Why León is so much more than a stepping stone
León seems to be one of those cities that backpackers and travellers use as a stepping stone in Central America, a stop-off for a day or two to break up the journey to more popular places in Nicaragua like Granada and San Juan del Sur further south, but it is so much more than that.
Initially, we were only going to stay in León for a couple of days ourselves either side of a two-day hike to the surrounding volcanoes that this region has become famous for, but as soon as we arrived into the city, as soon as walked along the sun-baked dusty pavements, we knew this was a place we had to spend a little more time in.
One of the things that’s so striking about León is the architecture. Like lots of places in Central America, León is another former colonial city (just like San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico and Antigua in Guatemala) that was founded in 1524, and wherever you look there are fabulously faded buildings and crumbling facades, history peeling away flake by flake.
Walking around, you see these grandiose colonial churches and cathedrals in bright blue, red and yellow (there are none other than 13 in the city centre alone), and it gives you a small sense of just how beautiful the city must’ve been at the height of its power.
Despite being the second largest city in the country, León still only has a population of just over 200,000, and if anything it feels even smaller than that. Add in the fact that the city centre is made up of just a few blocks and it is extremely easy to get around, so much so we felt like locals after only a few days.
Dotted around the city are the cutest little art galleries, but if you’re into your food it’s hard to overlook León; the gastronomy is on another level, and for those of you who have travelled through Central America you’ll know this is a seriously hard thing to do (put it this way, it’s not just fried chicken and beans here!)
We tried our hardest to eat through the city, but one place that really stuck out was Carnivoro (it’s all in the name really. Don’t go expecting a salad now), and it was without a doubt one of the best places we ate at not just in Nicaragua, but it all of Central.
In León everything seems that little older, that little slower, and wherever you look there are locals milling around, chatting, spending a few moments with each other over a coffee and a cigarette or a cigar.
All of this lends to a feeling of preservation, like León is stuck in time. The people you see in León live in León, and this means that tourism is an afterthought, a happy accident for people like us.
León really is one of those cities that you don’t need to do anything in. It’s pleasures come from walking the time-worn allies and streets, from looking at the peeling paint on every other wall, each one a different colour, from sipping a cervezas while the sun sets behind one of the surrounding volcanoes.
In Nicaragua, a lot of people fall in love with Granada, but most others leave their heart in León.