We had originally planned to spend several weeks in Nicaragua, but our time in Central America is now limited to two months in total. So we had to be ruthless. With just 6 days allocated to Nicaragua, we settled on 3 days in Granada and 3 days in Leon. Here’s what we got up, and what we recommend if you have just 3 days in Leon.
I’ll start by saying that Leon is everything that we hoped that Granada would be but wasn’t. It’s the revolutionary heart of Nicaragua, so to understand Leon you first need a little history.
What's in This Article?
A Potted Nicaraguan History
Leon was originally located on the slopes of Volcan Momotombo. In 1610 the Volcano erupted and Leon was reduced to rubble and the city was moved to its current location. You can still visit Leon Viejo (old Leon) as a day trip from the current city. The city is ringed by volcanoes but they are far enough away not to be a bother. Both Granada and Leon were founded by Spanish colonisers. While Granada was a centre for Conservatives favouring the monarchy and tradition, Leon became the centre of radicals and intellectuals. A hotbed for revolution.
That really is a potted history – to understand Leon and Nicaragua then we recommend the history section of the Lonely Planet Nicaragua. Be prepared for a long read. There’s a lot to get through. If you want the shortened version head to the BBC Timeline on Nicaragua.
The most famous son of Leon is the poet, Ruben Dario, although freedom fighter Miguel Larreynaga, who you will find on the 10 cordoba is also from Leon.
It was in Leon that the revolution really started. And there’s no better place to find out more about than the Museum of the Revolution. You wouldn’t guess that this is a museum from its frontage. It looks like a wreck. It, is, though, a fascinating place to visit.
The Museum of the Revolution
This is Marcelo. As a youth, he fought for the freedom of Nicaragua. He lost his entire family. He was our amazing guide (in Spanish) at the Museum of the Revolution. His family now are the volunteers and fellow veterans and heroes of Nicaragua’s wars.
It is possible to wander around the museum yourself, but if you speak even the smallest amount of Spanish, then do take a guide, you’ll learn a heck of a lot more.
The men here, in this museum, are the veterans of the wars. And it will be one of them who is your guide. You’ll not only get to hear their personal history but if you’re lucky like we were, then you get a little extra.
Marcelo took us up on the roof. Terrifyingly we walked over the tin sheets, although Marcelo did assure us that there was concrete underneath. The views are spectacular up here.
Leons Revolution History is also noted in the many murals around the city. The centre is compact and it’s easy to walk around. There are some great ones by the monument to the fallen and the Eternal Flame (which was extinguished when we were there).
Leon’s Free Walking Tour
Let me preface this by saying I LOVE free walking tours. I ALWAYS tip, because I know the value that the tour guides bring to your experience of a city. And so we headed out on Leon’s free walking tour. It runs every day at 0900, 1015, 1700 and 1815. We took the afternoon tour. It’s the worst city walking tour I’ve been on ever. Disjointed. Mostly we sat for some time in a park discussing poetry and what was good about our own home countries. I guess it depends on the tour guide you get Read the reviews before you sign up. See if anything has changed since we were there.
Our Self Guided Walking Tour
By the time we’d signed up to the Free Walking Tour of Leon, (which we would usually do first, rather than as our last activity in a city) we’d already gone on a self-guided walking tour, using the excellent route laid out by the Lonely Planet Nicaragua. Go early. Leon is one of the hottest cities in Central America.
The Museum of Traditions and Legends
We started our walking tour at the Museum of Traditions and Legends. In Spanish – Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas. This will go down as one of the most bizarre museums ever. Entrance for foreigners is 50 cordobas. Guided Tours are available if required, sometimes in English, always in Spanish. There is some signage in both Spanish and English. It’s well translated, it’s just the content that is bizarre. Put it this way. Nicaragua has some very strange legends. Here are my personal favourites. Put it this way, Leon and Nicaragua have a pretty dark history.
Ceguas are betrayed women who practise witchcraft. They go out late at night looking for womanisers and drunk men. They pretend to be young, sexy women, but when you get up close they smell terrible and are disgusting. The Ceguas leave men stunned for life or dying from the beating that they give them.
