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Leon, Nicaragua with Kids

Leon is a culturally rich and vibrant colonial city in northern Nicaragua that is home to revolution, museums, university students, churches, restaurants, and cafes. Surrounded by volcanoes, and with the coastal beaches of the Pacific not far away, it was one of our favourite towns of our trip. It’s usually one of the first or last stops on anyone Nicaraguan journey due to its northerly location. Some visit as a day trip and others stay 3-4 days as a base to explore the surrounding area.

We spent one and a half days here and felt that was enough. We arrived early morning from Managua by rental car and drove directly to Granada for our onward travel from here. We saw everything we needed to in that time with a bit of planning - but we didn’t do any volcanos or beaches as that was coming later elsewhere in Nicaragua for us!

Leon is dirty, run down, impoverished, no one speaks English and nowhere takes card. So why is it so good to travel? It’s unique and there is a lot to do. As the seat of the various revolutions and civil war between 1930s-1970s, there is nowhere better to learn about Nicaraguan history and culture than Leon.

Basilica Cathedral

You may be expecting just another church/cathedral to climb and maybe take a few photos, but this one is like no other! The largest cathedral in Central America is located in Leon, it’s pure white and quite beautiful! It’s proper name is Cathedral-Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It’s situated in the central plaza and is a wonderful focal point. When we visited we were lucky enough it had recently been painted. The main attraction is not the outside frontage, the interior, or a bell tower – it’s the roof! A beautiful brilliant white structure with interesting domes and windowed structures all over it. The view from the top is incredible, I just couldn't stop taking photos (sorry!).

A door from the outside (located down the right-hand side as you look at the front) leads upward via some very narrow steps (as in we barely fit through the passageway). At the top of the stairwell, you are required to remove your shoes and instructed to leave after 25 minutes. The floor was hot enough to burn the souls of your feet in places as you walk around the rooftop witnessing the towns architecture from this unique angle!

Buy your ticket from a tiny door at the external rear of the cathedral – you are required to get tickets first if you want a tour or to climb to the top of it. The steps are so narrow that it’s impossible for anyone to pass another person so you will get a timed slot where they let everyone up altogether after a previous group has come down. The cost is $3 USD and opening hours are 8 am to 12 pm Monday to Saturday and 2pm to 4pm on Sunday. We all loved this experience, the kids had fun free-roaming and I love anywhere I can walk barefoot!

Cerro Negro Volcano Boarding

OK so you are unlikely to be doing this on a family holiday with kids in tow but I felt I absolutely had to include it, because where else in the world can you actually control your own speed as you slide down the side of a volcano on a sandboard?!

It is typically done on a half-day tour from Leon where you’ll drive for around 30-minutes before reaching the base of Cerro Negro (the volcano you’ll be sliding down!). From the base, you’ll need to hike to the top of the 2,382-foot (726-meter) high beast. We read people completing the trail in about an hour and it being well worth it!

Museum of the Revolution

After the populous revolted against USA backed corruption and overthrew their oppression in the 1970s, rebel leaders mobilised thousands of teachers and illiteracy fell from 50% to 11% in six months! We learnt all about it at the Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution.). The building displays photos, books, and memorabilia from the revolution that shaped Nicaragua into the country we know and love today. The museum tells the story of the hardships of the revolutionaries and gives a good grounding of the events that led up to the events of the 1970s.

The Museo de la Revolucion is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm and costs $3 USD to enter. The entrance fee includes a guide (you will likely get one that speaks Spanish only, Nuestra española tiene muy buena!) and the tour takes about an hour.

I was really disappointed that there were no descriptions or information in English at all, but thankfully we speak enough Spanish now to get by. The revolution is a topic of interest of me and Andrew so we had read plenty about the war history of Nicaragua already, but for those who are unaware and don’t speak Spanish you could be a bit frustrated here.

