How to Spend 4 Days in Leon, Nicaragua
Leon, Nicaragua is the grittier, local, big brother of Granada. It’s the liberal city of artists and poets, of Rubén Darío, and the birthplace of the revolution. You won’t find a ‘gringo row’ here with restaurants with English menus attracting tourists. You’ll eat where the locals eat. You’ll shop where the locals shop. And that’s what I liked about the city. It doesn’t go out of its way to cater to you. Leon presents itself as it is, and whether you like it or dislike it, it will just continue on with its business. It will welcome you if you want to join in, but isn’t bothered if you want to pass on by.
A lot of backpackers just come to go volcano boarding and then move on, but there’s more to the city than that. It was the last city I visited and that was perfect because I was in a good, relaxed groove and I was ready for a little culture. Some art, some music, some wine. There’s no shortage of things to do in Leon.
Here’s how I spent my four days in Leon.
I’ll admit, one of the main reasons I came to Leon was to hurtle myself down the side of an active volcano. You hike to the top of the Cerro Negro volcano, then kit up in a jumpsuit, goggles, gloves, and a bandana before sitting on a toboggan-like sled and sliding down the 46 degree pitch of volcanic ash. A bit crazy, sure, but tons of fun. There are multiple outfits in town who will take you on the excursion. I chose Quetzaltrekkers because of the opportunity to slide twice and because of their community work.
Leon was the city where the revolution started and you’ll do yourself a disservice if you don’t take some time to learn about the history here. I booked a walking tour through Hokano Tours. At first, they didn’t want to take me since I was solo and they had nobody else booked, but when I offered to pay more ($35 – slightly less than the cost for two) they agreed and I got a private tour. It was eye-opening to hear the details from someone who was living there when it was all going on and get their take on it. Though I’m still a bit fuzzy on details my guide sparked my interest in learning more once I got home. I love it when trips not only entertain, but educate me.
Walk the Top of the Cathedral
Part of my walking tour was going to the top of the Leon Cathedral. I was glad to have a guide because the process of getting a ticket ($2) and getting to the top wasn’t overly clear (get your ticket at the back, enter the stairs at the side). Hanging out on the blazingly white roof was pretty spectacular. I swear it was a bit cooler up there as well. You can see out over all of Leon and onwards to the string of volcanoes in the distance. Absolutely worth the climb up the steep, narrow stairs. Heads up: you’ll have to remove your shoes before you can step out on the roof so if you’re in sandals and don’t want to go barefoot, bring a pair of socks.
Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz – Gurdián
You might not immediately think of modern art when you think of Nicaragua but Leon is a city of artists and poets so it makes sense that there would be art here. Admission is $2 for foreigners and worth it. It makes a perfect, quiet, reflective break from the city. Figure to spend about 30-60 minutes here.
El Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones
This is one of the quirkiest museums I’ve ever been to, but with admission less than $2 it’s totally worth a visit for the oddness alone. The museum is housed in the former XXI jail, where cells now make up exhibit rooms. Puppets and mannequins demonstrate various Nicaraguan stories and traditions while paintings on the wall depict just how awful prisoners were treated at the jail. I loved learning about Nicaraguan folk stories though, despite the macabre surroundings. Give it a visit.
Tortuga Booluda is about a 10 minute walk from the central park but this means that it’s very quiet at night. I booked a private room with a shared bath for $21/night. Unfortunately, there was no AC and outside temperatures were around 36C (95F) at night. My two fans were doing their best but the mattress was the kind that just seemed to radiate the heat back at me and the power cut out for a while both nights. I actually contemplated sleeping in the hammock in the outdoors common area.
Other than the heat, which couldn’t be helped, Tortuga Booluda was a great hostel with a large common areas with hammocks, an open kitchen (free pancakes and coffee!), good book exchange, and pool table.
After 9 nights without AC though and daytime temperatures topping 40C (104F) I caved and booked my last two nights at Hotel Azul, a luxury boutique hotel with AC, hot water, and a pool. Sweet sleep! I also loved being able to cool off in the small pool. The little oasis was worth the splurge.
Food & Drink
Grills Behind the Cathedral
Every evening around sunset women start setting up their grills behind the Cathedral. For under $5 USD you can get a plate full of grilled chicken, gallo pinto, cabbage salad, plantain, tortilla, and a bottle of water. The chicken is lacking a bit of spice/seasoning but it was well cooked without being dry. There was a steady mix of locals and tourists here, which was good to see.
Unlike Granada, there’s no cluster of tourist restaurants in Leon. You eat where the locals eat, which I liked, but it did make it a bit harder to find places. I wanted something authentically Nicaraguan for supper and ended up with a plate of Indio Veijo (a corn flour based meat stew) from Picharditos. While it’s not the most Instagrammable dish, it was quite tasty. I was the only gringa in the place so I think I achieved that authentic dinner I was looking for.
From what I read, this was the place to go for breakfast. If you’re tired of desayuno tipico, this is a great place to go for pancakes and hash browns. It was a large, airy restaurants with good wifi and coffee. If you haven’t had your fill of gallo pinto, the version here is worth a stop.
On my last night in town I reviewed my notes and saw that I had come in under budget for my trip so I decided to splurge and took myself out for a nice steak dinner at Al Carbon. Some people have said that it’s overpriced but I thought the $26 I paid for my 8oz steak and white sangria was reasonable. There was a little kitten running around the inner courtyard while I was having my dinner. I nicknamed her Nica and thought about ways to smuggle her home. I thought it was interesting that the gringo kids wanted to play with her while the local kids wanted to shoo her away.
Other places I ate included: El Sesteo (which was touristy and overpriced), Cafe Rosita, Nicaraguita, and a wonderful pain au chocolate & white wine at Pan y Paz.