Earlier, in my taxi to the center of town, we maneuver through the outskirts. Bicycle taxies roam the streets, juice vendors squeeze refreshments, the ubiquitous motorcycle zooms by, horse-drawn carts carry goods too burdensome for man. From the calm of the periphery, we pass through the crowded shop-lined streets. The market is bustling. Speakers blare dance rhythms, vendors lure in costumers. Taxies, pedestrians, motorcycles, bikes, horse carts: mingle in the streets.
This is my first stop in Nicaragua, and I know immediately that I will like it. Leon does nothing in the coming days to sway me otherwise. Perpetually jealous of its more tourist-endowed rival, Granada, Leon has maintained its oeuvre as a genuine colonial city without falling prey to the gimmicks of other tourist destinations. In other words, being in Leon feels like regular life, without the manufactured frills that cost too much and leave you wondering what it is all for.
That being said, there are plenty of things to do in and around Leon. Volcano boarding is probably the most popular adventure tourism. Non-profits like Sonati and Quetzaltrekkers offer day trips to Cerro Negro to try your talents on the black sands of the volcano. It can get messy, I hear. While in town, I opt for a night hike with Quetzaltrekkers (here). Both organizations use the money they make from these treks to fund educational programs for local kids.
Leon is considered the cultural capital of Nicaragua and they host an excellent collection of contemporary art at the Ortiz-Gurdian Foundation. It’s free on Sundays. Or, like a dollar any other day. Ruben Dario, Nicaragua’s famous poet, also called Leon home. His home is now a museum, which is less than impressive. The staff is apathetic and there is very little to see. Just pick up a book of his poetry, and then read it.
Nicaragua is affordable. One can get a substantial breakfast at Desayunazo for less than $3 with a drink. Try gallo pinto – rice and beans pan-fried. Or have a coffee at Café Rosalita on the breezy second floor. Visit the market behind the Cathedral for some fresh, cheap eats. As long as you’re near the Cathedral, pay $2 to be led up to the top by the attendant and then left alone to do whatever you please. “Don’t fall off,” he tells me, as we walk over the barrel-vaulted rooftop.
I spend my idle time in a hammock reading or napping. As relief for the heat, ice cream, licuados (shakes), and cold drinks are widely available. Visit a local bar and drink some Flor de Cana – Nicaragua’s prized rum – for prices that seem indecent. Walk the streets, sit in the central square, or browse the market. Leon is a taste of regular Nicaraguan life, with a few tourists and loud hostel bars thrown in the mix. It’s the perfect balance between a place to travel and a place to live.