GoNomad Destination Guide: Leon, Nicaragua
By Talia Friedman
Nicaragua is one of the least visited countries in Central America and its arid climate and stark volcanic landscape makes a nice contrast to the beachy, jungle vibe of its neighbors. León boasts beautiful neoclassical and gothic architecture, as exemplified in its cathedral.
There are beautiful art museums, great restaurants, and a revolutionary spirit to the city. Close by are several active volcanoes with single to multiday day treks and activities possible. You can slide down a volcano on a sled in Leon!
Please note all prices are in US dollars, which is the preferred currency in Nicaragua.
When to Go:
Leon is easily accessible and worth visiting year-round.
Getting there and around:
Mini-buses are fast and reasonably comfortable for public transport. These run from the UCA terminal in Managua during the day. They leave when full, approximately every 15 minutes, and take 1.5 hours.
The cost is $2 for the mini-bus and another $1-$2 for a taxi to your hostel/hotel from the station in León. If you are coming from Granada, or another city, and want to take public transport you will have to head to Managua before proceeding to León.
Several hostels in Granada offer tourist only mini-buses to León, these will drop you off right outside your accommodation and cost $12 one-way.
The fastest option is to hire a taxi between cities. This will set you back around $50-$60 US between León and Managua or $80 to Granada.
Public buses into San Salvador, El Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Honduras and Tapachula, Mexico can be booked with Tica bus. Tourist mini-bus options to these destinations, as well as Antigua, Guatemala also run, ask at your hostel.
Best Attraction in Leon
Check out Central America’s largest cathedral, Basilica de la Asunción, only approved for construction as the plans were sneakily fobbed off as being for the much larger city of Lima, Peru.
Wander across the surreal white stylized rooftop for views out over the city towards the volcanoes. Follow this up with a visit to the Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián, a few blocks away.
There are European pieces, but more interesting are works by celebrated Latin American artists such as Diego Rivera, and cutting edge modern pieces by up and coming Latin talents.
Best Unusual Attraction in Leon
Spend the night camped out only meters from the crater of Telica, an active volcano. After a day of hiking, which includes sights such as bubbling natural mud pots and a bat cave, you will get to peer down into the crater in the light, before watching the sunset over the countryside.
In the deepening twilight head back to the open crater to see the magma burning against the night. With the roaring sounds of the air escaping the volcano and the fiery glow you will come to understand why the ancient Nicaraguans worshiped these volcanoes as gods. Book with the non-profit Quetzaltrekkers ($55).
Tierra Tours’ Shorter Version
If the trek and overnight stay are too much, Tierra Tours runs a shorter version where they drive you most of the way shortening the hike. You still get to see the crater in the light and dark but miss out on the camping.
Best Activity or Tour:
Go volcano boarding on Cerro Negro. Hike up Nicaragua’s, youngest, active volcano before hurtling back down at break-neck speeds on your board.
Guides carry speedometers to check your top speed, so feel free to get competitive. Several companies do this tour including the non-profit Quetzaltrekkers ($30) and the hostel associated Bigfoot ($31).
Volunteer with Quetzaltrekkers and spend your days hiking, swimming and volcano boardingall the while helpingunderprivileged and at risk youth. As a volunteer you lead the 1 to 3 day hikes to surrounding volcanoes and/or work with the children.
Activities with the children generally consist of playing sports and helping with homework.
All profits made from the treks go to local children’s charities. For more information go to their website.
Lazybones Hostel – Comfortable and spacious dorms ($8) and private rooms ($20-$30) are set around courtyards. The first courtyard has hammocks and rocking chairs for relaxation and the second a large swimming pool to beat off the heat.
There is also a billiard tablet and computers to keep you entertained. The staff speak excellent English and are helpful and friendly.
Bigfoot – The “party hostel” of Leon, Bigfoot has a bar, small pool, kitchen, and can arrange volcano boarding tours and tourist minibusses. Fan dorms ($8), dorms with air-con ($9.50), and private rooms ($22-$26) are available.
Azul Hotel & Restaurante – If you don’t feel like a hostel try this hotel in an atmospheric colonial building set around a tranquil swimming pool. Rooms come in double, triple and family size. Prices range from $60-$350 depending on the room and how far in advance you book.
Le Turon – Lobster and steak and the gazpacho, Oh My! Amazing French food, served up by lovely, attentive waiters for a fraction of the price you would pay at home. All set around a lush green central courtyard.
Pan y Paz – Perfect for pastries and coffee in the morning and sandwiches to stash in your bag for later.
If you want to be really authentic head around the back of the cathedral and you will see locals grilling up street food in front of the market, like chicken with Gallo pinto (rice and beans).
While the Nicaraguans are generally a friendly bunch, this is a poor country and you should take care of your valuables to avoid pickpocketing.
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Talia Friedman is a South African/Canadian/Australian who has traveled, largely solo, across 65 countries on every continent but Antarctica (where she will go next year!)