The Saturday City: León

leon, nicaraguaLocated in northwest Nicaragua, León is a college town often overlooked by tourists who stay south near Granada, Ometepe, and the beaches. However, given that the area has so much to do, I expected a lot of tourists but instead found mostly empty hostels and few gringos wandering the streets during my visit.

I’ll tell you – all those absent travelers are missing out.

León, a city filled with history, delicious food, outdoor activities, volcanoes, and nearby beaches, was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua.

The city is named after León, Spain and after Nicaragua was granted independence in the 1800s from Spain, the elites of León and Granada struggled over which city would become the capital (eventually Managua was picked). During the struggles between the Sandinistas and Somozas in the 20th century, the city changed hands many times between the two and was a scene of constant and intense fighting (you can still see bullet marks on some buildings). This lasted all the way through the 1980s (which saw U.S. involvement in the Iran-Contra affair) until peace was finally established.

Now, León is a stable university town with a growing food scene, lots of markets, growing (but not overwhelming tourism) and more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua. I spent four days here hiking, eating, overdosing on churches, and sweltering in the heat.

Here are the highlights of my site:

See the churches

There are a lot of churches in Léon. I spent an entire day visiting these monuments to God and marveling at their varying levels of detail. Even if you’re not a religious person (I’m not), you can probably still appreciate the beauty, architecture, and history of these buildings. My favorites included Cathedral de Leon, Iglesia El Calvario, Iglesia La Recoleccion, and Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava.

Visit the beach
A short bus ride from the city, you’ll find beautiful beaches, warm water, and people taking in the surf. The surf isn’t as enjoyable (I’m told it’s a bit rough here) as in the southern part of the country, but if you’re looking to relax and cool off in the dry heat of the region, these beaches check all the right boxes. Playa Poneloya is the most popular beach.

The Museum of the Revolution
leon, nicaragua
This museum in the old mayor’s residence is dedicated to the Sandinistas and their fight against “the man.” It’s only two rooms but you’ll get your own personal guide who explains the history of the movement (in Spanish or English) and will take you up to the roof for good photos of León. The trips may be short but it was my favorite activity in the city as you’re talking to a local and getting a detailed history filled with local perspective and context. The museum tour costs $2 USD. Ask for Fernando. He was a funny and informative guide.

Go volcano boarding down Cerro Negro

Throughout the country I saw people wearing the popular “I went volcano boarding” shirt and this activity is what draws most backpackers here. After all, who wouldn’t want to slide down an active volcano on a piece of wood? (Not me. I skipped this activity. The hike? Sure. Going down on a plank of wood? No thanks.) Trips leave multiple times per day and last a few hours. Bigfoot Tours and Quetzaltrekkers are the two biggest operators.

Wander the markets
leon, nicaragua
León is a market town and its famous gigantic market located near the cathedral is hectic, fun, and interesting. You can find everything there – grocers, street food vendors, toys, kitschy souvenirs, and everything in between. Moreover, you’ll find delicious soups, BBQ meat sticks, and other local fare.

Take in the art
There is a big art scene in the city and a number of galleries are available to enjoy, with Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian ($2 USD) being the biggest. Housed in two buildings, it features a collection of old religious art as well as modern Nicaraguan artists. It takes a few hours to explore and both buildings have lovely courtyard gardens to relax in. My favorite painting was El Retiro by Mauricio Gomez Jaramillo.

Hike some volcanoes

One of the main reasons why people come here is to hike the nearby volcanoes as León is near the country’s volcanic range, many of which are still active. You’ll be able to choose between easy half-day hikes and more intense full 12-hour day hikes. The most popular hikes are: Cerro Negro (volcano boarding), Telica (where you go for sunset hikes. See above photo!), San Cristobal (the longest and hardest), and Momotombo (second hardest).

Visit “old” León
the ruins of leon viejo in nicaragua
The ruins of León Viejo date back to the 16th century and are a short trip from León. The site is Nicaragua’s only UNESCO World Heritage listing and is one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas. While this isn’t some lavish ruin site, it’s really the only place to see and learn about the country’s founding colonial past.

