León is one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua.
León is named after León, Spain. The original León was closer to Lake Manauga (also known under its indigenous name Xolotlán) but evacuated after volcanic activity rendered it uninhabitable. Although the city (including some of the dead in the cemeteries and some of the saints in the churches) was moved almost entirely some ruins can still be seen of León viejo. After independence, the elites of León and Granada struggled over which city would be the capital. León was dominated by the liberal faction and Granada by the conservatives. The fighting ended when Managua became capital.
After Granada, which is better preserved, León has the most colonial architecture in Nicaragua. It is a university town that stubbornly remains somewhat pro-Sandinista. During the 1979 revolution, the Sandinistas took over León in violent street by street fighting. Somoza then had the city bombed, after he lost it, which cost him a lot of sympathies because the bombs hit civilians and fighters alike. The National Guard took León back over, again in street by street fighting, but this time less intense since the Sandinistas melted away. Finally, the Sandinistas took León back over and held it until the Somoza government fell. You can still see bullet marks on some buildings. Also, there is a shell of a church on the road out of town that was destroyed during the bombing. Across the street from this church is the Museo de las Mytos y Leyendas Tradiciones (Museum of Myths and Legends), which prominently displays a statute of a Sandinista guerrilla holding a handmade bomb. Some sarcastically call it the Museo de las Traiciones (Museum of the Treasons) as a reference to how the Sandinista rank and file has been cheated by Daniel Ortega and the rest of the Sandinista elite.
León used to be the hub of cotton growing but that has declined. The economy is relatively depressed. Tourists have not been a large, visible presence in León, though it is popular among backpackers and as of late, tour groups. Still León sees many fewer tourists than Granada. León still is a university town, filled with students. Backpackers, volunteers and other extranjeros usually meld with local students. During semana santa (Easter week) León and the surrounding beaches of Las Peñitas and Poneloya get packed with Nicas and foreigners alike.
León has more colonial churches and cathedrals than any other place in Nicaragua. If you are still on the church tour, there are thirteen to check out in town.
The closest commercial airport is in Managua IATA: MGA. Managua is roughly an hour and a half's drive from León.
Just about anyone in Managua can tell you how. The Carretera Vieja to León (old road to León) is in the worst shape it has been, ever. It is littered with potholes and takes a round about way to Leon. The Carretera Nueva is in great shape I hear). It's about 90 kilometers from Managua to León, about a 90 minute trip depending on how fast you drive. Stop for quesillo and tiste in Nagarote or La Paz Centro, the two towns the Carretera Nueva goes through on the way. You will find the turnoff to the Carretera Nueva a León at KM 6 1/2 on the Carretera Sur.
If you are coming from the north (Esteli) on the carretera norte, take the turn north of Matagalpa, at San Isidro I think, and save yourself the trouble of going through Managua. This highway was just recently repaired and is in great shape. It takes about 2 hours by bus to get to Leon from Esteli or Matagalpa.
The bus terminal is about 2 km northeast of the center, take one of the trucks waiting in front of the terminal - which serve as local buses (4 cord) - to the center, or take a taxi for about C$20.
- From Managua: Take the vans leaving from Mercado Israel Lewites or the microbuses (camionetas) leaving from UCA (Universidad Centro Americana). The vans from Mercado Israel Lewites are fifteen-passenger vans that are fairly crowded, but not excessively uncomfortable, particularly when one sits next to a window. Buses run regularly, leaving from the Mercado every 15-20 minutes. Buses leave from La UCA beginning at 4:30am until approx. 9pm. They leave whenever they are full, usually every 15 minutes. The bus from either terminal costs C$ 46. If you take the bus, make sure to get an expreso - otherwise the bus makes stops to pick up passengers on the side of the road along the way.
- From Esteli: There's one direct bus daily. If you miss it, you've got to change in San Isidro on the Panamerican Hwy. Mini-van service directly to Leon is also available from Esteli (C$75, 2 hours ) but times and availability are not regular, and they will not leave until full.
