Nicaragua’s Pacific NORTHWEST is hot and dry, with grassy plains punctuated by dramatic volcanoes. The largest city in the northwest, and once the capital of Nicaragua, is León, the birthplace of the Sandinistas and a lively town with a dynamic tourist scene. The northwest’s sweeping coastline is just as appealing, with surf beaches and breezes that relieve the sometimes vicious heat. Chinandega offers no such relief, but is a convenient base near the Honduran border.
Worthwhile day-trip destinations from León include the Pacific beach of Las Peñitas, west of the city and easily accessible by bus, and more out-of-the-way UNESCO World Heritage Site of León Viejo.
Surfers come to Las Peñitas, 20km west of León, for reliable Pacific waves, although the village’s relaxed vibe is enjoyable whether you’re bound for board or hammock. The water here is fairly rough, due to a combination of powerful waves and riptides, but you can swim reasonably safely. Poneloya, 2km north, is a different story: ask locals about riptides (corrientes peligrosos) before venturing into the water, and never swim alone. Nearby Isla Juan Venado is a nature reserve and turtle-nesting site.
Founded in 1524, León Viejo (Mon–Fri 9am–5pm, Sat & Sun 9am–4pm; C$45), 32km east of the modern city and now designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the original site of León, before it was destroyed by an earthquake and volcanic eruption on December 31, 1609. Among the ruins excavated since the site’s discovery in 1967 are a cathedral, monastery and church; the graves of Nicaragua’s first three bishops and of the country’s founder, Francisco Fernández de Córdoba, were also uncovered. It’s a modest site, although a wander around the half-restored buildings and accompanying plaques gives you a good idea of just how bloody Nicaragua’s colonial history was. The surroundings are almost as fun: for much of the year the woods are rich with birds and butterflies, and the old fort, located just east of the main ruins, offers tremendous views of Lago de Managua and brooding Volcán Momotombo.
CHINANDEGA, 35km northwest of León, is primarily a working city. Set on a plain behind looming Volcán San Cristóbal, the area’s dry, kiln-like climate is ideal for growing cotton, the area’s main economic activity, along with Flor de Caña rum, Nicaragua’s export-grade tipple, produced in a distillery on the outskirts of town. Chinandega is generally visited on the way to the Honduran border and, with wildlife-rich volcanoes nearby and a decidedly untouristed vibe, it’s not a bad place to stop off. Most action centres on the Parque Central, which has an odd miniature fort at its centre, and Parroquia Santa Ana, a faded but peaceful church opposite its northern end.
The coast west of here is truly beautiful and unspoilt, with great surfing and kayaking.
The capital of Nicaragua until 1857, LEÓN, 90km northwest of Managua, is now a provincial city, albeit an energetic, architecturally arresting one. A significant element in the city’s healthy buzz is the presence of the National University (the country’s premier academic institution) and its large student population, swelled by the ranks of young people studying at León’s various other colleges. León’s colonial architecture is arguably as impressive as Granada’s; there’s also an impressive range of tours, an entertaining backpacker scene and the best art gallery in the country.
Yet for all its buzz, León has a violent history. The original León was founded by Hernández de Córdoba in 1524 at the foot of Volcán Momotombo, where its ruins – now known as León Viejo – still lie. The city was moved northwest to its present-day location after León Viejo’s destruction by an earthquake and volcanic eruption in 1609. In 1956, the first President Somoza was gunned down in León by the martyr-poet Rigoberto López Pérez. During the Revolution in the 1970s, the town’s streets were the scene of several decisive battles between the Sandinistas and Somoza’s forces, and many key figures in the Revolution either came from León or had their political start here. Although many years have passed since then, and most of the Sandinista graffiti has been painted over, the city continues to wear its FSLN heart on its sleeve: the street signs read “León: ciudad heroica – primera capital de la revolución”, and a few fine examples of the city’s famous murals remain.
León’s heart is the Parque Central, which is shadowed by the largest cathedral in Central America. Calle Central Rubén Darío runs along the Parque’s northern edge, cutting the city in two from east to west, while Avenida Central runs between the Parque and Cathedral north to south. Splendidly and unusually, León has street signs, though people will usually still give you directions in relation to a landmark.
The city’s most obvious attraction is its colossal Cathedral, a gorgeous, battered, cream-coloured structure whose volcano-blackened turrets tower over the heart of León. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the building was begun in 1747 and took more than a century to complete. You can climb up to the roof for stunning views across to the surrounding volcanoes. Inside, don’t miss the tomb of local hero Rubén Darío, Nicaragua’s most famous writer and poet, which is guarded by a statue of a mournful lion.
Sitting on Calle Central Rubén Darío, a little to the west of Parque Rubén Darío, is the Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián, an expansive art gallery in two renovated colonial houses. The collection features an engrossing cross section of Latin American art, including pre-Hispanic and modern ceramics and some impressive modern art.
The Galería Héroes y Mártires, a block north and half a block west of the Parque Central, houses wall after wall of simple, moving black-and-white photos of Nicaraguans (men and women, young and old) killed fighting for the Sandinista cause during the civil war.
Two blocks north and one block east of the Parque is one of Nicaragua’s finest colonial churches, La Recolección, with a beautiful Mexican Baroque facade dating from 1786, and some fine mahogany woodwork inside.
