The second biggest city in Nicaragua, León’s homely ambience, close-knit community and the fact that you can walk anywhere on foot, gives this city a small town feeling. We felt like celebrities here, and at the same time, we felt at home.
Nicaragua itself is known as an underdeveloped country, with half of its population living below the poverty line. Many say this will change within the next 10 years or so, as backpackers and travellers alike flock for Costa Rica’s more affordable neighbour. Tourism is still fresh, you will be gawked at, people will point and some may even look at you like you’ve just landed in a spaceship but nevertheless tourism is on the rise.
The minute we arrived to León, what we were introduced to was a city that still so proudly shows off her war-torn history while happily evolving before our very eyes. The collapsing pavements, the ‘run down’ roads and the half-demolished walls colourfully clash with the political street murals and revolutionary graffiti art. You won’t be able to take a step without seeing some form of street art.
This is a city that is not only the epicentre of Nicaragua’s third level education and home to majority of its younger population, but a city that so perfectly introduces you to the history, the culture, the people and the way of Nica life.
A controversial topic amongst the Nica’s, there is a known rivalry between León and the city of Granada with both cities yearning for the capital crown. Although León was originally the capital, over the years, the title was bounced between the two. In the end and as a compromise, the city of Managua was declared the capital.
So dare I say it? I am team León and to me León is the capital city *runs away, lock the doors, pulls the shutters*. As far as cities go, she’s up there with Mexico; high on my list of ‘holy crap that was incredible’.
Now, let me tell you about our time in the lovely León.
From El Salvador to León:
OK so we cheated a little when crossing the border from El Cuco in El Salvador to León. It was thanks to a steal deal, really. Oh and the comfortable minivan with a driver who does our entire border crossing dirty work for us. CHEATS! We know!
During our stay at El Tunco beach in El Salvador, we talked our way into a deal with Gekko Explorer, the local tour agency. We were offered transport and accommodation for €45 per person. The price included two separate shuttles; one from El Tunco beach to El Cuco and a pre-booked shuttle from El Cuco through Honduras and directly onto León. It also included a night’s accommodation on the night of arrival in León. See… steal deal!
Whatever the direction albeit Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica or even Guatemala, there are plenty of cheap shuttle services that go directly to Nicaragua available. Don’t forget you can also DIY it on the chicken busses.
That was the last time we took the shuttle option. It was extremely comfortable but no fun at all and although we were grateful to have a helping hand (a.k.a our fast-lane-loving driver) to ‘mammy us’ and deal with all our border responsibilities, it was a bit of a cop out. We’ve little experience to share here other than if you want the same deal, go sweet talk Gekko Explorers and enjoy the speedy trip to Nicaragua, but if you can, take the chicken bus.
Accommodation in León:
I’m pretty sure a lot of the time well spent in León was thanks to Hostel Guardabarranco. The owner Mario, the porter Sergio and their family are so welcoming and made us feel so comfortable. Three nights turned into four and before we knew it a week had passed. We didn’t leave without exchanging emails with Mario who told us to expect a Christmas e-card, and thanks to Sergio’s hints and tips to exploring the rest of the country, we saved money and hassle.
There is nothing particularly amazing to report on this hostel. It is a standard Nicaraguan home with private and dorm room options, free coffee, decent Wi-Fi, a kitchen, a library, a few rocking chairs and a hammock, but somehow you will feel right at home here. It’s extremely affordable, but no doubt you can shake Sergio down to a mutual beneficial deal on the price. We did.
We got ourselves a private room with bathroom for €15 per night. Dorms are around €7 per night.
The location is ideal as it is smack bang in the middle of “backpacker” street yet half the cost of all the other hostels nearby. Located directly across from the most popular backpacker (and party) hostel ‘Big Foot Hostel’ it means you can have both worlds; the party atmosphere or the hermit’s life.
Blue Hat Hostel:
Less than 10 minutes walking distance from “backpacker street” and the centre, Blue Hat Hostel has an association with Gekko Explorers, so our night’s stay was included in our transport costs.
However, if it had the option of a private room, we would have definitely stayed here for longer. It’s not long on the scene, and that’s plain to see from the newly refurbished décor. Such chilled vibes, hammocks surround the open-aired patio that sits next to the kitchen and the shared bathrooms, which are pristine.
There is an opportunity to volunteer at this hostel, which would be ideal for any budgeteer backpacker. The family who runs it are so helpful and happy to accommodate with whatever you need.
This gets a definite thumbs up from us.
Big Foot Hostel:
If you’re chasing the party scene, or travelling solo and ready to rolo Big Foot Hostel is for you. Not a night goes by where music isn’t booming from its open air roof with themed nights, DJ sets and more. Try exploring León without bumping into a fellow traveller sporting their Big Foot Hostel Tshirt, since it’s the most popular hostel and the most obvious option.
