Leon, Nicaragua: Best Things To Do
The city of Leon, Nicaragua has its rightful place on backpackers' map of Central America. From historical buildings, beautiful churches to volcanoes and beaches nearby, Leon has it all. Are you looking for things to do in Leon? We have useful tips on things you can't miss, including volcano boarding.
Nicaragua is a land of volcanos, and one of the country's most beautiful cities, Leon, is situated right in the volcanic chain, so no wonder that tourism and life of local people are closely connected to towering cone-shaped natural attractions.
Not only volcanos are eye-catching, and many activities revolve around trekking, sunset or sunrise watching or volcano boarding, but soil near Leon is also very fertile thanks to volcanic activity which helps local people to grow crops.
But volcanoes are not the only reason why to arrive in Leon.
The city has many churches and squares lined with colonial buildings, the food scene is great, even when traveling on a low budget (Nicaragua actually surprised us with tasty food - much better than in the rest of Central America), Las Penitas beach is only a half an hour drive away, so basically, Leon is a great place to have some fun, eat your way around and unwind.
THINGS TO DO IN LEON
Leon certainly offers many activities which can keep you busy for several days, but one action stands out in particular, and no pretty church or cute colonial sideway alley can compete with it.
Yes, we are talking about the famous volcano boarding from Cerro Negro.
Before visiting Leon, we for sure had known we wanted to see black slopes of Cerro Negro Volcano. What we weren't sure was, if we want to participate in volcano boarding activity, as it simply seemed too weird, and not exactly the kind of activity we usually do. But when in Leon, we couldn't avoid the feeling that we must try it, at least to experience if it is so lame as we had thought.
But you know what?
It was fun.
Wherever in Leon you go, you will be offered the same tour including volcano boarding.
Although we did not stay in Bigfoot hostel, we decided to book with them, as these guys invented this activity many years ago. It takes about an hour to get to the base of the volcano, where we had to pay an entrance fee $5 (or 165 cordobas), and then the tour finally started.
You can decide whether you want to carry your board to the top of the volcano for about an hour (it weighs around 7 kilograms), or there are locals who can carry it for you for $3. If you are keen to do the tour, you can book it in advance here .
The views of the volcano and the crater are really nice, and in case you would have chickened out from the boarding, in the end, it still would be worth seeing the black volcano up close.
The boarding itself is quite scary at first because the slope is pretty steep, but our guide explained to us in detail how we can control the board and the speed, so even me, who was all the time unsure what I got myself into, made it safely, and I was not even the slowest one in our group.
If you are still unsure whether you want to try it or not, we must mention that CNN put this activity on their list of 50 craziest things you must try before you die, and Cerro Negro Volcano Boarding is number 2 on this list, so we think it is a pretty compelling argument why to put it on your bucket list and Nicaragua travel itinerary.
Only when walking from the bus station to our hostel, we saw in such a short time more churches in Leon than in other cities in Central America.
If there is one church or cathedral to be precise which stands out, it is Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary often simply called Cathedral of Leon. It is impossible to miss it, as the baroque and neo-classical cathedral stands in the epicenter of Leon.
The cathedral is enormous, it is the largest cathedral in Central America! You can enjoy it with your feet safely on the ground, but for only $3 there is an option to get access to the roof and admire the city of Leon from a different angle.
SEE THE REVOLUTIONARY SIDE OF LEON
Leon is known as the city of revolution, and its troubled history made from it a place we can see today.
It is not easy to understand the country's history, and frankly, not many of us know the past of this Central American country by heart.
If you are interested in at least scratching the surface, and get an idea about Nicaragua's history and about the role Leon played during the revolution, you should better participate in a four-hour long city tour where the well-informed guide will explain you as much as he can in a short period of time while walking around Leon and pointing out the most significant places relevant to the recent history.
It can happen that the tour around the city will ignite your interest in Leon's past.