Three blocks south of the cathedral lie the ruins of La Veinte Uno, the National Guard’s 21st garrison and scene of heavy fighting in April 1979. The garrison now houses two very different museums, which together go by the long-winded title of Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones Coronel Joaquín de Arrechada Antigua Cárcel de La Veinte Uno. One half of the building houses a collection of ghoulish figures from Nicaraguan folklore, including a chariot-riding grim reaper and a giant crab, while the other focuses on the garrison’s ugly past, with a small collection of revealing black-and-white photos taken during and after the Somoza era. Captions in Spanish document the torture that went on inside.
The northeast corner of the Parque is home to the Mausoleo Héroes y Mártires, a star-shaped monument dedicated to those who died fighting for freedom during the civil war, surrounded by a large mural colourfully detailing Nicaragua’s history from pre-Columbian times to the ending of the civil war.
A few blocks west of the Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardián is the Museo Archivo Rubén Darío, housed in a substantial León residence that was the home of the poet’s aunt, Bernarda. Inside, the lovingly kept rooms and courtyard garden are home to wonderfully frank plaques detailing Darío’s tempestuous personal life and diplomatic and poetic careers, along with personal possessions and commemorative items, such as Rubén Darío lottery tickets.
Born in 1867 in a village outside Matagalpa, the writer Rubén Darío is one of Nicaragua’s most famous sons. Azul …, published in 1888, became particularly influential and is often cited as a cornerstone for the birth of Spanish-language modernism. Nearly a century after his death in 1916, he remains one of the region’s most influential poets.
On the western side of the park is one of the city’s Sandinista strongholds, the Museo de la Revolución de León. You’ll be shown around the airy, decaying building by an FSLN combat veteran, who’ll talk you through the extensive collection of photos, articles and news clippings documenting the Revolution, its historical antecedents and its aftermath. It’s an affecting tour, though you’ll need some Spanish to make sense of things. You may be allowed onto the roof, which has cracking views of León.
The Parque Central lies at the intersection of Calle Central Rubén Darío and Avenida Central. Centring on a statue of General Máximo Jeréz guarded by four lions, it’s visited by a constant stream of locals, street vendors and tourists. If you value your hearing, avoid the square at 7am and noon, when a ludicrously loud siren wails across the city – a throwback to the days when workers flocked in to León’s booming cotton factories.
Followers of Nicaragua’s second religion, poetry, might want to head for the Parque Rubén Darío, a block west of the Parque Central, which is home to a statue of the rather sombre-looking poet dressed in suit and bow tie.
Four kilometres west of the city centre is the barrio of Subtiava, which long predates León and is still home to much of the city’s indigenous population. It is also the site of one of the oldest churches in the country. Recently renovated, the small adobe building is not always open, but worth a visit if you’re catching a bus to or from the beach at Las Peñitas.
In November and December, be sure not to miss the posses of young boys hammering away at snare drums while a huge Gigantona (a papier-mâché, Rio Carnaval-style figure of an elegant colonial-era woman, directed from underneath by a teenager) weaves among them. Traditionally, the boys are given a few córdobas for a recital of poetry, typically that of national bard Rubén Darío. The gigantonas are judged during the festivities of La Purísima (a festival celebrating the Virgin Mary’s conception) on December 7, with the best winning a prize.
As you might expect from a backpacker-friendly city with volcanoes, beaches and mangroves within striking distance, León is packed with tour operators. The headline activity is volcano-boarding, in which you’ll truck off to the ash-covered slopes of Cerro Negro early in the morning, spend a good hour slogging up its alien, gas-belching curves and then skid down on a board that generally moves at a fairly gentle pace despite the fierce gradient, although some boards are faster – and damp days can be especially quick. Almost every operator offers it – Quetzaltrekkers give you two runs (most operators only offer one), Bigfoot are allegedly the fastest and Va Pues offer some proper (if battered) snowboards.
Trips from León can also take in the wet ride through the canyon at Somoto, near the Honduran border, treks up the San Cristóbal and El Hoyo volcanoes, the ruins of León Viejo and more; and Spanish lessons can be arranged. Rates for excursions are a fairly standard US$30 per day, and are given on companies’ websites, though you may be able to haggle, especially with a larger group. The companies mentioned here are all established and reliable.
Bigfoot Tours8917 8832, bigfootnicaragua.com. Fun firm mostly focusing on volcano-boarding and surf trips to Isla Los Brasile, though other trips can be arranged.
Green Pathways 2315 0964, greenpathways.com. Country-wide adventures, including turtle-watching and volcano-scaling.
Quetzaltrekkers2311 6695, quetzaltrekkers.com. Friendly, reliable bunch offering volcano treks around the country, including a full-moon lava hike up Volcán Telica. All profits go towards supporting street children in León. Food and drink is included in tour prices.
Sonati 2311 4251, sonati.info. Relatively inexpensive non-profit-making company, operating from the hostel of the same name, whose volcano trips are supplemented by visits to the swamps of Isla Juan Verano and various birdwatching trips.
Va Pues 2315 4099, vapues.com. This moderately upmarket operator has country-wide tours, trips to local fincas and – of course – volcano-boarding.