Trip number 3 to one of my most favorite places on the planet:
Or really just Nicaragua in general.
It’s hard to find a place more rich in culture, filled to the rim with compassionate, kind-hearted people, kids running in the streets thankful for the shoes on their feet and the food in their bellies, endless possibilities for incredible food on every street corner . . .
And with every trip I gain a new appreciation as I take on new experiences.
Okay so, my first trip was euphoric. It was fast paced and chaotic. I had never traveled outside of the United States and the way of life is completely different from what I experienced growing up in America.
Trip number two was more serene. Everything wasn’t so “new.” It seemed like everything slowed down and I was able to just be still.
But trip number three; it was an entirely different, incredibly sentimental trip. Long story, short; my mom, at 52 years old, had never traveled internationally. Heck! She had never even been on an airplane. Anything that required a bridge or a plane, forget it!
This trip was all about her. We got her flying in an airplane, feet landing on the ground in Nicaragua, exploring a new culture, and experiencing new things.
Right. Okay. But the purpose of this post. Here’s the deal.
My mother-in-law was born and raised in Leon Nicaragua. Twenty-ish years ago she was married and moved to the United States but she has always considered Leon her “home.” My husband followed her to the U.S. when he was 12 years old. Our family goes back and forth multiple times a year with the majority of my husband’s family still residing in Nicaragua.
I say all of this to say, I’m sharing this post from the perspective of a native. There are things that a tourist might do and then there are things that are recommended by natives, or at least not so widely known by visitors.
So here we go.
Ten places you should go or experiences you should have when visiting Leon, Nicaragua!
P.s. Click each location/experience to visit the official website and read more.
1 – Mercado Central
This location was recently completely renovated and it’s an experience you can’t miss. The building is directly behind Our Lady of Grace Cathedral which is the large, white cathedral in the center of Leon (hence: “Central Market.”)
It might be tempting to walk into the “tourists friendly” grocery store, but the market is more fulfilling for someone with a travelers spirit. You can find everything from local fruits and vegetables to homemade furniture to handcrafted gifts.
This market is a great way to get a feel of the culture and sample all of the local goodies.
2 – Fritangas
You can’t miss ’em. Fritangas are everywhere, on nearly every street corner. If you walk by and see a vendor selling food under a tent, eat it. As a heads up for fellow vegans, you can usually always find gallo pinto, plantain, and ensalada at every vendor.
Fritangas sell the best, most authentic meals. Some things to look for (if you eat meat): nicaraguan tacos and chancho con yuca. These are two of the most popular meals in the region.
The Fritangas are the preferred method of “take out” for locals. If you truly want to experience the Nicaraguan culture and their delicious food, grab a quick bite at one of the many Fritangas. Oh! And the mango! Eat lots of it. Just trust me.
It’s delicious, it’s cheap, and it’s quick!
If you search for travel photos of Leon on Instagram, chances are you will find a feed full of photos on the rooftop of Our Lady of Grace Cathedral. And for good reason.
Not only is it the ideal location for photos (we brought along product for a brand deal because the lighting is perfection!) it also provides the most stunning views of Leon; particularly, breathtaking views of the world famous chain of volcanoes; the Marimbos Volcanic Chain (more on that later!)
You can go as a solo visitor, but I would recommend going with a tour guide as they will share the rich history that makes the Cathedral such a sacred place for locals.
Also, be sure to either bring socks or visit in the early morning because you are not allowed to wear shoes and it can get hot during the day.
4 – Casa Abierta
I cannot say enough incredible things about this place. And I’ll let you in on a little secret, Casa Abierta is a hotel but it isn’t well known by tourists. It’s a bit of a local’s secret.
This was my favorite visit of our trip this year. Casa Abierta is a vegan/vegetarian restaurant (hard to come by in Leon,) attached to a hotel with a pool that is open to the public. But don’t worry, because it isn’t widely known it’s very quiet and enjoyable if you aren’t big on crowds and children.
As a vegan I spend most of my time in Leon eating gallo pinto (rice & beans,) variations of plantain, and cabbage. Being as I’m also gluten intolerant, my choices are even more limited.
The entire menu at Casa Abierta is vegan/vegeatarian friendly, with gluten free options, and it’s delicious! The ingredients are also organic so, you know, they have a lot going for them.
I had a hummus pasta (that OMG! was divine) and cold avocado soup. I can’t say enough good things about the food!
5 – Playa Poneloya
We have been to a few different beaches in Nicaragua and Poneloya remains one of my favorites.
I dare you to go to Poneloya without taking a million photos.
There is a small formation of rocks with a stunning view and a beautiful cross situated at the top.
Along the shoreline there are various Beach Clubs and restaurants and the food in the area is authentic and delicious (notice a trend here with the food in Leon?) It’s a short 20-ish minute drive from the center of Leon so it’s a trip you can take with very little effort.
The only downside is the waves are pretty brutal. We visit this beach more for the view and the atmosphere as opposed to actual play.
I prefer this beach over Poneloya but it’s a bit more of a trek to get to. That being said, I still highly recommend it. Once you arrive near the location by car (20 minutes) you hop on a small boat for a quick ride to the island. Once there you walk a good little distance or you can hop on one of the horse carriages (as a vegan advocate I discourage this, but the option is available to you.)
At this point you will arrive at the cutest little hostel. There are a million different things I could say about this destination, but it’s worth taking a look at the website to get a real feel for the experience.
Due to the remote location and reliance on solar energy, the Lodge is a rustic experience ideal for travelers that enjoy a vacation “off the beaten path.”
