Things to do in Leon Nicaragua || Flat World Travel
Welcome back to our travels in Nicaragua. (Make sure to read our previous Nicaragua posts – Ometepe, Granada and Nicaragua Lodging) And for the last leg of our time in Nicaragua, we found ourselves in Leon. If you’re planning your Nicaraguan adventure, you may be wondering what things to do in Leon Nicaragua. We started out taking a private transport from the ferry after leaving Ometepe. Same as on the way to the ferry from Granada, asking our hotel in Ometepe for transfer was cheaper than getting it from our hotel in Leon. Always best to compare pricing. We hope you enjoy our blog post on what we did with two days in Leon. Like our other stops in Nicaragua, we wish we were here longer.
The City of Revolution!
Leon is known for being even more artistic and progressive than Granada. While we didn’t notice a difference in that realm, it is worth reading the history to learn more. I was very politically active in the late 80’s and early 90’s around social justice issues and the US involvement in Central America. So I was excited for our time in Leon, to see some of the things I had learned about in my activism. The people of Leon were the first to support the Sandanistas in the 1960’s and ’70s. As a result, it suffered some of the worst attacks during Somoza’s crackdown. Their central market was torched, different parts of the city were bombed, and anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Sandanistas was often tortured or executed. And the United States flip flopped on who they supported, all to the detriment of the people of Nicaragua.
As I found in a blog before we left…”Leon still retains a strong loyalty to the FSLN and a proud sense of the role its people played in the history of the country. The general attitude is that despite the trials their city has faced, they have somehow always prevailed, as evidenced by the popular chant, “León! Jodido, pero nunca vencido!” which basically translates as “León! F***ed, but never beaten.”(the Nic Adventure)
Hotel Azul – Leon
We stayed at the Hotel Azul for $72 a night. I would consider that a little high for most places in Leon but it had great rooms, a pool, a restaurant and breakfast included. Hotel Azul is a great spot and the location being so close to the main plaza was perfect. After checking into the hotel we walked all around the main parts of town and decide to get something to eat. I read about a great vegetarian place on Lonely Planet called Cocinarte. It is located in the oldest house in Leon. Leon was definitely a lot busier and more modern seeming than Granada and certainly than Ometepe. It definitely had more of a city vibe. And being from a major east coast city – Philadelphia, we are very used to that feel. Of course it’s not as busy and big as Managua though.
Thank goodness for Google maps! Make sure you sign into the free wifi while you’re at the hotel before you leave. Because your maps can still direct you where you need to go. This is a great way to just wonder around different areas when traveling to new places. Just remember if you turn your Maps off, you may not be get it back on to follow back to your hotel. So make sure you know where you’re going. Or find a place for a quick Wi-Fi re-up! Of course I always carry a local map that the hotel gives you. It’s smart to always have a hard copy map with you and then it’s also a keepsake.
One of the highlights of touring around Leon was Museo Historico de la Revolucion the ‘Museum of Revolution”. It is so easy to spot with its anti-Bush graffiti still on the front. Once we paid to get in, we also had a tour guide. Of course he didn’t speak any English and our Spanish is very limited. However, knowing how to put together some words and with the help of Google translate, we felt like we learned a lot. And our tour guide was a very interesting man. He fought with the Sandinistas. You could even see on his shoulder where he’d been shot. And he showed us the spot in the building where it happened, this being the old City Hall building. You can still see blood on the walls and the impacts where the bullet hit.
One of the cool aspects of the tour is getting to go up on the roof. As a photographer and videographer, we always aim to get higher whenever visiting a new location. It’s the best way to get the lay of the land and get some killer views. There’s something so surreal about being up on the roof of the museum. And we had a great view to the white cathedral known as Basilica de la Asuncion (Our Lady of Grace Cathedral).
After leaving there we walked around looking for the really cool murals we heard about. They’re just on the backside of the Plaza. Pretty cool!!
Leon’s Main Plaza
We could see there was something going on in the main Plaza. There were lots of Christmas displays and kid games/rides as well as street vendors. We noticed as the day got later that more and more people start filling the area. We wandered into a Pizza Hut to check out what their pizza in Nicaragua would be like. It was a blast sitting in there with all the locals. The place was packed! And it was small LOL. There was even a birthday party going on. And the pizza was pretty good, who would have guessed.
With full tummies (we had left overs we took to the guys at the Revolution Museum- they were soooo excited!!) we were on our way back to the hotel. We then noticed the square was packed with even more people and there was a parade leading people into one of the churches and fireworks. There was also a stage and a DJ playing some great music. We stood around for a while dancing about with locals (who were all staring at us) waiting to see what was going on. What a blast!
We still had our cameras with us from the days adventures so we went back to the hotel to change quickly and downsize our gear and get back to the party that was growing in the Square. We didn’t really know what everyone was standing around waiting for but they kept a large space in front of the stage empty. So we knew something was about to happen. At one point one of the groups of puppets came over to Al and I because we were dancing around in our spot. Clearly having fun.
Blending in with the locals (or not)
And all the little kids kept smiling at me. But that’s pretty common because of my pink and purple hair. And there just weren’t many non-locals there. So we definitely stood out. They started dancing with me and the next thing we knew a large circle had formed. Knowing that some of the puppets were kids, I kept it pretty PG-13 LOL. But I am sure I appeared on many Facebook pages all around Leon. Definitely the crazy white girl with pink hair dancing. But it was well worth it. That’s what happens when you play the American song” Turn down For What” LOL!! Another one of those magical travel moments.
