The beautiful colonial city of Leon and it’s surroundings are buzzing with things to see and do. Celebrating the university’s 100th year at the time of our visit back in November 2014, the city was even more alive than ever; every evening the streets were packed with families, students and tourists alike, enjoying live music and street performance as part of the festivities. And on any evening of the year the streets remain lined with steaming food stands, crowded ice cream parlours and atmospheric bars.
Leon has numerous crumbling yet characteristic and beautiful churches, the mother of which is the white cathedral which fronts the central plaza. The cathedral is currently being re-painted, and will soon leave behind the years of dirt to return to it’s original striking white. Like most in Central America, the cathedral’s interior is underwhelming, but a visit to the roof is great. The first part of the building to be re-painted, the roof is already blindingly white in the afternoon, and it’s rather nice to walk around the small mounds which dot it (barefoot so as not to mark the paintwork!) and enjoy the panoramic view of Leon and it’s surroundings, including multiple volcanoes.
Roof of Leon Cathedral
One nearby volcano which is well worth the visit is Cerro Negro (which literally means black hill), simply for the purpose of throwing yourself over the edge on a wooden board. The volcano’s most recent eruption has left zero life on it’s slopes, and instead there remains volcanic rock alone, which is fine enough to sledge down. Sledging down a volcano is certainly not something I ever envisaged doing.
The nearest beaches to Leon, Poneloya and Las Penitas, are also only a half hour bus ride away, great for a break from the heat of the city for a surf lesson. Just don’t expect to remain dry paddling in the shallows; the waves are relentless and perhaps not the place for a relaxing bathe.
Granada is Central America’s oldest colonial city. It’s smaller and more relaxed than Leon, and there is less to do, but it’s another Nicaraguan city where you could easily stay a while without noticing the time slip away. We managed to spend a whole week there.
At the centre of Granada is the beautiful, leafy Parque Central, at the head of which sits the iconic, bright yellow cathedral. This isn’t a busy square, isn’t a square overwhelmed with endless tacky souvenir stands (although there are some!), and isn’t lined with cafes and bars aimed solely at the over-spending tourist.
The main bulk of Granada’s restaurants and bars in fact sit along Calle la Calzada, which runs from behind the cathedral down to the edge of Lake Nicaragua. It’s a pedestrian road which has a very nice ‘summer in Europe’ feel to it, lined with trees and handmade jewellery stands; perfect for an early evening cocktail as the afternoon heat recedes.
Like Leon, Granada also has a lively bar scene. Prepare yourself for free drinks on Ladies’ or Gent’s Night (probably by lining your stomach with a nice stodgy meal), but make sure to get a taxi back to your hostel at the end of the night. There have been endless reports of tourists being mugged after dark on Granada’s streets, so don’t be naïve to the risks.
Calle la Calzada
A nice afternoon activity from Granada is to take a boat trip around the collection of small islas which sit on the edge of Lake Nicaragua. Many of the islas have impressive new builds owned by wealthy holidaymakers, and one even has a resident family of monkeys living in its trees. Take a group of friends and a bottle of rum for a leisurely afternoon.
As a popular base for longer-term travellers who want to spend some time working or volunteering, Granada is a brilliant place to easily meet other tourists. Don’t expect the town to overwhelm you with an endless stream of things to see and activities to do. Instead, expect a small and fairly pretty colonial town that is nice for a stroll and an ice cream, and great for socialising.
View from Iglesia la Merced bell tower