León (Nicaragua)

Lion statues stand guard near the cathedral in downtown León.

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.

Get in

By plane

The closest commercial airport is in Managua IATA: MGA. Managua is roughly an hour and a half's drive from León.

By car

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.

By bus

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.

Direct transportation is also available directly from the Managua airport via private van service, up to $60-$70 one-way.

Get around

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.


Leon Cathedral
A mural in Leon



Telica volcano

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:

Cerro Negro volcano crater

Volcano Boarding

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

Sunset at Poneloya


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.


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.



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.





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.

Stay safe

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:


There are Cybers all over town

Go next

León Viejo

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Saturday, February 27, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.