Enjoy the burgeoning food scene
León is attracting an increasing number of international tourists and expats and as such has a growing food scene. While you are never in short supply of local gallo pinto, I branched out to eat a lot of western food (there is only so much rice and beans one can eat). I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of enjoyable meals.

What I loved about León was its close proximity to so many outdoor markets, cheap food, and decent foodie restaurants. It felt a lot more “local” than the tourist meccas of Granada and Ometepe down south. My visit to Leon was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua and I’d highly recommend you make it a point of visiting here too.

13 Comments
  1. Traveling through Guatemala recently I met many travelers who raved about Nicaragua but I’ve not heard much about Leon. Thanks for adding it to my radar.

  2. mark

    I enjoyed Leon…Just don’t drive in the core business area. Lots of street work being done. Poneloya was great with good food. Markets were fun and a bargain if you find something you need. Local food was cheap as I could buy a dinner for four, chicken, rice, beans, all in the raw for less than five dollars. Chicken was fresh and very good. We also stayed in Granada which was super. Razor shave…two bucks. Loved the beaches.

  3. Awesome Matt! These are beautiful pics. I would love to go boarding down a volcano! How fun! But…. I would certainly need medical personnel on hand because I am so clumsy. lol. Eh, maybe I’l just dream about it? :-p

  4. Leon out of all my stops in Nicaragua was my favourite. There is so much to do and the city has a cool, relaxed vibe. The volcano boarding was great although I went pretty slowly thanks to my god-awful steering! I would to go back as I definitely missed out a lot thanks to being a typical unproductive backpacker nursing a Flor de Cana (best rum ever) induced hangover.

  5. Haha, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen photos on facebook from friends volcano boarding in Leon. Though I guess there is more to the place – your photos are beautiful!

  6. I have to disagree on this one… I visited last year and Leon was skippable in my opinion. I visited 6 different tourist agencies/hostels and the ONLY tour available for 3 full days was the volcano boarding (no interest to me).

    The streets were very filthy/smelly (more so than anywhere I visited in Central America), the food was bland, and by 8 AM there numerous drunks aggressively begging.

    Happy to hear your experience was different, I really wanted to see Telica and just couldn’t find any tours going. I think Leon will be great once they get a little better setup for tourism.

    • NomadicMatt

      We all have different experiences and it effects our opinions about each place. Just look at my experience in Vietnam!

  7. The market photo sure looks enticing. I love authentic craftsmen selling their precious trinkets in such beautiful setting. The town looks and sounds amazing from your pictures and stories…

  8. Amanda

    Hey Matt,
    I have a question for you regarding one way tickets.
    I am planning on leaving in a few months for a backpacking trip of undetermined length (realistically about six months) around nicaragua, costa rica and panama, and i would like to fly in on a one way flight, so that my travels can take me where they will and i can decide which country/city to fly back to the u.s. from later on. I am well aware of tourist visa restrictions in these areas and plan on traveling by bus between the three countries to renew my tourist visa when it runs out. But it seems like every travel blog i find starts with the story of “i left for xyz on a one way ticket and never came home”. I would go out and buy my one way ticket today, but the last time i traveled on a one way ticket i had a nightmare scenario: I was flying to poland to backpack my way over to france. i had a student visa issued by the french govt, and had talked to the consulate/immigration regarding entering the schengen zone in poland and then making my way to france. The consulate told me this was completely fine, my visa cleared me for any traveling within the schengen zone. But the day i went to leave, at the airport in detroit, they told me i could not get on the plane because my visa was to france, my ticket was to poland and they had “no proof” i would be leaving poland. After about an hour of tears and talking to all sorts of airport officials and bombarding them with my french govt paperwork, lease agreements, letters from my university telling the date i needed to show up for classement, etc. one of the supervisors told me that she could override the restriction and enter a fake return date although she was not supposed to. anyways, i want to avoid this whole drama again (considering i have to fly out of d-town yet again) so, what is the big secret to flying on one way flights that i am obviously out of the loop on? my best guess is that i will need to have a ticket of some sort proving i am leaving nica before my 3 month tourist visa is up. Please help! Thanks!
    -Amanda

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