Often overlooked in favor of its flashier neighbour Costa Rica, Nicaragua is a country of stunning contrast that should not be missed. Nicknamed the ‘land of lakes and volcanoes’, it offers a wealth of natural beauty and some incredible cities.
It was this diversity – and some amazing waves – that first attracted me to Nicaragua. However, it was the spirit, friendliness, and charm of the city and people of Leon that made me so eager to call the country home for several years.
If San Juan del Sur is Nicaragua’s fresh-out-of-university party destination, Leon is its artsy, slightly sophisticated older cousin. It’s also the country’s second largest city. More a city of locals and university students than a tourist destination, the allure and youthful energy of Leon is contagious. Awash in revolutionary history, art, and colonial beauty, it’s definitely worth a visit. The locals are friendly, the food is delicious, and the nightlife is less drinking and more sweaty, sensual salsa.
Still not convinced? Here are five reasons to add Leon to your Central America itinerary:
Revolutionary art and history
As a traveler in Nicaragua it was often repeated to me that in order to truly understand the country and its people I needed to know its history… and in Nicaragua, history means the revolution. Leon was the epicenter of the revolution and there is no better city in which to educate yourself. Street art, graffiti, and other monuments to the great revolutionaries and poets of Nicaragua litter the streets to this day, many of which are untouched since the 1990s.
One of my favorite ways to take advantage of the cooler mornings in Leon was to wander around the city trying to spy some of these authentic ‘mural bridges’. For a more formal education in all things revolutionary be sure to stop by the Museo Histórico de la Revolución where you can learn everything about the national history – from the devastating earthquake of
1972 to the Sandinista overthrow.
Keep an eye out for the bullet holes that riddle the buildings’ infrastructure. These are leftover from the revolutionaries attack, back when the building served as the dictator’s Palace of Communications.
One of the most refreshing aspects of Leon is how free of tourism and commercialism it is. Leon offers a chance to truly embed yourself in ‘Nica Life’, something that’s much harder to do in cities like Granada.
There is no better place to brush up on your Spanish, take a salsa class or even just visit the local market. Be sure to stop by the Mercado Central where you can pick up anything from a ripe papaya or dragonfruit to a bag of yummy plantain chips. Bring your snacks along and settle in for some first-class people-watching at Parque Central. The plaza is always bustling with street performers and music, and boasts an amazing view of the famous Catedral .
No visit to Leon would be complete without a trip to the roof of the cathedral, also known as the Basílica de la Asunción. The cathedral has been around since 1747 and is the largest one in Central America. For $2 you can gain access to the roof and revel in the best views Leon has to offer – volcanoes included.
Pro trip: You will be asked to remove your shoes, in order to preserve the brilliantly white floors – so be prepared. Also, wear your sunglasses! On a sunny day the white floor reflects so much light that it can be blinding.
Home to many universities, Leon at heart is a ‘college town’ and it is this youthful atmosphere that makes it such a legendary place to party. Whether you are in the mood for some bachata, salsa, or just turning it up on the dance floor, Leon has something for you.
For a low-key night stop by Via Via, a local bar/restaurant in ‘Backpacker Alley’ that offers up live music every Friday. Via Via also offers a range of traditional Nicaraguan dishes like ceviche, tostones, and gallo pinto if you are in the mood to refuel before your night out.
Feeling ambitious? By far, my favorite way to spend a Thursday night was salsa dancing with the locals at la Olla Quemada . Every week, locals and tourists alike congregate at this bar to show off dance skills which range from complete beginner to pro. No salsa night would be complete without a late night stop at club Oxygene, where the pulsating beats of the DJ leave couples sweating it out on the dance floor till the early morning.
Diverse food options
In a country not known for its culinary prowess, Leon offers up some of the most unique and tasty food options around. The marriage of Sri Lankan and Polish food might not sound like the likeliest of combinations, but IMBIR restaurant delivers on all fronts. Their curries are second to none and don’t skip out on their medley of homemade perogies and samosas. Drinks are creative and fairly-priced, and the local craft beers are exceptional.
Pro tip: order one of the curries and get an ‘Indian quesadilla’ to share with a friend. Also be sure to check out their Facebook page as they routinely host open mic nights!
For some of the best coffee and breakfast in town, you can’t go wrong with Pan y Paz. This French, expat-owned bakery whose name roughly translated means ‘Bread & Peace’, offers up a taste of Paris in a landscape dominated by rice and beans. Begin your morning with one of their famous almond chocolate croissants and a refreshing jugo (all natural, fresh-squeezed juice) or a cup of local Twin Engine Coffee.
Easy, beachy day trips
Ready for a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of Leon life? A quick 20-minute chicken bus ride (or even quicker local cab ride) will get you to one of the most picturesque and uncrowded beaches in Nicaragua: Las Penitas. Whether you plan on staying for the night or just soaking up some sun for a few hours, Las Penitas offers a lot in the way of sunshine, surfing, and pure blissful beach relaxation. Be sure to check in with Leon’s famous surf shop, ‘Get Up Stand Up ’ to schedule a lesson. After, make sure to relax with a cold Toña or fresh fruit smoothie at Bigfoot Beach Hostel.
If partying and surfing isn’t for you, there are yoga classes to take, horses to ride, and beach volleyball games to play at the tranquil Surfing Turtle Lodge. This amazing eco-resort offers a rustic ‘off the grid’ experience that allows travelers to really unplug and embrace the wild nature of Nicaraguan life.
Ultimately, Leon is a city that offers a little something for every type of traveler. Whether you’re into art, history, or just working on your Spanish at the market, you can take a beat and truly embrace ‘Nica life’ in this special city.
Even if you are stopping by for just a few hours, Leon has a special way of making you feel like you belong.
It was this mix of charm, authenticity, and love of life that made me fall in love with Leon. So do yourself a favor and make Leon a part of your next adventure!
Tempted to visit this incredible city? Explore Leon on this 17-day Central American Journey.
For Intrepid’s range of Nicaragua tours, click here.
(Image credits from top to bottom: Isis-Maya Nissman, Intrepid Travel x6.)