Located 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. 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 US 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 Catedral de León, Iglesia El Calvario, Iglesia La Recolección, and Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava.
Enjoy the beach
A short bus ride from the city, you’ll find beautiful beaches, warm water, and people in the surf. The surf isn’t as enjoyable as in the southern part of the country (I’m told it’s a bit rough here), 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.
Visit the Museum of the Revolution
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
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 Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián ($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 Cristóbal (the longest and hardest), and Momotombo (second hardest).
Visit “old” León
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 León was one of the highlights of my trip to Nicaragua, and I’d highly recommend you make it a point of visiting here too.