After the comfort of traveling through Guatemala with an organized group I’m once again solo and venturing deeper into Central America. I hop off the bus directly into the streets of Leon with no accommodations planned or itinerary set. Knowing almost nothing about the city I arrive without expectations and am ready to explore what it has to offer.
Leon was one of the very first Spanish colonial cities built on the continent; and is also Nicaragua’s second largest city. After a day of wandering around the city aimlessly my first impression was that I wasn’t feeling it. This is a gritty city – a far different experience than previous colonial cities I’d visited. It’s hot and humid, the stench of garbage permeates throughout the streets, and missing limbs are not an uncommon sight. The street food while cheap, was bland and tasteless.
With time to kill I tried to reserve judgement beyond the initial impressions. While few and far between I discovered Leon does in fact have some redeeming qualities.
This is no foodie’s paradise. While cheap, most of the street food was bland and tasteless. Sure, a $1.50 for a large burger sounds like steal.. but in this case you get what you pay for. Budget-friendly restaurants were plentiful but hardly an improvement. There is international cuisine to be sampled but I chose to forgo any expensive meals.
A diamond in the rough?
There is one local eatery that stood out far above the rest and actually managed to satisfy my insatiable apetite for deliciously sweet baked treats. Pan Y Paz – located a short walk from the city center is a small french bakery that trumps anything I tasted in Central America. Pan Y Paz quickly became a daily pit-stop for me and my hungry belly – If you’re visiting Leon this one is a no-brainer.
Things to do in León
Tour agencies are nearly as plentiful as hostels in León. They offer numerous adventures, volcanoes to hike, overnight camping trips, sea turtle watching and more. I was sure what the city lacked in charm would be made up for with nearby excursions. To my surprise no matter how many agencies I walked into there were never any tours going on other than the famous Cerro Negro ‘volcano boarding.’
The lack of tours left plenty of time for exploring the streets. Beautifully aged colonial churches are dotted all across the city and make for good sightseeing. Lion statues and street shopping are plentiful as well. After meeting a few fellow backpackers in the park we went beyond the crowded city center and were soon getting odd looks from locals and accosted by drunks who weren’t shy about begging for money. Although we weren’t threatened I wouldn’t advise venturing too far off the beaten path alone or with any noticeable valuables.
Where to Stay?
Hostels are as plentiful in Leon as churches (there’s a lot) and you would have little trouble finding a room without reservations. Two of the most popular are Hostel Colibri and Bigfoot Hostel. I stayed at Colibri for 2 nights but found the heat and humidity unbearable. Luxury hotels are scarce but I enjoyed the sanctuary of Hotel El Convento when A/C was no longer a convenience but a requirement. See my review of both – hostel and hotel here.
Without any tours available Leon can be seen in 1-3 days depending on how much time you can stand sweating your way across town. While it has a storied history and unique architecture the rest of Nicaragua has much more to offer.