Personally, it’s not for us. We’d rather steer clear of the overly social scenes and instead prefer to have the option of visiting it at our own time. In other words, fuck that. We won’t say anymore, for fear of sticking our big foot in it.
Things To Do in León:
One of the main reasons people travel through León, is for the chance to board down the side of an active volcano. Hell yes it is as cool as it sounds. Apparently, the Cerro Negro volcano in León is the only place in the world you can attempt this madness. So it would be rude and such a shame to pass up on this opportunity. Didn’t you hear me? Hell yes it is as cool as it sounds!
Look on the walls of any local eatery or hostel and be met with competing advertisements, visit “backpacker street” and have the mannequins dressed for boarding catch your eye. There isn’t an opportunity missed when it comes to luring you into the true sense of adrenaline. There are plenty of places to shop around, some of which are willing to strike up a deal.
The most obvious choice to book a tour through is Quetzaltrekker. This is an organisation ran by volunteers with all monies made going to local communities. The volcano boarding is a little bit dearer here than other places but to think what that money will do, is justification.
For those on a tight budget, the cheapest option we found was with Hostel Vacciones, not too far from “backpacker street”. They have a fantastic deal for €23 that includes pick up from your hostel, the entry fee, water, snacks, an English speaking guide, photography throughout the day and a fully recorded video of you boarding like a boss.
Carried this bleeding thing for 30 minutes up the rubbled Cerro Negro volcano, to fly down on it in 20 seconds. I WANNA DO IT AGAIN!! ° ° ° #volcanoboarding #cerronegro #itwasheavy #fitfam #workit #workout #leon #leonnicaragua #boarding #travel #nicaragua #volcano #instatravel #happyhead #TheUngracefulGuide
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It’s a fun day out, a chance to meet people and such a laugh. The 30 minute journey up Cerro Negro in the blistering heat, while carrying your board, is totally worth the 20 second adrenaline rush as you shoot back down with a realisation that this is the only place in the world that you can do this. Wow.
The Cathedral’s Rooftop:
The Our Lady of Grace Catherdral in León is a breath taking pillar of white that towers over the cities’ main square. The view from outside is one of its own. At the cost of nothing, why not take a trip inside and tip-toe around the orange-glowing, echoed rooms or go one further and book a tour to visit the unground tunnels and tombs.
It’s also beautiful from above. So we highly recommend you grab some socks and head for the cathedral’s rooftop. Up the narrow staircase and through the bell tower, the sun’s glare bounces off the whitest of white floors and walls I’ve ever seen.
This is the reason for the socks. No shoes are allowed and unless you want to hop your way across the roof, chasing the shade and a place to cool your feet – remember to bring socks, and maybe some sunglasses or you could be smart and avoid midday sun.
Directly facing the cathedral, around the corner to the left hand side, there is a small wooden door. First entry is at 8.30am, and the last entry is at 5.30pm. A pity really since we would have loved to catch a sunrise or sunset up here but for only 87 cordobas (€2.60) you can spend as long as you like in between these hours.
Free Walking Tour:
Walking Tours are such a fascinating way to see any city. It’s the first thing we search for when we arrive to a new location. Jackpot when we discover it’s a freebie, in other words, donation based.
The ‘Free Walking Nicaragua’ office is located near the tourist information across from the Our Lady of Grace Catherdral. Ask any local. You can also ‘Free Walking Nicaragua’ on Facebook, they reply quite quickly.
There are two tours a day, both leaving from the information desk. The morning tour starts at 9am followed by an evening tour at 5pm. Arrive at least 5 minutes beforehand so you can sign in without delay. The tour is of course donation-based so dig deep.
During the 3 hour walking tour, you will learn in detail about León’s revolutionary past. You will delve into the meaning behind León’s street art and discuss the overall history of Nicaragua, which is a fascinating.
You don’t have to pre-book but simply show up 5 minutes beforehand. Stick this one on our list and enjoy a nice ramble with new friends.
Las Penitas Beach:
An appealing factor that León so easily triumphs the rest of the cities is the fact that it’s so close to the coastline. The beautiful 5km-long long Playa Las Penitas can be easily accessed from the centre in a half hour.
You could spend a morning on the walking tour and still have time to enjoy the day on this beaching beauty. Explore the beach, walk its entirety, take some surf lessons and catch a wave, enjoy a beer and top up the tan.
[x_icon type=”pencil-square-o”] NOTE: Please be cautious swimming here, even the locals will tell you this. There are too many stories of people losing their life to the undercurrent. A little tip we were told was, when the waves crash in, turn sideward and dig your heels into the sand. You’ll realise what we mean when you get there.
You can eat and drink at any of the hotels/hostels along the beach. As per usual, we brought lunch with us and don’t forget that the last bus from the beach to the centre leaves around 7pm. So you will get to catch the sunset!
Directions: Leon to Playa Las Penitas:
At the corner of the food market, ask any local for the bus going to Las Penitas. That’s if you don’t hear the auydante already screaming this information. Get ready, as you will literally have to jump on the next passing bus at the cost of 5 cordobas (€0.15).
