I was lucky to spend 3 weeks of my time in Nicaragua in the beautiful colonial city of León. It’s worth spending a relaxing 2 or 3 days in if you’re visiting the country. The city walls are filled with murals, and its credit as the revolutionary capital of the country during the Sandinista revolution is palpable to this day.
While you’re there, check out some of the great cafés the city has to offer. UNAN (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua) has its biggest university branch in León, and what’s a college town without more coffee options than you could possibly need?
Pan y Paz (1 cuadra este del supermercado La Union)
I think if everyone in the world tried Pan y Paz’s chocolate almond croissants, their motto “Bread is peace” would become reality. Seriously, these things are worth every morsel of the weird cultural shame you feel for eating such buttery, delicately French baked goods in Central America. They also sell amazing cheese (Camembert, Gouda, Swiss, Manchego… mhmm) made in country, great espresso drinks, and of course, fresh baked bread.
Café La Rosita (Leon Plaza)
The prices are reasonable, and the atmosphere is unbeatable. The second floor has lots of outlets for laptop users, wifi, a great breeze, and is no one will bother you for staking out there for 5+ hours on a Tuesday afternoon. Everything a college student needs.
El Sesteo (Main Plaza)
You can’t beat this location, but it’s touristy and overpriced. If you’re looking to sip an espresso and watch the sun go down over the cathedral, however, you might consider it worth the premium.
Casa del Cafe (De la catedral 50mts al Norte, junto al hotel Best Western)
I love the consistent 90 degree weather of Nicaragua, but a few times I definitely succumbed to the need for AC. Casa del Cafe is a national Starbucks-like chain that sells nearly US-priced, but tasty, coffee and treats. And their air conditioning works overtime.
I also enjoyed a few museum visits while living in León. El Museo Ortiz Gurdián is the place to go if you’re looking to see Latin American modern art. There were some amazing pieces here, I only wish I could remember which.
My favorite museum by far was the Museo de la Revolución. My guide led me through the first part of the exhibit comprised of old photographs and newspaper clippings, giving a great recount of the political history of Nicaragua, all the way from William Walker, to Sandino, to the decades of misery building up to the revolution. It wasn’t until 15 minutes into the tour he stopped before a picture much like many others on the wall of gleeful young men and women armed with Soviet weapons. Do you recognize this man, he asked me? Shit, I thought. I should know this — I started guessing: Zelaya? Ortega? I had no idea. A grin spread across his face: It’s ME!! he beamed.
Roberto led me through the rest of the tour, which included a trip to the top of the museum and a great view of the grand cathedral of León. I couldn’t get over how cool it was that general of the FSLN was my tour guide — though I guess it’s not that hard to believe, given the war was only 25 years ago, and thousands fought. The personal touch of hearing his experiences made the $2 entrance fee seem almost insulting. There is no veterans benefit system in Nicaragua, he explained to me, which has made dealing with his PTSD all the more difficult. The revolution and the war are glamorized to a certain extent in this country, but many of the wounds have still not healed.
The Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones was a creepy disappointment. We had a pretty hilarious English speaking tour guide, though.
Lucky for residents of León, the beautiful beaches of the Pacific are only about an hour trip ($1) away. You may have to share the dilapidated school bus with 100 other Nicaraguans and their groceries, a dead iguana, bicycle wheels, 5 different radio stations playing at once — but it is 100% worth it.
I find the beaches here infinitely more relaxing than the ones at home. The entire vibe is much more low key. People swim in their clothes, and no one really brings anything to do or anything to read, just plays in the ocean. You won’t see the miles of sunbathers and colorful umbrellas you find at the ocean in Rhode Island. Cold beer, fried fish, and a picture perfect sunset over the breakers is a good way to finish the day before catching the last bus back to the city.
I miss León (and its proximity to the beach), and can’t wait to visit in a few weeks.