Alive in León, Nicaragua: The City of Revolution

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Kate in Leon Nicaragua

Central America is known for its volcanic landscapes, its natural beauty, its beaches, its charming small towns.

What it’s not known for? Its cities. Sure, Panama City is probably the best big city in the region, and San Salvador has a lot to offer, but the message for cities from Managua to Belize City to Guatemala City to Tegucigalpa is, “There are cultural offerings if you look deep enough, but you’re not committing a travel crime while skipping them.”

Well, I happened to find a fantastic city in Nicaragua. León.

Leon Nicaragua

León was everything that I hoped Granada would be — a living, breathing city with with street food on every corner, clothing shops on every block, a giant market filled with fresh produce, an extraordinary number of colorful churches. Families strolled together at sunset; teenagers in school uniforms goofed off in the park. The only American chain I saw? Payless Shoes.

Best of all, I felt like tourism in León was an afterthought at most, not the primary focus.

Leon Nicaragua

The Boston of Central America

León is a small but mighty city, Nicaragua’s intellectual capital, a major student city, a walkable city, and it’s one of the hottest, most humid places I’ve ever been. Sound familiar?

People always compare places to Boston (is Manchester really the Boston of Britain? Cuenca the Boston of Ecuador?), but I’ve never found any other city to be a fit. The one missing element? Revolution.

Well, León has revolution in spades. It’s the ground zero of the Sandinista Revolution and the subsequent Contra War. I came in knowing absolutely nothing about this conflict (in my AP US history class we covered everything post-WWII in about two weeks before moving on to drilling for the exam. On which I got a 2 because my essay question was about Eisenhower and highways, but I digress…).

I didn’t know anything about the revolution, so I signed up for a city tour in the travel agency next door to Via Via hostel. I ended up being the only person on the tour and my guide, Carlos, taught me a history of the revolution that gripped Léon in the 70s and 80s.

Today, much of it is depicted through street art.

Leon NicaraguaLeon NicaraguaLeon Nicaragua

I’m not going to get into it because I’m not qualified to give a history on it — if you’re interested, Wikipedia is a good place to start.

And my research isn’t done — I need to read up on this conflict even more to gain a greater understanding. But this tour was the perfect introduction.

Leon Nicaragua

In Living Color

I loved everything about my month in Nicaragua. Friendly people, cheap prices, stunning natural beauty, but most of all — THE COLOR!

León brought the color more than anywhere else in Nicaragua, with the possible exception of San Juan del Sur.

Leon NicaraguaLeon NicaraguaLas Penitas BeachLeon Nicaragua

León is lots of things, but it definitely isn’t shy.

Kate Volcano Boarding

Volcano Boarding

Climbing a volcano and sliding down it — it’s a crazy adventure activity and a major reason why people come to León.

I’ve wanted to go volcano boarding for years and signed up for the party-oriented volcano boarding trip from Bigfoot Hostel.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t a good experience. I was given a defective board; it didn’t slide and I ended up having to get up and kick the board down the volcano as the group groaned, “Awwwwww.”

For what it’s worth, once they saw the extent of damage to the board, they agreed to refund me.

At least I got some good photos.

Volcano BoardingVolcano boarding Volcano Boarding

There are lots of companies that offer volcano boarding packages. I didn’t feel like I wanted a do-over, but if I return, I might go for it with the nonprofit Quetzal Trekkers. See “Essential Info” at the bottom of this post for more information on them.

Leon CathedralNicaragua

León Cathedral

Even though I knew León Cathedral was a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I wasn’t expecting it to be so impressive.

The interior was fairly standard…

Leon Cathedral

But then I got to the roof.

Leon CathedralLeon CathedralLeon CathedralLeon CathedralLeon Cathedral

What is this place?! It could have been Santorini! I couldn’t believe how bright and white it was. You definitely couldn’t tell from the ground, that’s for sure!

The views of the surrounding countryside weren’t bad, either:

Leon Nicaragua

For what it’s worth, a few of my friends have told me that the roof wasn’t nearly as white when they saw it. I may have caught it after a fresh cleaning.

