“Wow, Leon is a bit different to Granada, eh?” I messaged Justin via Whatsap after I checked into my hostel. “It’s much more…real.”
I don’t fall into the polarized camps of only loving Granada OR Leon. I enjoyed both Nicaraguan cities very much. While Granada was all pretty and charming, Leon was grittier, more “real” and artsier. This was my first trip in Central America but Leon reminded me of the South American cities I had travelled to years ago- busy, chaotic and full of life and character. Although a lot of the city appeared to be crumbling and less preserved than Granada, I still thought it was a good looking city.
I stayed in a lovely little place called Casona Colonial Guesthouse. It’s a traditional one-story courtyard home, built around a beautiful, lush garden. It was so quiet and peaceful- necessary attributes as I was suffering the first of multiple stomach problems. The Nicaraguan woman who owns it was so sweet and, when I told her I was learning Spanish, spoke slowly and clearly so I could practise with her. It was a little lonely for a solo traveller however. It wasn’t the type of place to meet other travellers to hang out with. I felt uncomfortable staying out too much after dark all alone in Leon, so ended up retiring early each night (which was probably a good idea anyway due to my sickness).
My time in Leon was certainly not perfect. I was hassled and cat-called incessantly. I never felt in danger but it was bothersome and knocked my confidence. On reflection, I decided the catcalling was worse on Saturday afternoon. My theory is that some men have nothing better to do on that day. When I returned mid-week, I didn’t notice it so much.
Feeling sick was also detrimental to my enjoyment of Leon. It seems like everyone I met suffered an upset stomach during their time in Nicaragua. Unfortunately for me, I got it more than once. The upside was I was able to explain it all the pharmacist (who was lovely and helpful) in Spanish and get some medicine.
Despite the problems, I had moments of pure joy in Leon: Walking out onto the blinding white roof of the cathedral and pounding the streets, hopping from art gallery to old mural to French bakery. (“I don’t remember any French bakery being there when I visited”, exclaimed Justin, who had travelled the region nine years ago….).
Admittedly, these things were not without their Nica
frustrations charms. I knew about the cathedral roof but could not work out how to get up there. I walked inside and outside and round and round but I couldn’t work it out. In the end a European couple approached me as they thought I was someone they were supposed to be meeting. I wasn’t the one they were looking for but, fortunately, they had been up to the roof and explained how to get there.
I had to go to the back of the cathedral, find a passage that looked like the entrance to a dungeon, approach a locked gate and try to catch the attention of the woman selling tickets (who was doing her best to ignore me). She sat behind a table and had to get up, take my money, go back around to get change and the ticket and then pass it all back to me through the bars. All in a right grump as well!
Then I had to walk around to the side of the cathedral to find the small entrance to the stairs. My ticket was checked twice- at the bottom a man ripped it and kept half. At the top a woman took the remaining half away. That was a shame as I like to keep tickets to stick in my journal.
It was worth it however. The roof top is a brilliant white with large domes and a view across Leon. There was hardly anyone up there and it felt really calm and peaceful. I walked back past the “dungeon” later and it was all closed up. They take long lunch breaks apparently, so make sure you go earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon.
I also walked up and down streets a million times looking for places that weren’t marked properly on the map, or were there but had a different name or weren’t obvious. I could not work out where La Casa De Cultura was until I accosted an elderly British couple who had the same guidebook (Nicaragua Moon Handbook) as me. It turned out to be in a Spanish school and, when I ventured in, I found the upstairs was closed due to that long Leon lunch break. At least in the process I found the Centro de Arte which I went to next and absolutely loved!
One of my favourite moments in Leon was when I returned to the city post Matagalpa, just for an afternoon. Instead of being a busy Saturday, it was a peaceful weekday afternoon. There seemed to be more families about and far less catcalling. The weather was actually quite cool for notoriously hot Leon and there was a beautiful sunset. I walked around the central square feeling really relaxed and peaceful and wishing I could stay longer in Leon. I nearly did..but if I had, I never would have made it to Ometepe, my favourite place in Nicaragua.
What Is That Siren Sound In Leon?
If you are around the city center, or stay at a very centrally located hotel, you might notice a strange alarm sounding at certain times of day. I first heard it when I was walking near to the market one lunch time. All of a sudden there was a very loud, air raid siren going off! Or what sounded like an air raid siren anyway. In confusion I looked around at the locals to gauge their reactions. Everyone was going about their business as normal, so I figured we weren’t being warned to evacuate for a volcano eruption or something!
I didn’t notice it in the morning at my first hotel. But I did when I returned after Matagalpa and stayed at a very central hostel. It went off loudly at 7am. This time I knew not to worry as I’d heard it before.
Later I spoke to a Nicaraguan man and he explained that the siren goes off twice everyday. Once at 7am, so the children know to go to school, and again at midday for lunch time. I’m not sure if it really is only for school children or if it might also apply to government and factory workers. I suppose it’s a unique way to mark the time and keep the town to schedule, though it does seem a bit intrusive. It actually reminded me of how, in South Korea, a lot of the apartments have speakers inside and the building supervisors make announcements that are then broadcast directly into your apartment!
Where I stayed in Leon
There are loads of great options in Leon. I stayed in Casona Colonial Guesthouse during my first stay. It has a beautiful garden, a lovely owner and I got a clean and comfortable private room with bathroom for $20 USD a night. It’s not a place for socialising but you can definitely practise your Spanish (Note: the lovely owner speaks English too but she was moe than willing to help me with my Spanish).
When I returned for one night after my trip to Matagalpa, I stayed at Lazybones Hostel. The private room was huge, if a little dingy. But the shared areas were lovely- with rocking chairs, hammocks and swinging chairs to chill out in.
Pin It For Later
Have you ever been sick on a trip or dealt with issues like cat-calling? Did you still manage to enjoy the trip?
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