León: The Final Stop on Our Love Affair with Nicaragua

If you’ve read our other posts about Nicaragua (San Juan del Sur, Isla Ometepe, and Granada), you’ll know by now how much we love this incredible country. If you’re sick of us raving about how great it is, you had better stop reading now.

Otherwise, carry on for more gushing about our final stop in Nicaragua – the city of León.

León

León is often described as the less-pretty version of Granada and we’ve heard people say that the only good thing to do is volcano boarding.

We totally disagree.

Yes León doesn’t have as many colourful buildings as Granada, but it’s gritty past and super friendly locals give it an authenticity that we just didn’t feel in its rival city. León felt a lot more ‘local’ and laid back. As well, although there were tourists, it definitely wasn’t as touristy as Granada, which we were happy about. In our few days there, we did plenty of exploring in León and surrounding areas.

The first morning we were in León we joined a free walking tour to find out more about the history of the city. There are tours every day at 9am and 4pm leaving from the tourist information office just next to the main square and we really recommend doing the tour if you have time. It was slightly bizarre having a French tour guide but he was really knowledgable and you could tell he had a passion for León and Nicaragua.

We really enjoyed learning more about the city – León was the ‘birthplace’ of the revolution in Nicaragua and there’s a lot of street art themed around the movements against the dictatorships. There’s also a big mural dedicated to the students killed in the massacre on 23rd July 1959. The students were peacefully protesting when police came and opened fire, killing 4 people. The dictatorship was overthrown in 1978. Although we didn’t visit it, there’s a museum in León’s central square which is all about what happened during the revolution.

As well as the political sights, we saw La Merced cathedral, the old theatre, other churches and some street markets. The guide recommended that we make time to visit the roof of the cathedral, which is all white stone and has great views of the city. We love a good recommendation so after the tour we paid the $3 USD entry fee each and climbed the stairs to the cathedral roof. So that the roof stays white, no shoes are allowed!

We embraced the barefoot rule and it was actually really nice just wandering around without sandals on. Word of warning though, it can get VERY hot! We had to hop around a few bits because the stone was so hot. It was worth it though because the whole roof is beautiful and we loved the views of the volcanoes.

Our other favourite bits of León:

  • Pitaya – we LOVED this smoothie bar just off the main square. We visited every day for the amazing Chinamero and Bikini smoothies. The outside seats are also a great spot for people-watching.
  • Markets – there are a few markets in and around the main square that sell lots of trinkets and souvenirs at cheap prices.
  • The locals – we spent time just wandering around the city and all the locals we passed smiled and said hello. Everyone we met was super friendly!

Sunset at Volcan Telica

Most people who visit León do the city’s main attraction – volcano boarding. However after finding out what happened to a friend when she tried it (her board flipped and she ended up with a LOT of cuts and bruising on her face), we weren’t so keen. It’s also quite expensive considering you only get one go on the board. So instead we decided to do a sunset hike tour at Volcan Telica, where you also get to see the magma inside its crater. As if we hadn’t got our fill of volcanoes in Ometepe and Granada!

We paid $40 USD each for the tour, which is pretty pricey, but dinner was also included after the hike. We booked the tour through our hostel, Serendipity, but the actual company we went with was Nicatime. The tour started at 2pm with over an hour’s drive to Volcan Telica then a short 45 min hike to the crater. The trail was fairly easy, not too steep or scrambley, which was a relief after the climb up and down Concepcion on Ometepe.

When we got to the top, it was hard not to be a little bit scared of the huge crater! There were so many fumes and definitely no health and safety rules – you could literally stand right on the edge, it was crazy!

We wandered around to a couple of viewpoints then our guide took us to a real bat cave. So many bats flying around! I didn’t stick around for too long, I was paranoid they were going to get caught in my hair! After making it out with all hair intact, we went to the viewpoint for sunset.

We’ve now seen quite a few sunsets on this trip but this was honestly one of the best.

More importantly, while watching the sunset we discovered a new game – creating song lyrics with the words lava or magma in them. Here are our favourite attempts:

  • “If you wannabe my lava, you gotta get with my friends” Fran
  • “All you need is lava, all you need is lava… lava’s all you need” Joe
  • “Magma Mia! Here I go again” Joe

This is how insane our conversation has got after 4 months together 24/7.

The magma itself wasn’t as visible as when we saw Masaya’s crater near Granada, but it was still really cool to see it glowing in the dark. A pretty great experience for our last volcano in Nicaragua!

Surfing Turtle Lodge

Although technically not in León, we couldn’t finish the blog post without mentioning our few days at its nearby beach town of Poneloya. The beaches at Las Peñitas are only a few kilometres south of Poneloya and popular with day trippers from Leon, but we went to Poneloya so we could stay at Surfing Turtle Lodge.

The lodge is a beachfront hostel that has its own turtle hatchery. Turtle eggs are collected and sold by locals as food and only Playa La Flor near San Juan del Sur is protected beach for turtle nests. So, Surfing Turtle buy some of the stolen eggs to look after and they release the babies after they’ve hatched. Amazing!

We’d heard good things from other people we’d met about the hostel so we were keen to check it out. To get there, we took a 30min chicken bus from the Mercadito in León to Poneloya then got a boat across the estuary. A horse and cart took us the final 10 mins to Surfing Turtle. Easy! We definitely felt like we were more off the beaten track.

The lodge itself is selection of beachfront cabañas, dorms, private rooms and private mini huts. We were in a mini hut ($20 USD per night) and it was cute and cosy, but a nightmare for mosquitoes. Luckily, nets were provided and we’d already stocked up on repellent. Unluckily, poor Joe still got bitten!

We really enjoyed our few days at the lodge – we lazed on the beach, watched the release of some baby turtles, had a surfing lesson, played volleyball, and had a sunset horse ride by the sea! It was great, there are a lot of fun activities on offer and we literally could have stayed there for weeks.

The main downside is the lack of shared kitchen and the no-outside-food rule. Meals were around $6-10 USD, pricey for a backpacker budget, especially when you have to have your food there because there’s nothing else around. If we’re honest, we were a bit sneaky – we took some cereal bars to have for breakfast then had a late lunch at around 4pm to save some money. Not ideal but it did the job!

Still, don’t let that put you off, if you’re in Leon and looking for some fun and chilled days at the beach, Surfing Turtle Lodge is an amazing option!

Our Final Thoughts on Nicaragua

We’re going to have to write a separate blog post at some point to sum up our love for Nicaragua. But for now, here are our main reasons for why you should make Nicaragua your next travel destination.

  • It’s cheap. We did so many amazing things in Nicaragua and a big part of the reason we got to experience them is because of how cheap they were. We could have had surf lessons or done more hiking in Costa Rica, but the cost would’ve have been double.
  • It’s such a diverse place. From hiking volcanoes to watching bubbling lava, kayaking on a lake to surfing at the beach, there is so much to do in Nicaragua.
  • It’s easy to get around. The local chicken buses may not be the most relaxing mode of transport but because places in Nicaragua are fairly close together compared to other countries, we didn’t have any journeys longer than about 4 hours. If chicken buses aren’t your thing, there are plenty of tourist shuttle buses you can take.
  • It’s not overrun with tourists. We found Costa Rica overwhelming because of the sheer number of holidaymakers and families. It’s great that countries can benefit from tourism but we preferred Nicaragua because there was more of a backpacker vibe – it still feels like you’re one of a few discovering a new place rather than one of thousands of daily visitors.

Have we convinced you yet? Would you like to visit Nicaragua? Leave a comment, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram for our latest travel updates.

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