Either way, climbing to the roof of the cathedral was one of the best things I did in León.

Las Penitas Beach

Las Peñitas

León is one of the hottest places I’ve ever been. Each day sweat would be pouring off me — even more so because I always wore long dresses and pants to avoid the street harassment. (I would always get harassed if I wore something shorter, but covering my legs seemed to do the trick.)

The perfect solution: escaping to the beach for an afternoon! I made my way to Las Peñitas, just 30 minutes from León and a major surf hangout.

Las Penitas BeachLas Penitas BeachLas Penitas Beach

I took Bigfoot Hostel’s shuttle to their beach hostel and five hours was just enough time to take photos, go for a swim, watch the sunset, and relax with my Kindle.

The only issue? As big as the beach is, there aren’t a lot of good places to swim (many parts are rocky and the surf is intense), so ask where a safe place is to swim once you arrive. I went for more of a wade than a swim.

Kate in Leon Nicaragua

The Takeaway

I’m a city girl. Cities make my heart beat faster and I always seek them out on my travels.

I didn’t expect to find much in Central America — but I found León to be an absolute thrill. If I wanted a base for a few months in Nicaragua, I think León would be a smashing choice!

Essential Info: León is in the northwest of the country and it’s a convenient international transport point. Buses are available to Managua, shuttles are available throughout Nicaragua, and there are international shuttles departing to backpacker hotspots like Antigua, El Tunco, and Utila. The city itself is very walkable.

For women, I strongly recommend wearing long pants or a long skirt while in the city. Street harassment was frequent when my legs were bared but nearly nonexistent when they were covered.

I don’t remember the name of the travel agency, but my city tour was booked next door to Via Via hostel. The tour cost $20 per person with a minimum of two people, but because it was just me, I paid $25.

Several different companies offer volcano boarding. I went with Bigfoot Hostel (cost: $31 plus an optional $5 for them to carry the board up for you, which I recommend), but my board was defective and I was unable to slide down the mountain. They did offer me a refund.

Since then, several readers have recommended me Quetzal Trekkers, a company with a variety of hiking and trekking opportunities that donates all profits to the local community. Volcano boarding is $30 and they let you go twice. Many other hikes and treks are available.

León Cathedral is free to visit, but it costs $2 to climb the roof. Climbing the roof was included in my city tour.

Bigfoot Hostel offers daily 30-minute shuttles to their beach hostel in Las Peñitas, $2 each way. You can also stay overnight at the beach hostel. Tents from $3, dorms from $6, privates from $18.

I stayed at Via Via, a gorgeous guesthouse that I loved. Unfortunately, I got bedbugs and instead of cleaning the room, the staff kept insisting that they were mosquito bites, even after I found a bug crawling in the bed. For that reason, I can’t recommend it. Private room with bath, $28.

You can find the best prices on other accommodation in Leon here.

Don’t miss Pan y Paz, a lovely (albeit gringofied) French bakery, and Libélula, a far more local coffee shop with fantastic drinks.

As always, make sure you get travel insurance before your trip. It will protect you financially if anything goes wrong. I never travel without it and always use World Nomads.

Have you ever found “The Boston” of another country? Share away!

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31 thoughts on “Alive in León, Nicaragua: The City of Revolution”

  1. Leon looks and sounds amazing. 🙂 I’d love to visit.
    Nicaragua has been high on my list for a while because of the history of the Sandinistas and Contras! I’d love to do a tour about it.
    I can’t believe how white the Cathedral roof is!

  2. I’ve been trying to convince my husband that Nicaragua should be our next travel spot, and your posts have finally convinced him we’re missing something special. If we had 10 days in Nicaragua and would be getting around on our own without a car, where should we go and for how long? We’re both active and fairly adventurous but looking for something a step up from the hostel experience.

    1. If you have ten days, I feel like you should split it between three main bases. I’d choose Ometepe for the unique nature, San Juan del Sur for the beaches and fun, and either León or Granada for the urban side. Granada is much easier to get to than León, and you have access to Laguna de Apoyo (which I love) but I massively preferred León as a city.