- From Matagalpa: There are 2 direct buses running daily, otherwise take a bus to San Isidro and transfer to Leon.
Direct transportation is also available directly from the Managua airport via private van service, up to $60-$70 one-way.
The city is very walkable if you can stand the heat. You do not really need a car once there, unlike Managua. The locals get around by bicycle and walking, and if you need to get across town you can take a taxi. However, to go to the places outside the city, such as the beach, a car is convenient.
Ruletos (trucks) serve as local buses (C$ 4 per ride). They go from the mercado north of town where the buses to Managua and other long distance destinations arrive and leave to the Mercado in Barrio Subtiava where buses to the beaches of las Peñitas and Poneloya leave and arrive. Taxis are C$ 20 per person anywhere in the city before 7pm, C$30 after 7pm.
- León Cathedral (Catedral de León). This is the biggest cathedral in Central America and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The story goes that the construction plans sent back to Spain for approval showed smaller dimensions, because they were afraid the Church wouldn't approve such a large cathedral, although this story has been debunked. The cathedral is also the final resting place of Ruben Dario, as well as many other notable Nicaraguans. You can pay a small fee to climb the stairs up to the roof, where you can get a nice view of all of León's churches and the surrounding volcanoes, and you can go into the cellars beneath the cathedral. On the roof you can see close up the giant sculptures holding up the cathedral bells; just don't ring them.
- Central Park (Parque Central). A beautiful park with a fountain and lots of shady trees opposite the main cathedral. The park is a great place to people watch (especially on the evenings) as it is packed with families and youth chatting, kids riding their bikes and vendors selling candy and drinks. On the weekends you may see street performers, dancers and musicians which adds a lot to the atmosphere.
- Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion), Parque Central, Leon. Located in what appears to be an abandoned building opposite the Central Park, the Museum of the Revolution basically consists of a small room with some displays and artifacts. None of the displays or guides offer anything in the way of English, but nevertheless once you pay your entrance fee you will be paired up with a guide. The guide will take you through the collection and provide an animated commentary with appropriate gestures to underscore the arrests, beatings, and assassinations of the revolutionary period. The most unique aspect of this museum are the guides, with many of them claiming to be actual revolutionary compañeros. They will be sure to point out a picture of their younger self, rifle and all. NIO50.
- Art Museum Fundacion Ortiz-Guardián (Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián) (3 blocks west of the cathedral on the avenue). This privately supported center is perhaps the finest art museum in Nicaragua. Showcases both international and Central American artists of various periods and media. C$20 general, C$10 student (with ID).
- Subtiava Church (Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava). One of the oldest colonial churches in Leon, the church has served a traditionally indigenous community. The rustic wood interior is a pleasant deviance from the often ornate styles that are more typical of the period.
- Street Murals, located in various places around the city. As you’re wandering around the streets, keep a lookout for street murals. The murals usually have a political message or commemorate the massacre of protesting students by the militia that occurred in 1959.
- Museo Ruben Dario. Pick up some of his poetry (Azul is a good beginning). There is an art museum that has a good collection, including contemporary art. It occupies two houses. The main part on a southeast corner of the street that runs from Parque Ruben Dario to the Cathedral (Avenida Central).
- El Fortin For the best view over the city and the volcanoes, go to this old Somoza stronghold southwest of León, best reached from Subtiava. It's a 20 minute walk, ask locals for directions.
Leon is nearby to eight volcanoes that form part of the Cordillera de Los Maribios mountain range and it is possible to hike most of them. The most famous volcano in the region is Cerro Negro, a young, small volcano that offers incredible views and slopes to practice sandboarding. Nearby Cerro Negro are two atypical volcanoes; Las Pilas and El Hoyo which can be hiked together. Telica, the most active volcano in the region, is climbable but only when there is no lava flowing down the side of it so be prepared to give this one a miss. Hikers interested in a demanding climb should head to Momotombo - the most difficult to hike but with the most spectacular views in Nicaragua, it is worth the effort. Other volcanoes include Cosiguina, famous for it's view of no less than three countries (Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras) and San Cristobal, the highest volcano in Nicaragua.