Later we found out this is called the “Festival of Lights” and is basically the opening of the Christmas season. There were tons of puppets of a woman dancing about and at some point some official looking people cut a red ribbon. Then a bunch of Mr. and Mrs. Pageant winners came down to the front of the stage. There was Miss and Mr. Nicaragua, Miss and Mr. Costa Rica, Miss and Mr. Puerto Rico, and all other Central American countries. It was pretty cool to see.
Then some bands and dance groups performed. After about an hour, we were very hot and sweaty and tired and so we left. But we could still hear the music from our hotel for awhile. So we know it carried on for quite a long time after we left. We can only assume the dance groups were having some kind of competition as there was a trophy on the stage. We wonder who won? But we’re getting up early the next day to go volcano boarding so we wanted to get some sleep.
Day 2 in Leon
As mentioned, breakfast is included at Hotel Azul. That’s always a plus and a great way to start a day of adventure. We got picked up by open back army-type jeep with some other folks on our way to Cerro Negro. We were going to be hiking up the volcano and then volcano boarding down. So exciting!!
The drive was a little more than an hour and you have a chance to go to the bathroom before beginning your climb up (take the opportunity!) Everything I read talked about how easy the climb up was. Of course most articles focus on the fun and safety coming back down the hill on a thin piece of wood. Let me tell you that climb up was not easy. It was hot as hell, even though there was a nice breeze every now and then. It is rocky and straight up for most of it. It’s not the worst hike I’ve done by far, but it certainly is not the easiest either. Plus you are carrying a small cloth bag with your gear and a long thin piece of wood on your back. When you are small like me, it acts like a wind sail!!
While they do have some breaks built in, there were a couple extra times I had to stop and catch my breath. It didn’t help that my husband and I was the first people after our guide. He is 6’2 1/2 and an avid runner. It was a little tougher for my shorter legs to keep up. But the views and the scenery was breathtaking and certainly worth all the heavy breathing. And then we found ourselves standing at the top of a crater of an active volcano! If you brush aside the little black rocks, the ground was really hot. Pretty cool!
Once we had a look all around it was time to put on our “protective” clothing. We looked like Minions!! I also brought an extra scarf and wrapped it all around my need and face. They give you a bandana but that’s pretty small.
The ride down – OOHHH!!! It is so much fun! I went at a moderate to fast speed. Nothing too crazy but still wanted the thrill of it all! Al went a little faster but still staying safe. One guy in our group was being wild and of course he wiped out several times coming down. Ouch! Volcano boarding is definitely one of those bucket list items. The only problem- you’ll want to do it again!!
You definitely do get dirty coming down. We were looking forward to getting back to the hotel and taking a shower before heading back out to explore the city more. For lunch we stopped at Pan y Paz French bakery, which was way cheap AND awesome! We wandered around the streets, did a little shopping and visited some cool cathedrals. And of course we had to buy a bottle of 18-year-old Flor de Cana to take home. We ate dinner in at Al Carbon, that was pretty cool. Al really wanted some steak and I needed a place with good seafood. We also stopped in at a great rooftop bar at Calle Vicente to take in the local flavor mixed with a few tourists. It’s a great place for having a drink and doing some people watching!
A Stressful Ride to the Airport – Check Your Transport!
The following morning we had to leave to catch our flight home. We arranged a shuttle with the hotel that they said was the best and least expensive way to get to the airport in Managua. Well, it was actually the most confusing part of our trip. A shuttle arrived that the hotel said was for us around 9:45 (it was scheduled for 9:30am) And it takes at least 2 hours to get to the airport. We had a 2pm flight, so we thought we would be very early. As we were loading up, the driver said he was going to Granada- not Managua where the airport was. So we took our stuff out and sat back down at the hotel. 10 mins later she said this was our shuttle.
Well it was the same shuttle that had been sitting there. Now he was going to take us to the airport and then take the rest of the people in the van to Granada. We felt so bad for them because they had no need to go through Managua to get to Granada. Then the driver made another stop to talk to someone and then after driving through a neighborhood for a while he stopped at another house to talk to someone. All the while we are losing the extra time we had to get to the airport. And of course there was a TON of traffic on the way and he was just in no hurry.
One of the passengers in the van explained to him our concern about getting to the airport on time. Being international travelers we have to be at the airport even earlier. He assured us we would be there with plenty of time. Needless to say 45-minutes before boarding an international flight is NOT plenty of time to us! But despite all my freaking out in the long run we did make it.
Home to Philadelphia
We settled into our seats on the plane. And luckily no one booked the middle seat- we ALWAYS book a window and aisle and hope the middle doesn’t book! And if it does we give them the window and take turns moving into the middle! 90% of the time it works out great! We were flying through Miami as our entry point to the US. Tip- if you don’t have Global Entry then make sure to download Mobile Passport to avoid all the lines! We were able to breeze through immigration and customs.
If you haven’t added Nicaragua to your wanderlust list- Do it RIGHT NOW!!! It is truly a magical place. There is some tourism but it isn’t over crowded. It still has that historic element and feel to it. It has amazing natural resources to explore (we didn’t even make it to the surfing areas or Corn Island this trip!) and the people are just so friendly!
We hope you have enjoyed reading about our experiences and seeing the fun things to do in Leon Nicaragua. Keep following us for more travel tips and advice!