  3. I absolutely loved León, too! I’m so glad that you also enjoyed it. I went with Quetzal Trekkers for my volcano boarding experience and I can definitely recommend them.

    Really loving all of your Central America posts, they make me want to go back! I was just in Nicaragua for the second time but didn’t get to go to León… I’m regretting it now.

  4. I didn’t make it to Leon during my time in Nicaragua although I would have liked to if I had more time. It is at the top of my list with Little Corn of places to visit next time I am there

  5. Looks like an interesting place!
    I learned a little about the revolution by reading Gioconda Belli’s memoir “The Country Under My Skin” actually. It was a good read.

  6. Kate, I never considered Nicaragua as a destination for me, but after reading your articles about the place you’ve really inspired me to put it on my list of places to go.

  7. My absolute favorite city in Nicaragua. You were so lucky to see the church recently painted, beautiful pictures! León is always hot and vibrant, I love it so much. Flying back to Nicaragua tomorrow again <3

  8. Thanks for sharing this post about Leon. It really does look like a fascinating, colorful city! I’m especially curious about the volcano boarding. Have you found this only to be available in Nicaragua or is it offered in other countries (with volcanoes of course) as well?
    Thanks again 🙂

    1. I haven’t seen it offered anywhere else in the world, Elisabeth, though I wouldn’t be surprised if someone comes up with it somewhere else. You want to do it in León. 🙂

  9. Leon is definitely on my list of places as soon as I get back to Nicaragua. Still can’t make up my mind about volcano boarding but I will definitely go with Quetzal Trekkers if I do.

  10. We were in Leon a few weeks ago and loved it too. But we could never make it to the top of the cathedral! Every time we went in, there was no obvious way up or anyone to ask..where was the entrance?

    Sucks about your volcano boarding! We went with Quetzaltrekkers and I failed miserably on my first run, so I was very glad they offered a second attempt!

  11. I felt the same about León. It’s so different from Granada when it comes to tourism and it’s much more authentic. Sorry to hear about your volcano boarding experience. That sucks.

  12. I have not been to Leon yet, but everyone says it’s awesome so I better get myself there soon! I actually really enjoyed Granada while I was there, but I guess it’s not for everyone. Your AP US History class sounds a lot like mine in High School. We spent about a month on Native Americans (with only 1 question on the exam) and didn’t even make it to WWI. Somehow I managed to score a “3,” but I still don’t know anything about WWI!

  13. I love this post! Leon is such a wonderful city! It was the first place we visited in Nicaragua, and to be honest, I hated it at first, the crumbing streets, the garbage, the constant music booming from speakers on every corner, but after a few days those things became part of what makes the city endearing and above all authentic. Now we have been living here for about a month, talk about a change of heart!

    As for the beach, you can get there for 13 cordoba by taking the local buses, I have taken the bigfoot shuttle too, and used the party bus to come back from the beach late at night, but overall I prefer the chicken buses to get out to the beach, it feels so much more authentic, plus you can buy snacks on them!

  14. Hi Kate,
    I randomly came across your website and started reading it out of curiosity. It definitely revived a lot of fantastic memories… Everything you said resonates, I swear. I fell in love with Leon when I went there almost ten years ago, but never got a chance to really share my thoughts about it with anyone, so I was really happy to read you and see that you got the same impressions 🙂
    I was based in Esteli for two months and I travelled Nicaragua extensively, just like you with not much expectations (I wasn’t there for tourism) and was stunned by everything I experienced there.
    I plan to go back and live there for some years in the future.
    Anyway, thanks for sharing your impressions with us 🙂

  15. I met a local from leon now living here in Florida with his wife and famoly. He was telling me it would be a great place to retire. Im considering it im 62 now on soc. sec. what do you think .Its just me im divorced now so it should be cheap enough.

    1. It’s a great city, but it’s still a developing country and rough around the edges. That’s not for everyone, and I’m not sure what you’re used to. There are lots of cheap flights to Nicaragua and it’s very cheap on the ground, so I suggest checking it out yourself to see if it fits for you.

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