Nearby, there are also two volcanic lagoons: Asososca and Monte Galan, and these are great for cooling off after a long day or two of hiking. While it is possible to enter the park without being part of a tour, it is recommended to go with an organized guide as hiking the volcanoes can be dangerous (easy to get lost, run out of water etc.). Here is a list of tour companies:
- SONATI Leon (From NE corner of Cathedral, 3 blocks Northward and 1/2 block Westward), ☎ +505-23154696. Social enterprise that provides accommodation and tour services with all proceeds going to a number of environmental initiatives and environmental education activities.
- Quetzaltrekkers Leon, 1/2 blocks west of the Mercantíl (next to the restaurant La Mexicana), ☎ +505 2311-7388, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Provides treks with all profits going to the street kids of Leon. They offer a full suite of 1- 2- and 3-day hikes to most volcanoes.
It is almost a rite of passage for every traveller that visits Leon to board down the side of Cerro Negro. Even for those not so interested in boarding, the 45 minute hike up and the the view from the top are spectacular. The actual boarding down is fairly fun and generally involves sitting down on the board, leaning back and controlling the speed with your feet in the sand. If you dare, you can reach speeds of up to 95km/h on the steepest sections of the hill. All tour companies provide equipment, transport and usually a beverage after the ride. No tour organizations offer stand up style boarding so if you want to do this you will need to find your own gear. All tour companies listed above in 'Trekking' offer volcano boarding, however the most popular operator is the Big Foot Hostel which offers a large group, party focused experience (with free shots to the fastest boarder).
Other things to do
- Catch a baseball game if you are there during the season. The Leónes won the championship in 2004 and are perpetual contenders. For fifty cordobas you can sit right behind home plate, or pay less for 3rd base side where the lively crowd sits with the unofficial band. Order some vigoron, get a Victoria and enjoy. If Chinandega is visiting, it can get quite rowdy and tickets sell out. The stadium is in the northern part of the city.
- Go for a day trip to the beach. Less then an hour away by chicken bus or 15 minutes by taxi (NIO150-200pp) are some of Nicaragua's most lightly trod beaches. Choose between Las Peñitas, which is known for its surfing and mellow vibe, or Poneloya, a beach probably not as nice as Las Peñitas but less touristic. The last bus leaves the coast at 6:30pm which gives you enough time to watch the spectacular sunsets over the beach.
- Learn how to cook Nicaraguan food in a cooking class. Organized by NicAsi Tours, the cooking class involves buying local ingredients from the market, creating your own tortillas at the local tortilleria and then going to a local household to cook the dish.
- Watch a cock fight. Love it or hate it, it is possible to watch a fight in Leon. Flyers will be posted by NicAsi Tours before the fight. Be mindful that although the flyer advertises this as an 'authentic local experience', most locals don't actually take part in the fight.
Spanish at one of the schools. Dairiana Spanish School is a good option. It is located in the center of the city and will arrange a homestay if you are interested.
You also can get excellent classes with private teachers, which actually is much cheaper.
- La Isla Foundation (Fundación La Isla), La Perla Hotel, 50 m North, 30 m West (La Perla Hotel, 50 m North, 30 m West), ☎ +505-2315-1261. M-F 9 am - 5pm. The only NGO in Leon that has a Spanish school. The La Isla Foundation was created to find a solution to the Chronic Kidney Disease epidemic currently affecting families and communities outside of Leon. The funds from the Spanish school, local tours, and adventure tours throughout northwestern Nicaragua are used to help fund their projects in the communities they support. Variable.
There are free-of-charge volunteer opportunities with Quetzaltrekkers an organization raising money for street kids by offering hikes to volcanoes around León. You can volunteer as a hiking guide for a minimum of three months.
