Stunning Maya ruins and a colonial town
Duration: at least four days
Stay: Hostal El Rio & Hotel El Convento
Compared to Granada, Nicaragua’s second largest city, Léon feels much more authentic and is not overrun by tourists. Nevertheless, the gorgeous town maintains its genuine charm and intense passion for poetry. There might not be another city with such a powerful collective consciousness for poetry.The city is also home to Nicaragua’s first university. Yet, it’s the students who fuel the vivid energy of the city. Léon is considered the ground zero for the Sandinista movement and possibly Nicaragua’s most politically progressive city. The impact of the revolution is visible through numerous memorials across town. León, to us, is Nicaragua at its fiercest. Nicaragua at its fiercest Just outside of Léon, numerous volcanos wait for you to climb or surf them. And as if this wasn’t enough, some of Nicaragua’s most beautiful beaches and surf spots are just around the corner
- Sight Seeing 85% 85%
- Culture 95% 95%
- Activities 100% 100%
- Nightlife 70% 70%
Our love affair with Léon started on Valentine’s day. We arrived pretty late (as usual) and could not resist getting a first glimpse of the city after dark. We were mesmerized by the majestically exposed churches and the lively streets.
Things to do in Léon
- Walk on a cathedral’s roof
- Stroll the colorful streets and trace the tracks of Nicaraguas’s poetry
- Learn about the Revolution at Museo Historic de la Revolution
- Discover indigenous Barrio Sutiava
- Spent the evenings at Parque Central
- Try sand-boarding on Cerro Negro
- Enjoy the beaches at Poneloya & Las Penitas
- Good to know
Stroll the colorful streets and trace the tracks of Nicaragua's poetry
Vibrant Léon seems to wear its heart on its sleeve. Léon’s history, passion for arts, and pulsing liveliness become visible at every corner. Murals and statues are visual reminders of the 20thcentury revolution. Colorful houses are often seemed by a quote.
The feeling of a capital city is still traceable in Léon. It seems rougher, more authentic, and fiercer than other cities. Take the time to join the locals in the shade or for a beer at night. They have a passion for their hometown and love sharing it with you!
Learn about the Revolution at Museo Historic de la Revolution
We learned quickly that the revolution and its scares are still prominent in Léon. The Museo Historico de la Revolution gives you a blueprint of the civil conflict that ended about 40 years ago.The unimposing building on the opposite side of the cathedral also played a part in the revolution.Within its walls shattered by bullets, you’ll get to listen to the stories of the revolution by the ones who shaped it. Naturally, good knowledge of Spanish is helpful. To get Léon better, we
recommend visiting the museum at the beginning of your stay
Indigenous Barrio Sutiava
Discover Léon’s indigenous side and pay a visit to Barrio Sutiava. The neighborhood is home to the Sutiava tribe, the first people who settled in Léon. Large, colorful murals tell the story of the barrio’s history, culture, past, and future.Surprisingly, the walls were painted by children about 12 years old. Barrio Sutiava is also home to León’s oldest church, San Juan Bautista Sutiava. After that, we took a bici-taxi and strolled around the barrio. Expect to pay $15 for a tour by Bici (bike) taxi.
El Convento de San Francisco
Léon’s most iconic building, the Convento de San Francisco, is a must-see. The convent was founded in 1524 and served as a center of religion and learning for centuries. It’s one of the oldest buildings in Nicaragua and the Americas. Today, the convent houses a museum with a collection of religious art and artifacts.The museum is small but very interesting. It has a lot of history behind it. The convent is located in the center of the city and is easy to find. Admission is $0.50 for foreigners and $0.25 for nationals.
After visiting the Convento de San Francisco, take a walk to Parque Morazán. The park is named after Francisco Morazán, a national hero of Nicaragua. In the center of the park, you’ll find a statue of Morazán on a horse. The park is also home to the Léon Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in Central America. The cathedral is an interesting mix of Gothic and Baroque architecture. It’s worth a visit, even if you’re not religious.
Walk on top of the cathedral
Central America’s largest cathedral was constructed in the 1700s. Léon’s white cathedral looks impressive from above but wait till you get on top of the cathedral’s roof! The architecture and views will take your breath away. You can buy tickets at the church’s back office for 2 $.The roof of the building is bright white, so you’ll have to take your shoes off before you leave the clock tower and head out. You are reminded of San Torini, Greece, as soon as you set your eyes on the shining white roof. Walking on top of the cathedral is definitely a must-do in Léon.
Spend the evenings at Parque Central
When we arrived in Léon on Valentin’s day, Parque Central was filled with love birds, street artists,and food stands. The setting in front of the beautifully lit Cathedral de Léon was just picturesque.We loved the lovely vibe. You’ll find the best Assados (barbeques) behind the cathedral. The two food stands compete for their guests’ favor. They offer the most delicious barbeque dishes! Even vegetarians will find plenty of alternatives.