These busses are fun but are smaller than chicken busses and the crowd to space ratio doesn’t exist so prepare to be squashed. Don’t worry; it’s only a 10-15 minute journey. Keep an ear and eye out for your stop which will be at another market. It’s hard to miss. Here you will need to change busses.
Remain where the bus dropped you off and wait for an old school bus heading directly to Playa Las Penitas. The bus will cost you 14 cordobas (€0.40). There is no specific timetable as this bus leaves when it’s full, so this is a good opportunity to stock up in the market, should you get hungry. This journey takes about 20mins in total. As you get off, triple check the return bus times.
Alternatively, you can skip the first bus and instead walk straight to the market in less than 20minutes. It’s an enjoyable walk as you get to see more of the city and pass through neighbourhoods. It’s also less squashed!
To walk to the market and catch the direct beach bus, head towards the cathedral/central park. With your back to the main doors of the cathedral, follow the road on your right hand side that passes the central park and the town hall. Keep going straight down this road. You can’t and won’t veer off. You’ll notice the market after about 20minutes. The beach bus will pull in on the right hand side, outside the market.
For the active folk, keep walking down this same stretch of road and it will lead you to straight to the beach. It should only take an hour and half or so.
La Mirador Bar:
If you haven’t had your fair share of sunsets just yet, enjoy the sun setting over the city from the heights of La Mirador Bar. A quirky little bar that draws a local crowd, the cheap drink promotions go well with the sunset sights. It’s located two blocks left from the centre square, again just ask any local or grab a map from the tourist information centre.
It’s definitely worth doing one of the evenings, even if it is just for one. Enjoy the best view in León
La Casa de Culturas:
OK so I spent way more time than necessary here but I have a little soft for this place. It’s just an average culture centre, similar to the ones at home but it’s got a busy schedule, one that you will benefit from.
One evening, we enjoyed a talent show hosted by a local school. On another occasion we (non-creepily) watched the salsa lessons and karate training. We caught an art exhibition, again hosted by local kids who attend art classes here. We met locals, enjoyed a coffee and happily soaked up some culture, at no cost.
You can enrol in any of the classes they hold here from music lessons, salsa dancing and Spanish lesson, there are opportunities to volunteer and get involved, or just pop by and say hello. The team there will certainly appreciate it.
Museum of Revolution:
Unfortunately we didn’t get the chance to visit the Museum of Revolution and our credible sources tell us we missed out. Everyone speaks so highly of it, and we do regret not sticking our head at least once, considering we passed it every day.
You will experience everything it has to offer within an hour since the small building has only two rooms but the stories and meeting those who were directly involved in the revolution is worth the 50 cordoba (€1.50) entry fee. There are English speaking tour guides available.
Poco a Poco:
I’m including this hostel under the ‘to do’ since it was such a good find and we had a very eventful night here. It’s relatively new hostel, but the nightly entertainment means you will always have plans and the chance to meet fellow travellers. You can bring your own beer to their weekly quiz night, show off your talent during music night, or just chill out and enjoy surprise movie night. The beers are cheap, the vibes are fun, and there is no need to stay here to benefit.
The cost per night seemed a little too pricey for us, but the €0.89 breakfast that includes pancakes or eggs is highly appealing.
Head To The Cinema:
I know what you’re thinking here. The cinema? Really? The truth is I couldn’t cope with the idea of watching a dodgy online copy of Beauty and The Beast. My Facebook feed was full of reviews and I wanted in.
We heard the local cinema, around the corner from “backpacker street” showed international movies in English, with Spanish subtitles. Hello! Two middle row seats, please.
Hide from the sun, cure the hangover, binge on popcorn and prepare to shush the talkers. It’s “me time.”
Street Food Trick:
Throughout Nicaragua, street grills rule the street food roost. In León, the street grills set up outside the food market, from around 4/5pm when the food market closes. The market itself can be found behind the main cathedral and the street food here is divine. Cheese stuffed pancakes, meat stuffed pastries, the usual meat, rice beans, salad combo and more. With so many options, try and fight the urge to not eat out every night.
For the usual meat, gallo pinto and salad dish, the guys here will charge you gringo prices, not that it’s much. A large plate will cost you 100cordobas (€3). Like we said, not much!
However we picked up a little tip that allowed us to eat the same dish at the local price. Ask for a “BX” (pronounced “bay-eckiss”) and only pay 30-40 córdobas (€0.89 – €1.20) depending on what meat you choose. Comparing both, you can eat out for three nights in a row, all for the price of being a gringo.
So there you have it. Our time in León was eventful, fun, and memorable; full of new experiences. When we did eventually leave, we didn’t expect to do so with so much knowledge about Nicaragua’s history, culture and the way of Nica life. It was a quick introductory to a thriving country that should be under the watchful eye of the world.
So if you have only time to visit one city while in Nicaragua, let it be the lovely León.