But seriously, León is hot. In the high season, roughly November to February according to hostel workers, the city’s average temperatures are actually the lowest of the year. Of course, I hadn’t thought to look up Nicaraguan climate beyond the times I would be there, so I was shocked to learn that the blaring sun and oppressive humidity was their “winter.” Nicaragua doesn’t really have seasons, just a dry season and a rainy season, and they’re both pretty freaking hot.
Despite the rivers of sweat and layers of deodorant I caked on for the sake of passerby, León charmed me. Not only is it a hub of activity itself, but it is also a gateway to nearby volcanoes and beaches.
My flight got in at 8pm, and after hearing from many people to avoid Managua at night, I booked a taxi to León rather than stay and use the bus in the morning. Well, the taxi driver wasn’t there (I later learned repeatedly that this is far from uncommon). After being followed around by some taxi drivers who were grating my nerves with their earnestness, I was able to call a friend and she told me my best bet was to take a taxi all the way to León, where I already had a hostel reservation. The drive was $80, which was much more than I had planned on spending, but it was safer than getting a taxi from the highway and I was able to get a driver who spoke some English.
Immediately, I was initiated into the kamikaze driving rules of Nicaragua. Insane speeds, hairpin turns, and questionable passing on two-lane highways would have been a nail-biter of a drive – if I wasn’t so tired. Often the driver would be going 60mph, only to suddenly brake when we came upon a donkey carriage or moped that didn’t have reflectors. Everyone beeps too, and I began to realize that a few quick beeps are “hey, how are you doing?” and longer beeps are “get out of the way, hijo de puta!” Normally I would have been flipping through my travel dictionary to figure out what “slower” was in Spanish, but I couldn’t bring myself to do more than passively watch through half-closed eyes.
When I finally crashed on my dorm bed in the Surfing Turtle León hostel, I curled up with my two-liter water bottle and fell asleep to the sounds of moped horns outside. The next morning I awoke to a tall Dutch man leaping from the top bunk and greeting me with “Howdy!” Thus began my first day in Nicaragua.
Catedral de León
Famously the largest cathedral in all of Central America, this has a beautiful view of the city and the volcanoes beyond. It took me a couple loops around the cathedral to figure out that a small tunnel leads to a ticket office for rooftop tours. From there, I again walked around the cathedral until I found the gatekeeper for the rooftop, and after my ticket was punched I followed a small group up a claustrophobic pathway to the top. Shoes aren’t allowed, and it is kind of refreshing to walk the sunbaked roof barefoot. The bluebird skies and whitewashed roof transport you to an almost meditative state, far from the hustle and bustle below.
León at night
León is a melting pot of students from the local university, locals, and travelers, making for a colorful nighttime experience! El Sesteo, an upscale restaurant overlooking Parque Central, is a great place to start the night and people watch. They also often have live music, but if not there are sure to be some locals belting out love songs in the park. On Thursdays, we wear pink…and go to Olla Quemada for Salsa Night! Even if you’re not a great dancer, you can shake your hips a lot and blend right in (I think), though you can probably pick up some moves from local dancers who make this a ritual. A few beers in, and you’ll be a great dancer too – or at least begin thinking you are. There’s a large dance floor where everyone congregates, and the rest of the bar is filled with tables where you can post up with a bottle of tequila to split with friends. It was very crowded, but I didn’t feel out of place or unsafe as a gringa. After the lights come on, the salsa crowd begins a march to Oxygen, a local club with obscenely late hours and patrons that look like they could be from Miami.
This is the only place in the world that you can volcano board! We did it through Volcano Day and had a great guide who was very funny and took many pictures for us (very cheesy but fun). We also got a free beers at the end and got to chat and hang out with our new volcano buddies. The most popular companies seemed to be Quetzaltrekkers and Bigfoot. The hike to the top took about 30-45 minutes and wasn’t difficult. The volcano boards themselves are basically wooden sleds with formica on the bottom. Our boards were half wood, half formica on the bottom, which means you reach moderate speeds. If you’re a speed demon, go with Bigfoot, because their boards are totally covered in formica and they were flying down the hill. Quetzaltrekkers benefits local at-risk kids and takes you up to board twice, which would have been fun but at that point I was exhausted at the idea of going up again.
It’s no wonder this is one of Lonely Planet’s top picks. The hostel in León is clean and orderly, and has shuttles to its beach location, which is well worth spending a few days. The journey to the beach lodge is itself an adventure. The shuttle or bus will drop you off in a small beach town across from Isla Los Brasiles. From there, you’ll take a boat ($1 USD) across the channel to a horse cart on the other side, which will pick up you and your stuff and carry you for free to Surfing Turtle.
In the high season, the beach hostel is more like a boozy resort for 20-somethings. Every day guests partake in yoga, slacklining, and beach volleyball. If you’re lucky, you’ll see baby turtles released into the ocean and get to hear about the special work they do to repopulate sea turtles. The volunteers also put on events every night, including speed dating on Valentine’s Day, karaoke (I cringed too at first but trust me it’s more fun than you’re used to), “game shows,” musical chairs, and charades. At 10pm, the party moves to the beach bar, where you have the option to continue your night, which most people do. Besides flirting, flip cup, giant Jenga, and singing by the beach bonfire are the most popular activities.
Like many hostels in Nicaragua, only a small portion of guests are from the U.S.A. Most are from Europe or Canada, and there’s a variety of English fluencies, which make games and getting to know each other very hilarious. Who would have guessed that high school German would come in handy in Nicaragua? The nearby Carpe Diem Eco Project also has guests who come over nightly to get drinks, hang out, and (I suspect) use toilets rather than their compostable pits.
The beach lodge is undergoing construction for more rooms, and they also have plans to expand in the future as well. I’m happy for them because I think this lodge deserves success, but I also love the size it is now because it allows for an intimate community atmosphere. Go now!
This may seem out of place, but trust: once you’ve experienced the León heat and sun, you’ll start to have slobbery dreams of McFlurries too. Conveniently located next to Catedral de León, this McDonald’s is one of the few less expensive air-conditioned buildings. The décor, wifi, swirling cold air, spotlessly gleaming porcelain toilets, and icy dairy treats feel like a fantasy after stepping away from the rest of León. Far from an eatery you hit up after late-night drinking, this is a restaurant where you’d take a first date.
Some other León tips I learned the hard way…
- Get a flight that arrives in the daytime so that you have time to get to the UCA and take a bus to León. There’s nothing to see in Managua but sprawling shanty towns unfortunately – the city never fully recovered after an earthquake in 1972.
- Drink lots of water! You’ll be sweating a ton. A TON.
- Getting a cab anywhere in the city is $1 USD per person. Always confirm this with the driver before getting in just in case. If he says it’s more than that, find another driver.
- Eat at pupusas for clean, cheap meals. They’re everywhere.
- Speaking of food, bring some packaged snacks with you wherever you go – including resorts that claim to not allow outside food. If you need constant sustenance like me, it’s better to have options than stuck paying high prices for clean food in remote areas.
- Bring a good book. Even if you’re not confined to a hammock by a crippling hangover, it’s nice to just listen to the ocean or city and get carried away with a great story.
- Don’t worry about having access to wifi or bothering with an international data plan. If your hostel/hotel doesn’t have free wifi for whatever reason (almost all of them do), a local café certainly will. Like any millennial it was the first thing I checked, and I only saw one place that charged for access. People on laptops or FaceTiming was a very common sight.
- Get some antibiotics from a local pharmacy to have on hand for when you’re in more remote places or can’t get away from the toilet. Prescription is not necessary.