Founded in the early 1600’s, León is one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, it’s the second largest in the nation and it once alternated as capital with Granada. That title is now in the hands of Managua, and hasn’t budged since 1852.
Having been to both cities, there’s a distinct difference between the two. Granada comes across as the girl that loves her designer outfits and occasional international fast food, she feels very comfortable in vintage garb and doesn’t mind having North Americans as next door neighbours.
León is more of a gal that’s a bit rough around the edges, likes to study, dabble in art and poetry and isn’t all that keen on multinational companies.
León doesn’t have the same manicured old town centre that you see in Granada. It feels more unkept, gritty, lacks the tourist numbers and simply feels more “Nicaraguan”.
Bullet-scarred buildings can still be seen about town; a reminder of the 1978-1979 Sandinista revolution, and many political murals – plus some regular ones – colour up the city centre.
Iglesia de La Recolección
Iglesia El Calvario
León Cathedral and El Sesteo
Coffee Shop Libélula
León has no shortage of centuries-old colonial churches, and you needn’t walk too far to stumble upon another one. There are more churches per capita here than there are anywhere else in the country.
The most beautiful would have to be Iglesia La Recolección, which glows like a yellow beacon in the sunlight. It may appear a little worn, but this 1786 beauty has been restored thanks to international funding.
The red brick and yellow Iglesia El Calvario perches above the street in the city centre and can be easily seen from a distance. Biblical scenes decorate its façade, something that makes it stand out from many others.
Then there’s the grand daddy of them all – Basílica de la Asunción, or the León Cathedral. This World Heritage marvel, built in 1814, is currently under restoration and bares a freshly painted white façade. For $2 you can climb to the roof and walk around the numerous domes and take in the cityscape and distant volcanoes. It’s absolutely stunning up there!
Relax afterwards at El Sesteo, which overlooks the cathedral. Enjoy a cold beer or cocktail, a coffee on the terrace or tuck into tasty local and international food.
If a simple fresh fruit juice is required, be sure to check out the 43 juice combinations at Jugoso, one block west of the cathedral. For coffee, tea or hot chocolate, cool down in the gloriously air-conditioned Libélula, grab a slice of cake or tuck into some food.
Hotel Azul – where we stayed
Sunset at Las Peñitas – image by marexplore
Beach-goers can escape town for a bit and get wet at Las Peñitas, a low key fishing village on the Pacific. Surf, swim, play volleyball or simply chill with your mates. The beach is known for its strong rips, so surfers get the better deal from this one. Still, if you’re a confident swimmer and know what to do if you’re dragged out in a rip, you can still get wet without any worry.
A local bus can get you there in 45 minutes or you can get there by car in 20.
One activity many visitors partake in when staying in León is boarding down Cerro Negro, a volcano not too far out of town. Quetzaltrekkers is a good place to start; a non-profit organisation with a variety of treks in the region, and they’ll even help out with your onward travels.
Non-Profit? Yes, all profits are put right back into the community to help disadvantaged youth. Book with these guys and you’re doing your bit without any effort.
For $30 per person, you’re driven to the base of the 728 m volcano and, with your board under your arm or strapped to your backpack, it’s a 45 minute walk to the top.
Once there, there’s a quick demonstration on how to board down the steep slope safely and then you slip on your well-used and somewhat stinky, ill-fitting denim suit, gloves and goggles.
Who’s going first? Everyone in our group of 6 looked at each other nervously, so I took the plunge – quite literally.
Someone has to go first, right? I didn’t take a video, but my partner in crime did, so check it out here.
They’ll even give you a second go if you’re interested in trekking back up the volcano, no extra charge.
El Mirador – Bar Terraza
Once you’ve returned to León after screeching down the side of an active volcano, the first thing you’re probably wanting to do is take a shower.
Enduring the smell of sweat picked up from an unwashed suit worn by god knows how many people wasn’t so pleasant, plus there’s about a kilo of black dust and gravel in your hair, ears, undies and ass crack that needs removing.
Now that that’s done it’s time for drink, so what better place to do it than the very breezy El Mirador. It gets pretty hot and steamy in this town, so keeping cool in a lofty bar a couple of floors above the street is the way to do it. The perfect spot to sip on a Toña or Victoria Clásica. It gets heaving with locals, especially students, and they even put on burgers, wings and nachos; just in case you’re in need of solids.
We had high hopes of the menu at Carnivoro, located a few doors down from where we were staying. Grilled meats, stuffed pita, wings & ribs and a bunch of national dishes.
The first three things we ordered weren’t available – mojito, macuá (Nicaragua’s national cocktail) and ceviche de conche. Rather than let us know what wasn’t available, I eventually discovered I could have the octopus & shrimp ceviche (8), which was actually ok. We didn’t bother sticking around to find out what else we couldn’t have.
The night-time dining scene in León is varied, so you can fill up on just about anything you want. For street food, look no further than the strip behind the cathedral. Expect to find grilled meats, quesillos, yucca fritters and more. And it’s cheap.
The Cuban-themed El Bodegón may not be about authenticity, but it does put on some decent dinner-time plates that can be enjoyed in its rear courtyard. It’s a two-step process of choosing your meat or veg (Cuban-style pork, spiced chicken, fish or squash), then choosing how it’s served – with boiled or fried yucca, in a quesadilla, tostadas or in a sandwich. Be sure to try the frozen mojito.
Ever been to a Sri Lankan-Polish restaurant? Chances are you haven’t, so why not grab a craft beer from the bar, order some pierogi (100), an absolutely divine Jaffna -style curry (215), fish empanadas or cooling chlodnik. Service is spot on, too.
We booked a shuttle through Erik Tours, the same guys we used for the Masaya Volcano tour in Granada. Cost was $15 per person. They do a hotel pick-up and depart at 12pm and arrive in León at 2.30pm.