Las Tias - the supported organization - also takes volunteers, taking care of the streetkids, with a two months minimum.
Ask around at the cafe run by "Edad de Oro", whether this organization got some (volunteer) work for you - they're pretty cool too.
Some people find work at the Big Foot Hostel, and for long-term visitors (6 month or so) it's sometimes possible to teach English.
Queso quemado (hard, salty, white cheese that goes great with tortillas or bean soup).
Definitely have to go to the oldest restaurant in town, located in the heart of Leon, in the opposite corner of the Basilica Cathedral called "El Sesteo", it has diverse menu from typical local food and beverages to fast food. Definitely worth trying.
Great food at the local market, behind the main cathedral. Large food court with all sorts of great beans and eggs and rice and fried cheese and cheese-stuffed platanos and thick tortillas. Great for breakfast, you can fill up for a dollar or two. You can also buy fresh-made juices, and gaze in awe at the giant blocks of fried cheese.
On the street behind the market is Buen Gusto, where you should grab some Pollo Vino on the cheap.
A few blocks south of the Parque de los Poetas is Buena Cuchara, where the food is delicious-- 25 cordobas for a full lunch, including either fish or chicken (both delicious).
On the boulevard out of town toward Chinandega, across from the main police station, there's a green house with a porch. This 'Pelo de chancho', where you get the best Mondongo soup in León, but you have to get there early for lunch or they might run out.
- Pure Earth Cafe (Adjacent to BigFoot Hostel). This place serves vegetarian options at about C$65 a plate for lunch and $80 for dinner. Juices are C$35 but are fresh and tasty. Offer: spicy bean burger on bagel, roasted mushrooms and red peppers on bagel, panini with delicious fillings, and sometimes some baked goodies.
- Cocin Arte (North side of El Laborio church). 12:00 - 22:00. Closed on Tuesdays. Most vegetarians would not mind setting up camp at this restaurant during their stay in Leon while there are also a couple dishes offered for carnivores. Take about 8 dollar for a meal and a drink. The service tends to be slow but the food is worth the wait. They also sell organic chocolates and coffee.
- Los Pescaditos (In Subtiava). Worth the cab ride (less than 10 minutes from Cathedral).
- ViaVia. 8am - 9.30pm. International and local food. 25C$ - 145C$.
- Café La Rosita. Located two houses from the North West corner of the Central Park in front of the big Enitel building is Café La Rosita that offers an excellent environment (beautifully restored colonial house with large central patio), premium Nicaraguan coffees, a short but complete menu of panini sandwiches, salads, desserts, and even ice-cold beers. And free wireless internet access.
Montezerino is on the bypass near the Managua intersection. They serve a good fillet mignon or churrasco for under $10 US. The restaurant serves as a night club at night. It is open on the sides and large.
Manhattan Restaurant has fresh hand-rolled tuna and salmon sushi. It's across the street from Hotel La Perla.
Don Senor's has a restaurant downstairs to eat, drink and watch tv. Upstairs is a club that charges a 30 cordoba cover.
Dilectus is fancier and larger then the other discos. Its on the edge of town and requires a taxi to get there and back. The cover is about c$50.
Salon Estrella is about 20 cordobas to get in, has slot machines in front, a small dance floor in the back, loud music and usually gets pretty full.
La Calabiza at night.
ViaVia has live music every Friday.
El Divino Castigo (3 blocks north of parque central) got live music every Tuesday. La Esquina del Movimiento (one block east of the above) got Spanish alternative movies almost every Thursday, and often live music on Saturdays.
Cappuccino, espresso, granita etc.: Café La Rosita, located on Calle Real in front of Enitel, diagonal from the NW corner of Central Park.
