cathedralCreativecommons.org/Javier Losa

Founded in 1524 by Spanish conquistadores, Leon is a colonial town in the western part of Nicaragua, filled with awe-inspiring architecture and a lazy, laid-back culture. Don’t let the sleepy exterior fool you though; Leon is sparkling with culture, art and an exciting nightlife. This is one of those towns that you visit because it’s on the list, and you stay because it is so amazing…

lionCreativecommons.org/Dr Colleen Mongan

What To See

As you wander the city exploring, look around at the buildingsto find the murals that are everywhere. The architecture is also as fascinating as many of the museums, and you can stare for as long as you want.

León Cathedral is the biggest in Central America and notable for being the resting place of several famous Nicaraguans, including Ruben Dario, the country’s most beloved poet. A small fee will give you access to the roof and an amazing view of Leon and its surrounding volcanoes. Get a close look at the huge sculptures that hold the cathedral bells while you’re up there.

Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava is an old, colonial church with a peaceful wooden interior. It’s worth seeing as contrast to the highly ornate churches that were popular during that period of construction. The Iglesia se La Recoleccion is one of those, often called the most beautiful church in the city. The lavishly-decorated façade is eye-catching and the rich, mahogany interior draws the gaze upward to the brightly decorated ceiling.

The two best museums – Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian and the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones – showcase two very different ways of presenting the history and culture of the region. The first is one of the finest contemporary art museums in Central America and is housed in an incredible Creole Civil-style home that is itself a work of art. Wander through time as depicted by the Latin American masters such as Diego Rivera and Rufino Tamayo. You’ll even find some of the European masters there, such as Rubens or the Picasso. Alternatively, the Museum of Legends and Traditions is just fun, with life-sized papier-mâché figures depicting the history of Leon as seen through its folklore. The same figures are used in the November 1 parade celebrating the region’s myths and legends.

museumCreativecommons.org/Javier Losa

What To Do

The city is surrounded by volcanoes and there are several companies that offer tours. Sonati is a non-profit group that organizes treks to six of the volcanoes, as well as biking and kayaking tours. Profits go towards environmental projects. Quetzaltrekkers is also non-profit and uses proceeds to benefit disadvantaged youth.

For a real adventure, try lava boarding – a local sport that involves hiking up Cerro Negro and sliding down the fine, black lava, much as you would slide in a toboggan down snow. It’s a long, hot climb, but the ride down is totally worth it.

The beaches are beautiful but the currents are deadly. If you plan to head for the shore, ask the locals where the safer areas are or just hang out under the sun and enjoy a little relaxation.

bellsCreativecommons.org/Stefan Krasowski

Food And Nightlife

Definitely visit the open-air market behind the cathedral. Often the best cultural experience in any town, the market is where the locals go to do the majority of their shopping. Get a freshly made tortilla or some fried cheese and wander the booths, asking the vendors about their wares. Don’t worry about the language barrier, just have fun and try new things.

Step into the Meson Real restaurant for some traditional Spanish tapas or El Mediterraneo for pasta and curries. CocinArte has vegetarian and vegan versions of most favourites, and Al Carbon can grill just about any type of meat you want.

Several mercados operate the same way markets at home do, with a mix of prepared dishes and individual ingredients on the shelves. Create your own picnic for that long day of hiking in the forests or get a bottle of wine for the evening at the beach.

Leon is a college town and has a number of nightclubs and discos alongside quieter bars with a view of the sunset. Solero has live music on Tuesdays, but the rest of the week it’s a fine place to sit and talk over a drink. To work off a little of the great Nicaraguan food, Dilectus is all about dancing and having a great time. There is occasionally live music, but a DJ is the main source of the dance tunes.

Where To Sleep

The city is inexpensive by most travellers’ standards and you may be tempted to spurge on a “good” hotel. Don’t: it won’t be nearly as good of an experience as staying in one of the guesthouses. Hostal Calibri is in the centre of town, has free internet and provides breakfast. You’ll enjoy the personable atmosphere and at less than $10 per night, you can afford a couple of extra nights or a few extra nights on the town. For a little more money you can stay at the Hotel Los Balcones, a small hotel packed with atmosphere and charm. During the hot summer you’ll appreciate that Los Balcones also has air conditioning.

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