolution. There has been no restoration work done in the thirty years since the war ended, and the building is still marked with bullet holes.
The $2 entrance fee includes a guide, many of whom were Sandinista guerrillas who fought in the uprising. My guide, Manuel, showed me several black and white photographs, and then pointed to ones that included him crouching with a gun. He was 17 years old at the time.
Check out the volcanoes; Leon’s outskirts feature eight volcanoes, all of which are part of the “Cordillera de Los Maribios,” and the city is a popular place to base oneself while exploring them. In fact, volcano boarding is one of the “must-do” extravaganzas in Nicaragua. For $30, a adventure outfit drives tourists to Cerro Negro, thrusts a wooden board in their hands, and leads them up the small volcano on a 45 minute hike. At the top, visitors hop on their boards and essentially “sled” down the black sand. Other options include trekking along one of the other volcanoes on a day trip, overnight hike, or multi-day tour.
Leon’s food availability is diverse, and between the trendy bars, restaurants and street stalls, even a vegetarian like me has a plethora of options. I love that there wasn’t an American food chain in sight, unlike Granada which features a Burger King and KFC. Nope, I think that Leon’s people and passion have kept American global conglomerates far, far away.
Four days was enough for me to thoroughly explore Leon, and I was soon on my way to check out the competition in Granada.