- GO BAR, Parque de los poetas 2 cuadras al norte, 25 varas al este., ☎ +505 2311 1400. Go Bar, is an alternative place where diversity is the main ingredient, here you can express yourself freely in a comfortable environment created just for fun. The letter will find a wide variety of domestic and imported drinks and some dishes to try. us$1.
- Meson Real, Parque Ruben Dario 220 vrs al Norte. Seafood tapas restaurant with meat as well. The quality of the food is excellent.
- Big Foot Hostel (1 block east of the cathedral, then 1 and a half blocks north), ☎ +50589178832. Check-out: 11AM. The most famous hostel in Leon. DVD system, modest swimming pool, bar, and pool table, all set in a garden courtyard, a very social hostel. The hostel organizes a variety of nighttime actives, and trips to their other location at the beach to party. The bar is generally crowded and fun everynight. The kitchen is well-equipped except for good cutting knives, forks or bowls. 5 dorms with 8 beds each with large lockers for each & 5 private rooms. A note for budget travelers: staff on duty to enforce the strict no-outside-alcohol policy. Dorms US$6, privates US$15.
- Casa Vieja is rumored to be the cheapest accommodation in town 65C in dorm, populated by street vendors and down-to-the-ground travelers.
- Lazy Bones, email@example.com (Two and a half blocks north of Parque Ruben Dario), ☎ +505-23113472. Check-out: 11 AM. Super clean with real beds and pillows. Included in the price are : internet access, coffee and tea, pool table, a swimming pool for hotel guests only. Check out the mural. No kitchen access. Dorms US$8, privates w/o bath US$20, private w/bath US$30.
- Sonati (From NE corner of Cathedral, 3 blocks Northward and ½ block eastward), ☎ +505-2311-4251. Hostel where you can experience the sound of nature, relaxing in one of the hammocks in the garden where hummingbirds come to feed. Friendly, peaceful and clean hostel. Big kitchen, relatively new mattresses, free wi-fi, free use of computer, free coffee and a big garden. Sonatiy is a not-for-profit organization with a social and environmental vision which carries out several educational activities. Promoting long-term self-sustainable environmental-educative activities is the most important mission. The hostel is the financial base to achieve this goal, along with some of the volcano treks and other outdoor activities on offer Dorms from $5, privates from $11.
- La Tortuga Booluda (from the SW corner of the central park, 3.5 blocks west), ☎ +505 311-4653, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. AC optional, free Internet and Wifi, free pancake breakfast, free organic coffee, book exchange, bike rentals. Dorm: US$7, private: US$12, with private bath: US$20.
- ViaVia (1 block east of the cathedral, then 1 and a half blocks north), ☎ +505 2311 6142, e-mail: email@example.com. Check-out: 11am. Has a popular restaurant/cafe. In the back there is a brand new hotel with 2 dorm-rooms and 6 well-kept private rooms with private bathroom. ViaVia's Bert Teuwen will respond to emails saying "We do NOT charge extra for towels" (Oct 20, 2011), which is another way of saying they DON'T provide towels at all for free or otherwise. ViaVia emails also claim discounts for staying three nights or nothing, which is untrue. Staff at the location speaks little or no English. Dorms US$6 , privates US$18.
- Hostel D´Oviedo is more like a bed and breakfast than a hostel. A lovely Nicaraguan couples have converted their home into a hostel. The prices vary depending upon the room. Matrimonial suite with private bathroom, fan and cable: 20 dollars per night. Dorm room with separate bathroom and fan: $8 dollars per person. Matrimonial suite with a single bed for a child, fan, tv, separate bathroom: $18 dollars per night. Breakfast and really fast internet are included. Guests are also allowed to use their kitchen. Directions: Go to park central in the center of the city next to the main cathedral. Find Theatre Gonzalez and walk south 2.5 blocks. It’s very close to Hostel Clinica. As well, the owners have 2 sons who are dentists. If you need any cheap work done on your teeth ask the owner. Prices for the rooms and for dental work are negotiable. Phone: 2311 3766
- Hotel San Juan is a nice hotel in front of iglesia San Juan, offering a good bed and breakfast, as well as kitchen access for about 10 dollar a night.