In that case, you should head to the Museum of the Revolution. If you take the city tour the entry fee will be included, otherwise, you must pay $2. You won't find here many English signs, and if your Spanish is not good enough, we recommend you to hire a guide. Guides are men who had to fight during the revolution, usually at a very young age, and it is interesting to listen to their authentic stories while watching artifacts and photos from that time.
Murals of the revolution are all over the city, including many inscriptions and pictures on houses, so walk around Leon with your eyes wide open.
ENJOY THE UNIVERSITY CITY
Leon is a university city. It is overall a city the capital Managua should look like, but as it doesn't, it is great that Leon took over this position.
Because there are many students here, you can feel the airy atmosphere, meet many helpful young people and enjoy your afternoon leisurely in one of many coffee shops close to the city center.
Although Cerro Negro is the most popular volcano in Maribios Chain, there are many others you can visit during your time in Leon.
For example, Telica Volcano is known for beautiful sunrises and sunsets, but if you want to see both, you can sign up for an overnight camping adventure. Quetzaltrekkers is a favorite agency in Leon run by volunteers who can provide you with excellent service, and part of your money will go for better education of kids in Leon.
A guided tour is also recommended when you decide to conquer Nicaragua's tallest volcano San Cristobal, from where you get splendid views of many volcanos around.
HIT THE BEACH
Las Penitas is a small fishing village, but proximity to Leon and an unspoiled sandy beach makes from it a perfect destination where you can spend some quality time.
It is possible to visit Las Penitas on a one day trip from Leon, or there are also numerous hotels where you can spend a couple of nights. It is surely an alternative to Nicaragua's most popular beach destination, San Juan del Sur. Chicken bus to Las Penitas leaves hourly from Leon from El Mercandito.
SAFETY IN LEON
We cannot skip talking about safety, as it is a buzzing theme around travelers planning their visit to Nicaragua.
As many of you know, Nicaragua has gone through some dark times, and the situation escalated in April 2018 when many protests against government occurred, many people were killed, and it was not safe or not worth the risk to travel in the country. Although the situation is not fully stable yet and protests still happen from time to time, they are not that common and not that violent, and travelers slowly return to Nicaragua.
At the time of our visit in March 2019, we did not encounter any troubles at all.
We saw lots of police officers in the capital Managua, but the rest of the country seemed quiet. We recommend you to follow online forums and your government site before your visit, and it is always better to have a backup plan on how to leave the country in case something happens.
Generally, most of the protests happened in Managua while the countryside remains more passive.
We could have seen with our very own eyes how the decrease of visitors can affect local people who often had to shut down hotels, shops or restaurants and they are now really struggling to substitute the income foreign travelers were bringing, so it would be great to see reborn of tourism in Nicaragua again as it is truly an astonishing country.
WHERE TO STAY IN LEON
Leon is a must stop when visiting Nicaragua, so the number of hotels and hostels is large. After the political crises in 2018, some of the hotels were forced to close because of the number of visitors dropped significantly, but the situation is getting back to normal slowly.
Budget | Bigfoot Hostel - This is the most popular lodging in the city. It is a party hostel, famous for organizing volcano boarding and shuttles around Nicaragua and Central America. Both dormitories and private rooms are available.
Mid-range | Hotel Cacique Adiact - This cozy hotel provides its guests with a lovely courtyard, free breakfast and outdoor swimming pool - no wonder it has an exceptional rating.
Luxury | Hotel La Perla Leon - Sitting in a neoclassical building, Hotel La Perla is a real treasure where you can enjoy comfortable rooms, terrace and swimming pool.
HOW TO GET TO LEON
Leon is well-connected with other destinations not only within Nicaragua but also with neighboring countries.
We found traveling by public buses safe in Nicaragua, so this is also the way how we got around most of the time. We traveled from Granada, so to get to Leon, we had to take a bus to the capital Managua first, and then we changed a bus to Leon. Both vans are frequent and leave approximately every 30 minutes.
Another way how to get from one place to another is by shuttles. This option is four or five times more expensive but surely will save you lots of time. You can find shuttles to all major destinations such as San Juan del Sur, Rivas, Granada or Leon and many more.
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