There’s also a couple of popular sayings in Nicaragua related to the Ceguas. If someone looks a little dumb or bewildered, then “you look like the Cegua played with you”. If a woman doesn’t brush her hair then “You look like a Cegua”
Toma tu teta
This old woman from near Leon was, it was said, ugly and could not find a husband. Her father offered suitors a lot of money but there were no takers. So the legend says that she wanders the streets of Leon looking for a man.
When she finds one she likes, she grabs him and puts her nipple in his mouth, yelling Toma tu teta (grab your tit). Other associated legends say that she was raped and became pregnant. Her breasts grew heavy with milk and became painful. She wanders the street raping men and yelling Toma tu teta.
Directly opposite are the ruins of the Iglesia San Sebastian. And there really is NOTHING there.
The University Buildings
For a little light relief after the museum of myths and legends, we headed to the University buildings. UNAN, the University of Norte Nicaragua is the old university in Nicaragua. It was founded in 1812.
There’s an outdoor display in the University main building on the famous poet Ruben Dario. The signage is all in Spanish, but if you have basic knowledge it’s a good read. The main reason for visiting here is simply the building. Arcades, cool cloisters and a gorgeous garden. It’s worth a walk by if nothing else.
Churches of Leon
Leon is famous for its churches and they’re all different. Here are our personal favourites
Iglesia El Calvario
Iglesia La Recoleccion, Leon
Iglesia La Merced
I’ve saved the best until last. Leon’s magnificent Cathedral. It’s more formal name is the Basilica de la Asuncion and it’s the largest in Central America. This is the fourth iteration of the cathedral. You’ll find the tomb of Ruben Dario here and also that of Miguel Larreynaga. The cathedral is as beautiful on the inside as it is outside.
It dominates Parque Central. However, it’s the roof of Leon Cathedral that is the show stopper. Be sure to time your visit with a clear day, although some clouds in the sky make for gorgeous photos.
Tickets for the cathedral are available ONLY from a small office in the back right-hand corner of the cathedral, when approached from the front, facing the building. Here’s what it looks like.
Foreign visitor tickets cost US$3. You can pay in Cordoba or US dollars. It’s well worth the money.
After you’ve bought your ticket, you head to the diagonally opposite corner of the cathedral, show your ticket and up you go on a narrow staircase. Part way up you can see the square on one side and through a round opening into the cathedral below.
Continue up the staircase (you’ll come back down the same way) and you reach the roof. At this point, you’ll be given instructions. In Spanish or English. There’s also signage about the rules. Basically, you’re going to take your shoes off and wander around barefoot. You’re not going to ring the bell (there’s a fine). Neither will you stand on the domes or ledges.
Leon Cathedral Roof
This clock tower gives some gorgeous views over the city and the dozen or so volcanoes that surround it.
Stepping out onto the roof takes you into another world. An almost alien landscape. You could also be in an episode of Doctor Who or Star Wars. And it is glorious.
The domes provide light to the cathedral below. The roof that you’re on provides such stunning views of the surrounds. Be sure to walk directly to the end. Make you also go to the lookout over the park – opposite you’ll see the museum of the revolution if you didn’t make it there yet, be sure to head on over.
As you exited the staircase area, to your right, there’s another small staircase – these steps are pretty steep, but again it’s worth it. You’ll get a higher up view that will leave you breathless.
Leon Cathedral is quite simply gorgeous and a fitting end to our 3 days in Leon. We did, of course, eat and drink while we were here and you can read more about that in our article on what to eat in Nicaragua. Meanwhile, what did we miss? What did you enjoy about Leon? We’re heading off on an overnight shuttle to El Tunco in El Salvador after putting our heads down at the Via Via Hostel. > get prices for this super central hostel with privates
3 days in Leon Resources
- We took cheap public buses on the journey from Granada to Leon
- Our guide book in Nicaragua was the Lonely Planet Nicaragua
- We used a Spanish Phrasebook
- We carried a Spanish Dictionary
- Our hotel in Leon was the Leo y Pinata < but we didn’t like it (WAY too noisy)
- We checked into the Via Via Hostel for a few hours as we had a 0200 transfer to El Tunco
- We drank tap water while in Nicaragua – saving the environment and money < read about how
- Consider learning Spanish to enhance your visit to Nicaragua – we did this in Guatemala
- Our Common Sense Guide to VPNs – essential reading for any traveller
- What’s in your backpack? Here’s our list of 40 essentials in Pack These Things