Los Balcones, located on the corner down the street from the Supermercado La Union. A high level hotel (at least by Nicaraguan standards). It has A/C, real mattresses, nice views, hot water, and great service. Room: $US50 per night. Friendly English speaking staff.
León is - by Central American standards - a safe and comfortable town. In the city center, there are some areas which are not safe to walk alone as a female at night. There are, however, some things to keep in mind:
- It is common to see young men bike in small packs, and they sometimes find easy targets to approach, and demand wallets, phones, and other valuables. Occurrences in daytime, more likely at night. There have been instances of armed robbery, though rape is not as common.
- Taxis are not usually a good option in Nicaragua. Taxi drivers in Leon will often demand more money than was originally agreed upon. Make sure that you clearly negotiate the price before entering the taxi. It is also important to clarify if the price is per group or per person. Remember to exit your taxi before paying. Do not put your luggage in the trunk of the car, as some taxi drivers will drive off with it. There have been numerous reports by the US State department as to the danger of taking taxis in Leon.
- The farther you travel from the city center, the poorer the neighborhoods become. Once you leave the city, however, you will come upon small campesino villages. The majority of these villagers are friendly.
- Groups of beggars, mostly children, congregate around popular tourist spots. Some may follow you around and some may even become verbally hostile. This behavior is usually a scare tactic.
There are Cybers all over town
- Pacific beaches - Within 10-15 minutes by taxi are some of Nicaragua's lightly trod beaches. Las Peñitas is known for its surfing and mellow vibe while Poneloya is known for it's quiet and less touristic feel. If you wish to visit Peneloya, there are a number accommodation options, from hotel Lacayo, old and historic, all wood structure, to Hotel Poneloya, recently refurbished rooms w/ a/c across the street. They have upgraded the beds, famous for uncomfortable before. Still, the rooms have no real windows. Rooms were $25 dollars a night (they built some new rooms which I did not look at. Besides hanging out at the beach, there's a billiard hall popular with locals at the end of the paved road in Poneloya (though at night it gets a little rowdy as locals get drunk on Lijon - cheap sugar cane liquor), rustic restaurants past the billiard hall, and lots of Flor de Caña rum. There is also a Catholic Church in Poneloya in case you need to make atonement for what Flor made you do. Buses depart from the road to Poneloya on the outskirts of town (by Subtiava), they are quite affordable. Splurging on a taxi is also an option (C$150 to $250 depending). The beaches are less than 20 kilometers away.
- Definitely make time to surf Cerro Negro. Support Quetzaltrekkers , a volunteer organization where all profits go to streetkids; be prepared to leave at 8AM and return at 2:30pm. They also offer many other hikes. Tierra Tours, located 1.5 blocks N of La Merced is a great alternative (US$28). Fun guides and ac transport!
- Also, a must do is Hervidores San Jacinto. Catch a bus at the terminal or take a taxi, round trip for C$300. Entrance is C$20 and you'll be hooked up with one of the local kids/guides. They are really nice and a must. Be careful to pay attention where they walk, as you will be walking just above thermal activity. As someone said, "It's like a mini Yellowstone, without the fences."
- Ruins of León Viejo — Just outside León lays the ruins of the original 16th century city of León, which was damaged by an earthquake and abandoned. Today it's a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- To El Tunco, El Salvador: 10-person direct mini-shuttle with a/c ($45pp, 10 hours). $7pp fee at Nicaragua-Honduras border not included.
- Granada: from the bus terminal, take a minivan to Managua UCA station and transfer to another minivan to Granada. It takes around 4 hours and costs less than C$90.
- If you're heading to the Bay Islands in Honduras, there are 3-4 weekly shuttles to La Ceiba ($65, 13 hours) leaving at 2:00am and arriving in time for the afternoon ferry to Útila or Roatán.