Eight things to do in León
León was our first stop in Nicaragua, and if we had to choose two words to describe the city, they'd be gritty and passionate. The city is the intellectual capital of Nicaragua and home to a fierce revolutionary spirit. Students populate the relaxed central plaza and everywhere are reminders of the city's history and its aspirations for the future. Whereas beautiful hues of paint chip from colonial homes and bright flowers hang from rooftops in Granada, León's streets showcase bullet holes and murals of torture and massacre from the revolution. It's a place where old men talk about the days when they were young Sandinista fighters and where abuelas walk their grandchildren to school past bombed out buildings. The pain of memory juxtaposed with the hope for justice is infused in every bit of daily life here.
We spent two weeks in León and enjoyed the relaxed and raw feeling of this important Nicaraguan city. While there's certainly tourist infrastructure in place (just walk up "backpacker alley" on 2da Avenida SE and you'll see a chain of tour agencies that offer everything from rum tasting to volcano boarding), León didn't feel saturated with tourists, which was refreshing given that we had just spent a decent chunk of time navigating our way through swarms of tourists in Antigua, Guatemala. If you're wondering how to spend your time in León, here are our top eight things to do.
Go volcano boarding
We've hiked volcanoes, kayaked across volcanic craters, camped on one, and watched another one erupt, but racing down a 2,388 ft active volcano on a sled was definitely one of the most unique experiences we've had. Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America and is almost entirely covered in black basaltic gravel. After a potentially harrowing climb with a board strapped to your back like wings (we hiked in tropical storm-force winds and nearly flew off the volcano), you suit up in a canvass jumpsuit and goggles at the summit. We couldn't decide if we looked like we were part of a nuclear disaster cleanup or a Breaking Bad set, but we were really glad we had a layer to protect us from the sharp volcanic stone while speeding down Cerro Negro. The descent, down which you can reach speeds of 50+ km/hour, is a rush of adrenaline. If you think you'll want to race down twice (and who wouldn't want to?), make sure to book with Quetzaltrekkers. They're the only agency that lets you go two times, plus all their profits go to support education programs for children in León.
Taste the best rum in the world
Nicaragua is world-famous for their rum, and Flor de Caña is king. While you can sip the 5 and 7-year at virtually every bar in the country, we recommend heading to the factory for a tasting and tour. The property is beautiful, the company's history and modern workings are fascinating (they supply 10% of Nicaragua's energy!), and enjoying a glass of the 18-year in the family tasting room will convert you to a rum drinker if you aren't already.
Plenty of agencies in León offer organized tours for around $30 USD, but it's really easy to do the tour directly through Flor de Caña for only $10 USD. Simply reserve your slot online and show up a half hour before the tour. To get there by chicken bus, head to the bus terminal in León off of 6ta Calle NE and get on a bus heading to Chinandega (ask the driver if it stops in Chichigalpa along the way). The ride takes about an hour and costs C$17 córdoba ($0.57 USD). Hop off once you see the big Flor de Caña sign on the left.
Check out Parque Central
Hard to miss, this central park in front of the Basilica transforms from people lounging around enjoying cold raspados during the day to a lively family outing at night. While we were there, it seemed like there were nightly festivities, from Mexico night to celebrating the late revolutionary Sandino's death date. Grab a quesillo, find a bench, and enjoy the live music and dancing.
Go salsa dancing
Good music and cheap drinks get this young city grooving at night. On Thursday nights, make sure to head to La Olla Quemada for a great mix of locals and travelers and some solid salsa and bachata dancing. There's a C$70 ($2.33 USD) cover, but it's the place to be if you're looking to down some cheap Toñas (Nicaraguan beer), break out some dance moves, and mingle with a great crowd. On Friday night, people migrate to ViaVia and Barbaro.
There are a handful of museums in León, but the three you have to check out are the Museo de Arte Fundación Ortíz-Gurdián, the Museum of Revolution, and the Museum of Legends and Traditions. The first is a remarkable curation of artifacts and art from pre-Columbian times to present. Not only is the collection impressive, but the buildings themselves are beautiful. Next head to the Museum of Revolution, where the conflict León experienced is made personal. A Sandinista veteran from the city will guide you through rooms of news clippings and photographs of the war. Their tone shifts from energized to pensive as they tell you why they fought as young teens and adults and how many of their friends didn't survive. Finally, make sure to check out the Museum of Legends and Traditions, which is likely to be one of the strangest museums you've ever visited. Once a prison where former dictator Anastasio Somoza detained and tortured people, the rooms are now filled with life-size papier-mâché puppets from local folklore and tales.
Grab sunset drinks at El Mirador
There's no better way to enjoy the sunset than with a cold drink in hand, and luckily at El Mirador there's a rooftop bar that offers views of the horizon and has great beer deals. Just make sure to get there on the early side to grab a seat.
Walk on the roof of the Basilica
This iconic landmark of León is a must, but the best views aren't inside the church — they're on the roof. This all white cathedral has domes that bubble up all around, creating an other-worldly landscape and offering great panoramas of the city. To access the roof, head around the street to the rear of the church and buy your ticket for C$90 ($3 USD), then walk around to the north side of the building to enter.
Make a day trip to Las Peñitas beach
Any city that offers easy access to the beach is a winner in our opinion, and we spent a handful of days at this beach on the Pacific during our time in León. To get there, take a chicken bus from just outside the Subtiava market on Calle Rubén Darío. The ride is about 30 minutes and costs C$14 córdoba ($0.47 USD). The bus goes to Poneloya beach first, and then to Las Peñitas. We recommend getting off at the last stop along Las Peñitas beach near Los Ranchos (little palapas with hammocks for rent), where the locals hang out. Head to the corner tienda and bar (the one at the end of the road) and grab a liter of beer for C$55 córdoba ($1.80 USD) and then head to Los Ranchos. Visit any of the ladies cooking to grab a plate of whole fried fish with tostones and rice for only C$60-100 córdoba ($2-3.33 USD).