While planning for our Nicaragua trip, I came across plenty of articles comparing León and Granada. For those pressed for time, most people will tell you to go straight to Granada and skip León entirely. I couldn’t disagree more. León’s college town and historical feel make it well worth the trip, even if only for a day.
Think of León as Granada’s Ugly Stepsister. Contrary to Disney’s portrayal, Cinderella’s stepsisters weren’t necessarily ugly-hearted as well. It wasn’t their fault they were drawn ugly. I am a fan of Gregory Maguire’s interpretation. He is also the genius behind Wicked, and he stressed that the “ugly” stepsister just appeared average or not as pretty in comparison to Cinderella, or Clara. In reality, the “ugly” stepsister’s story is probably far more interesting than her beautiful sister who lives happily ever after with the prince. León’s beauty may not be as obvious as her nearby sister, but she has an overlooked edge. Home of an uprising that started a revolution, León is far more interesting than her bland – albeit gorgeous – sister. It may not be covered up with fresh paint, but it has a long conflicted history that seeps through its streets.
Our first city stop in Nicaragua – León
After our stopover in El Salvador, I was a bit paranoid about changing planes in a new airport with an airline I’ve never traveled with: TACA. I am happy to report that we didn’t have any trouble, at all. In fact, their planes – despite our short trips – had full movie menus, games, and food. Their service was impeccable, and their planes surprisingly had plenty of leg room. The Managua (MGA) airport was also incredibly fast and easy.
Not wanting to spend any time in Managua, we left straight from the airport to León. I was lucky enough to get in contact with Sarah from couchsurfing. A New York City native, Sarah is currently working and volunteering in Nicaragua. She gave us some great advice and tips for our trip. Although we weren’t looking for any hosts since we were crunched for time, Sarah was able to refer us to her taxi driver. He charged us almost $20 cheaper than what we would have paid a taxi driver who was waiting at the airport. She arranged for him to pick us up with a sign in hand and drive us straight from the airport to León’s Big Foot Hostel. Thanks again Sarah!
We originally wanted to stay at Via Via (across the street), but they are fairly hard to reach. We settled on Big Foot since we were planning to do volcano boarding with them the following afternoon. We were content with the dorm style setting since we were only there for one night. (Read a full review of the hostel here.)
Since we didn’t get into the city until almost 10 pm, we thought the town would have been fairly dead on a Sunday night. Surprisingly, there were still some bars open. Despite it’s shady exterior, we felt completely comfortable walking around town in the city center. Even after the bars were closing, small food stands serving tacos were still wide awake.
The next morning, we explored the city. People can climb the Cathedral steps for a $2 admission and get a lovely view of the city. It was our first stop after breakfast and we were able to work off some of our heavy gallo pintobreakfast calories with our climb up. Although I must say, it was a slight struggle trying to find the entrance to buy the ticket; it is in a tiny corridor around the building. The rooftop had plenty of photo – ops. There are domes, bells, stained glass views, and statues holding up the structures. The climb up was similar to most old churches – incredibly narrow. There were points along our climb where I can’t imagine larger individuals fitting through. I would also hate to see the stairwell anytime there was a tour group or even with a few more people. 2 people definitely could not fit or try and get past each other walking up or down the stairwell. Since there is only one way up or down…this could be a problem.
After the cathedral, we had plenty of choices to choose from for museums. Although León is known for having one of the best art collections in Central America, we were crunched for time. Whenever looking through an art museum, we usually take our time and did not want to rush through them. A small, cheap museum we thought sounded interesting was a few blocks from the city center: The Museum of Myths and Traditions. Originally a prison, a woman turned it into a museum filled with her passion for Nicaraguan traditions. It probably isn’t a “must-see” but we thought it was interesting, worth the $1 donation, and perfect for a quick stop.
We continued to tour the city by foot and enjoyed seeing the murals. The city walls are covered in murals throughout the city that not only help hide the age of the city but also give life to its history. The photo below shows the destruction of the city and violent past but with a hopeful future.
Since we had a fairly filling breakfast, Richard and I explored grabbed some plantain chips and some cashews for a light snack. We also stopped in a super market for a drink to fill up on water before our volcano boarding. For some reason, Richard and I have made a serious effort to stop in super markets while abroad. Richard enjoys walking through various aisles and discovering things we don’t see everyday in the States, if at all. Then we get into discussions on why certain packaging or advertisements work in some areas and fail in others…it sounds a bit lame when I try to explain it…but we like it! In addition to 3 liter Cola sodas and new plastic bottled energy drinks, we found that even mascots from cereal boxes differed.
We eventually headed back to our hostel to take the Volcano Boarding with Big Foot Hostel. Near the hostel sits arguably the most beautiful church in León, the Church of Recollection.
This is how was spent our time with Granada’s uglystepsister. I really wished we would have had time to experience more of the exciting nightlife this college town has to offer, but we had many other places to see and very little time. The people we met at the hostel seemed to rave about the nightlife though – from extravagant clubs to karaoke dive bars – and most extended their presumed 2 or 3 night stay into weeks. They also have some great Spanish language schools.
Before we left León, our biggest highlight was volcano boarding down Cerro Negro. It would be our first volcano for our 3 volcanoes in 3 days adventure. It was Richard’s favorite adventure the entire trip and definitely deserves it own post.