Try sand-boarding at Cerro Negro
Sandboarding is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist activities in León. We were pretty tempted to surf Cerro Negro ourselves but finally decided against it for two reasons. For once, we loved every second we spent on the streets of the city, and secondly, fellow travelers reportedtold us about some pretty severe accidents. The pictures of fellow travelers looked terrific, and they loved the experience. We didn’t book a tour through Quetzaltrekkers in Léon. However, we know the nonprofit tour company from Guatemala. All profits made by volunteers go directly into projects for disadvantaged youth. We walked past them and saw that they offer volcano sand-boarding amongst other hiking tours around Léon
Enjoy Poneloya & and Las Penitas Beaches
We did not visit these two charming fishing villages just 20 km outside the city because we wanted to enjoy beach life in El Salvador. However, we met many fellow travelers and locals alike who love the beach stretches on its excellent surf, choice of bars, and restaurants. If you are looking for a party, then head to Poneloya. Las Penitas is your place for those of you who prefer a more relaxed vibe. You can also find some sound waves here for surfing.We met a lot of locals in Leon who highly recommended we check out the beaches, and we regret not doing so! Hike Up Volcán Momotombo This active volcano last erupted in 1905 and is just a 30-minute drive from Leon. Although you cannot hike to the crater, the views from the top are worth it. The ascent takes around two hours and is considered moderate to challenging.We did not have time to do this but next time for sure!
Get ready to travel Nicaragua
How to get to León
You can get to León easily and comfortably by bus from Managua or Granada. It will take about
2,5 hours from Granada to León’s bus terminal.
Managua – León ( 1,5 hrs, $2.75)
León – Masaya ( 2,5 hrs, $3)
León – Chinandega (1,5 hrs, $1). We had to change Chinandega to go to Potosi.
How to get around León
The best way to discover the center of the city is by bici-taxi. Going around by bike allows you to
take in the exciting city. On top of that, it’s environmentally friendly!
Best time to visit León
The tropical climate of León is warm all year around. It gets super hot in the summer. The least
rainfall is expected from December to April.
Safety in León:
Nicaragua’s second largest city is pretty safe. As almost anywhere, it’s advisable to avoid flashing
cameras or expensive phones. Take a cab at night and avoid dark alleys.
Where to eat in León - the best street food:
Don’t miss out on the fantastic barbeque on the east side of the cathedral, close to Mercado
Central. The food is super tasty and cheap!
Léon's role in the revolution
Nicaragua’s former capital has been central to the left-wing Sandinista movement. After the
assassination of President Somoza Garcia in 1956 by a poet. Decades of conflict erupted following repressiveness against the ones thought responsible. As a result, thousands lost their
lives.Léon was the first to be liberated in the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979. However, years of conflict have left deep scars on Léon’s inhabitants
Léon and poetry
Other Nicaraguans often refer to León’s inhabitants as poets. Poetry is a “national sport.” Get to know more about the Nicaraguans, their culture, and poetry by joining one of the private
“tertulias,” a two-century-old tradition. A tertulia is a social gathering with an artistic overtone
typical in Latin America
After a personal experience with some parasites: Tap water in Nicaragua is not good to drink! Bring
a Lifestraw Pro to get clean and cool drinking water.
Biggest challenge for the responsible traveler
Trash: Often, you’ll find food vendors selling typical Nicaraguan dishes on the go. It’s not just
delicious but cheap. To avoid plastic wrapping, choose to buy your food at the bus stations and have them put it in your collapsible container. Bring your Lifestraw Pro to avoid having to buy bottled water.Sunscreen: Protect Marine life and wear reef-friendly sunscreen!
Packing List Nicargua
Nicaragua is super diverse and offers plenty of things to do. Check out our packing list, get ready for an incredible adventure!
Places to visit in Nicaragua
Often overlooked, Nicaragua is home to friendly people, dramatic landscapes and rich culture!
We traveled to Central America a couple of times and had the chance to see several Maya sites along the way. Each impressive in its own way. Contrary to other Maya ruins across Central America. You’ll often have Copan to yourself. The mysterious archaeological site boasts remarkable hieroglyphics and sculptures. On top of that, the town of Copan itself is drop-dead charming.
Golfo de Fonseca, an archipelago shared by Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador, a former playground for pirates, afforded us with the most stunning and relaxing border crossing experience in our backpacking history.
From the admittedly touristy, but still beautiful Granada, we set off to the cultural and folklore capital, Masya. The bubbly city is famous for its passion for music, dance and traditional crafts. Stroll around the and discover colorful corners of the ingenious influenced small town. Masaya will surprise you with its creative diversity and authentic charm. Most of all, charming Massaya bursts with life.