The coolest thing about this hostel/beach area is that they grow a lot of their own food and they have an onsite turtle hatchery. The hatchery is completely sustained by the employees of the lodge and the guests. Guests are able to help save the turtles while enjoying a beautiful, serene environment. As of this moment, July (2017,) 5,500 baby sea turtles have been released into the ocean.
If you want to get away, make a difference, unwind with yoga and various beach activities, and eat good food, this is the place for you!
Okay, this is a loaded experience so bear with me. I had two very different experiences with Volcano Cerro Negro and I want you to hear both.
First things first. Cerro Negro is an active volcano in the Cordillera de los Maribios mountain range. It is the youngest in Central America and also one of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua. It has erupted frequently since its very first eruption with the latest eruption occurring in 1999, and it has erupted approximately 23 times since 1850.
Who came up with the idea to sled down the side of an active volcano? I haven’t a clue, but we did it … twice.
Before even considering this activity you need to know that the hike is not for the faint of heart. It takes the average individual about an hour to hike up the side of the volcano. Mind you, it’s not a nice, smooth trail hike. The hike has very steep angles with lots of volcanic rock. It’s difficult. It’s made worse by the fact that it is usually extremely windy and you have to carry your [very large] board all the way to the top. I have never experienced as much anxiety as I did with my children on a windy volcano. That being said, my five and six year olds made the hike, as well as people in our party who aren’t the most athletic.
I’m going to try and keep this as brief as possible but long story short, our first sledding experience was uneventful. The sleds picked up a lot of rock and we spent more time standing up, clearing the boards than we actually did sledding. After that experience none of us really thought it was worth the time, energy, or money.
Our next attempt was very different. We spoke with our friend (a Leon native) who visits the volcano multiple times a week, and told him about our experience, asking if we could borrow better boards.
This time we didn’t bring the children and I thank Heaven and Earth constantly for that.
These boards were savage. I got on the board, just as I had the first time, picked my feet up, and started down the volcano. About half way down the volcano I was going so fast it felt like my board was coming completely off the rock and I felt I had to make the decision to crash with no control, or somewhat encourage the outcome in my favor. I gently placed my feet down in the rock and was thrown off my board, into the volcanic rock at about 70-75 MPH. Thankfully I properly protected my neck and head, but my body took a massive beating.
Once I reached the bottom everyone started yelling that they couldn’t believe how fast I was going and amazed by what had just happened.
I say all this to say, as someone who has done it twice and had an awful experience, I won’t be doing it again. However, if you listen to the instructor, use the standard board, and use the “beginner method,” it’s an experience worth having. Or if you’d rather not sled you can always do the hike to see the inside of the volcano and return back down on the trail.
8 – Riverside Splash
This is another establishment that isn’t well know by tourist but it’s a nice little day trip for the kids.
Riverside Splash is a small water park located just outside the city.
Now if you’re thinking “water park” like we have them in the U.S., think again. This park consist of two water slides, a small splash pool, and a larger pool for leisurely swim.
It isn’t the most extravagant place but that’s why I love it. The heat in Leon can be brutal but Riverside Splash is a nice little aquatic escape for the children. The prices are a bit steep considering what you get at $10/bracelet (for the people who get in the water,) but it’s worth it for me personally as a way to get out of the city, watch the kids have fun, and relax with music, food, and drinks.
9 – El Barbaro
There are many restaurants in Leon, all with different atmospheres, but we spent three different nights at El Barbaro and had a fabulous time.
On this visit to Leon I told my husband I wanted to get dressed up, put on high heels, and go dancing – something we never do while in Leon because we are a pair of 90 year olds who like to be in bed by 9pm. His aunts and uncles told us the best place to go for a night of dance and fun: El Barbaro.
This night was particularly special because it was my mother’s birthday.
Throughout the week the restaurant hosts live bands. We came to eat (the plates were huge and the food was great,) watched the band set up, and spent the remainder of the night dancing, listening to good music, and drinking the country’s finest rum (see next recommendation.)
If you want to see the way Nicaraguans have a good time, make this a stop during your visit! But be sure to pop in after 8 pm.
I’m honestly surprised that we made two other trips to Nicaragua without taking a tour of the Flor De Cana Factory.
Nicaraguans take great pride in Flor de Cana and once you take the tour it’s easy to see why. I won’t give away too many details that would take away from the tour, but Flor de Cana is Nicaragua’s premium liquor and it’s a rum like no other; from the ingredients used, to the slow-aged processing, the taste, the texture, and so much more.
Personally, I don’t drink often. And when I do, I typically don’t drink liquor. But when you take the tour you are taught the ins and outs of the rum. After you gather all the facts you proceed to a taste testing using all five of your senses. As someone who doesn’t enjoy rum, I can tell you that this rum is phenomenal (as far as rum goes haha.)
If I had to recommend something to a first time visitor of Leon, this tour would definitely be at the top of my list!
Also, fun fact, the surrounding volcanos play an active role in the growth of the ingredients. Just another reason these volcanoes are so special to the area!
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This should be enough recommendations to get you started. It kept us busy for seven days!
If you would like to see some more posts about Leon, leave a comment below letting me know what you are interested in; food, sightseeing, adventure …
Also, I thought it worth mentioning that my family has been staying at Hotel Cacique Adiact for years. The crew at the hotel has become like family, the hotel itself is beautiful and serene; and the service is impeccable!
Leon has a lot of up and coming hostels, but if you are looking for a nice hotel in the $50-$100 price range, consider staying at Hotel Cacique Adiact. They have food and drinks available; many of the employees are bilingual (english and spanish,) and you can set up transportation and tours straight through them – it’s an all-in-one escape! Also, they close the doors and have security available throughout the night as an added bonus.
Now go have fun in one of my favorite cities in the world!