There are a number of artillery shells, canons and various weapons on display so be aware of that with respect to your children. The highlight of coming here was certainly our animated and gun wounded ex mercenary guide (who featured himself in a number of the photos of the revolution!). When we were done with the ground floor displayed, he led us upstairs and eventually to the tin rooftop for a great set of photos of the town, the street art and the Basilica Cathedral. The upstairs (whole thing really) is filthy – it has a creepy air of abandonment about it and reminded us of S21 and other structures in Cambodia, knowing the atrocities that had taken place within.

Street Art of the Revolution and Mercado Central

The central market of Leon is just across the street from the cathedral. A number of food tours explore the market and take in its fruits, vegetables, nuts and sweets. It’s quite well designed with parking area, protection from the elements, while still ensuring good ventilation. We were fortunate to be there as a random bouncy castle was set up!

You can experience some of the revolutionary spirit that flows through the town via the iconic graffiti, murals and street art of Leon. Just off from the revolution museum (see below), the pedestrianised street immortalises fallen heroes from the conflict with displays of relevant information about their lives and actions. The backdrop for this is revolutionary flags and several large colourful works of art. They’re all over the city, but a few stand out displays are found on this street.

Here is another random one - a band of young adults marching and drumming around 8pm in the street outside our guesthouse!

Las Peñitas Beach

If you’re using Leon as a base to explore the area, visiting the beach at Las Peñitas is a very easy day trip. Just 30 minute drive on pretty decent roads, it can be reached via local bus, taxi or hire car. Here you can also volunteer with Casa Verde on one of their many sustainability initiatives from upcycling to language lessons, beach clean-ups and reforestation. Volunteers are welcomed and encouraged.

Museum of Legends and Traditions

Housed in a former prison, this museum of folk tales was a more random excursion of ours, initially because it was just around the corner from our hostel, but we all had a great time here! The museum displays papier mache figures depicting traditional tales, myths, legends and mysteries. Think bogeyman, tooth fairy etc, as well as figures from stories invented for morale and ethical story telling. Some of the displays aren’t particularly kid friendly, such as the mythical woman “Grab Your Tit” or the room featuring the skeleton horses, Nahua Oxcart – one of the most popular legends of León – which recalls the abuse of the Indians by the Spanish and which announces death. Our kids found them hilarious but some might be quite shocked! There is also a tank from the revolution featured as well as huge parade puppets. Weirdly there ARE English descriptions for everything here.

Flor de Caña Rum Tour

We had read about this one but declined in the end due to running out of time. If we had another day then we absolutely would have signed up for this factory tour, billed as a learning experience with drinking! This Nicaraguan rum is sustainably produced, carbon-neutral, and fair trade certified. It contains no artificial ingredients, is distilled with 100% renewable energy, and is naturally aged without the use of sugar, at the base of a volcano no less! You can either hire a taxi and turn up direct, joining a tour on arrival at the factory, or you can simply book their tour online in advance that includes transport to and from Leon. Perhaps save your souvenir shopping here and grab a 25-year rum for next to nothing.

Hike Volcano Telica at Sunset

This is another popular activity from Leon that we didn’t actually do. We knew we would be going up another volcano (or three!) later in our Nicaraguan adventure, so skipped this one. However, this hike only takes around 45 minutes to get to the top. Once you reach the top, if you time it for just after sunset and the wind is blowing the right way, you might be able to get a glimpse of molten lava in the crater below. Most people hike Telica with a guide on an organised tour to get the timings just right.

How to get to Leon:

We weren’t sure until the last minute exactly how we would enter Leon, so we did a fair bit of research on all the options when entering from Honduras which you can read here. In summary, the Tica Bus (AC coach) runs from San Salvador to Managua AND from Tegucigalpa to Managua and both services drop off in Leon and generally leave around 9am, arriving 10 hours later. Times are available on their website.

If you are arriving from Managua, you would need to get the chicken bus which leaves every 30 minutes, takes 1.5 hours and costs $2 USD. We rented a car for a week from Managua – we did this because we found we could drop off in a separate location to that which we collected it for a very small fee. The total weeks rental was around $240 including drop off fee (we used Budget Rentals at the airport) - I would certainly recommend having a car around our next stop too - Granada!

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