León: The Real Nicaragua

A couple of days in San Juan Del Sur was enough. It was time to move on to another city. Looking back, it would have made more sense to visit Ometepe or Granada first. I dunno why I decided to head to León, which was farther up north.

One thing i didn’t like about traveling within Nicaragua? There are no direct bus routes between most towns. So unless you plan to take a long cab ride or hire private transport, you always have to go back to Managua. Even if i decided to go to Granada which was closer to San Juan del Sur than Managua, I still had to go back to Managua. The website below is remarkably accurate, even if you check months in advance (unless the weather is really crappy I guess). It helped me a lot when I was planning my route in Nicaragua.


So to get to León, I had to do the reverse route back to Managua first. I checked the schedule and there was a bus heading to Rivas at 1 PM. I found the bus parked on the street near the market, it wasn’t even in a bus station! There are also lots of colectivo taxis heading to Rivas waiting in the area where the bus was parked, so that’s also an option. At first they were asking for 80 córdobas per person, but it went down to 50 when we kept walking. I doubt if it could’ve gotten much lower than that since a chicken bus ride to Rivas costs 30. From Rivas, there are lots of buses to Managua. The express bus ride costs 60 cords. If you’re planning to go from San Juan del Sur to León like I did, better leave by 1 PM at the latest. Though there are buses that run until 7 PM, even the locals do not recommend traveling from town to town at night.You’re going to be making a lot of transfers, so take note of the time going from one place to another. Ideally you’d want to arrive in León while the sun is still up.

Once you’re back in Mercado Huembes in Managua, there are two options to get to León. (If you plan on heading to Granada, there’s no need to transfer to another bus station. Buses to Granada leave from Mercado Huembes). The cheapest option is to take another chicken bus. If you choose this option, you have to head over to the Mercado Israel Lewites. I’m not sure how much a bus from there costs, but I heard from someone it’s around 30 córdobas. The more popular option among locals and travelers alike is to take a microbus from the UCA terminal. UCA stands for Universidad Centro Americana, and locals pronounce it as oo-ka. The microbus only costs 51 córdobas, it’s more comfortable and faster too. And with only a difference of 21 córdobas, I recommend all travelers to just take this option.

The UCA terminal

No matter which option you take, if you’re planning on taking public transport you have to take the 110 bus to reach either destination from the Mercado Huembes market. Now I failed to do my research so I (along with a couple of other travelers) didn’t know that almost all buses traveling within Managua only take prepaid cards, they don’t accept cash. Kind of a bummer since a single bus ride only costs 2.50 córdobas. We tried to find out how to get one of those cards, but the whole process seemed cumbersome and it’s too much of a hassle if you won’t be spending much time in Managua. There was no other choice but to take a cab. None of us in the group looked like a local, so we were really standing out in the market. Every cab we hailed was asking for exorbitant amounts. Almost everyone was asking for at least 100 córdobas per person. It was getting late, so we agreed with one cab driver who only asked for 80 córdobas each. I hate how some countries charge different rates for locals and visitors. Not all visitors are rolling in cash back home you know.

So we did reach the UCA terminal before the 4 PM microbus left. It was actually past 4 PM but they do not leave until they are full. It was comfortable enough that i managed to get some sleep. As I’ve said it only costs 51 córdobas, though you have to pay a little more if you have huge bags. The trip to León takes about two hours, depending on the traffic. We reached the city at sunset. At the bus station, there are a lot of pedicabs waiting outside. It only costs 10 córdobas per person, or 20 if you don’t want to share the ride with anyone else.

Once you set foot in León, you’ll be overwhelmed by how raw it is. Some travelers do not like León, and I can understand why. León is dirty, somewhat chaotic, very crowded— it has no pretensions at all. But that’s the main reason why I like it. I loved how authentic it was. Set one day aside and just walk around town, sit down at the park and just watch the people around you. You’ll get a glimpse of the real Nicaragua. It’s amazing how different it is from San Juan del Sur and Granada, places that are as touristy as they can get. It seems that the town doesn’t care whether tourists visit or not, and it shows. The locals are as friendly as anywhere in the country, but you never get the sense that they are pandering you. Take time and visit some museums and you’ll discover that this city is loaded with history.

The main attraction in town is the León Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s right by the plaza. If you’ve been traveling in Central and South America, you might not be impressed. These old churches do seem to blur together when you’ve seen a lot of them. It’s still a must visit site though, and the architecture is admirable. it’s also the biggest cathedral in central America. A lot of tourists walk on the cathedral’s rooftop, but when I saw pictures taken by people who went up there, i decided to skip it. Once the sun sets there’s a flurry of activity at the sides of the cathedral as several vendors open stalls and sell food and drinks, both local and western delicacies. You can try some Gallo Pintos, grilled chicken, or if you miss western food there are cheap pizzas and very cheap big ass burgers being sold from a number of stalls. For picky eaters you might balk at the seeming disregard for proper sanitation and hygiene, but speaking from personal experience, I never got diarrhea on this trip despite eating from a lot of those stalls. I was also able to save  a lot of money thanks to those cheap eats heh.

From León you can take a day trip to the ruins of León Viejo (Old Leon), the country’s other UNESCO World Heritage site. it’s only about 30 minutes away. I wasn’t really interested in doing this since the ruins that i saw in pictures were kinda nondescript, but a couple of travelers I asked told me the entrance to the site was 2 USD. They weren’t impressed with what they saw, but it should be a must visit for people who are interested in the country’s history.

Lots of food stalls surrounding the Cathedral and the Central Plaza.

I chose to stay at Big Foot Hostel despite several travelers discouraging me. I do see their point. Big Foot is as gringo as you can get. They say that if you stay there, you’d practically be living in a backpacker’s bubble and you won’t get to experience the real León. That’s true— but only if you stay at the hostel the whole time and arrange all your activities and tours with them. i walked around a lot and interacted with locals which made me experience the real León. I chose to stay there mainly due to convenience. The location is perfect for sightseeing. They had air conditioned dorm rooms that were fairly priced (and believe me, you’d want a room with AC when you’re in León). They have shuttles to several destinations including Las Peñitas, they offered the tours that i wanted, and yeah because it’s a party hostel. I wanted it to be easy to meet people, and apparently if you want to party in León, Bigfoot is the place to be.

Big Foot is mainly known to be the pioneers of Volcano Boarding at Cerro Negro. Cerro Negro is an active cinder cone volcano, and for some reason someone got this bright idea that one can go boarding down its steep slope. I wanted to do that while I was in León, and it would make sense to book a tour with the pioneers. Sure you’d find cheaper volcano boarding options elsewhere (31 USD is quite pricey… and that doesn’t include the 5 USD entrance fee), but there’s something about doing it with the company that started it all that was really enticing to me. You do get a tank top, plus beer and cookies. if you managed to be the fastest guy or girl you also get free lava shots— such a horrible stomach churning concoction, I was actually glad i wasn’t the fastest one down the volcano. I’m not sure how it goes with the other tour companies, but with Bigfoot it was fun all throughout, thanks to the extremely energetic guides and the party music that they kept playing. It was a short, easy hike up, only about an hour or so. Then you slide down for less than a minute. It was a fun activity, and i highly recommend it for the few seconds of adrenaline rush. I imagine it’s not entirely safe, one of the guys i went with got bruised legs when he got wiped out. One could easily break a bone or two if you’re out of luck. But that’s what travel insurance is for, right? If you don’t want to risk it, a lot of hiking tours are offered in the area. Though the peaks aren’t that high, the views from above are indeed spectacular.

Another reason why i chose to stay at Big Foot in León? They have another hostel in Las Peñitas. You can hang out all day at this other hostel as long as you’re checked in at the hostel in León. The beach in Las Peñitas isn’t spectacular. The waves get crazy so it’s not good for swimming either. But after spending much time in Leon where it gets crazy hot and the surrounding chaos could get suffocating, a day at the beach feels like a breath of fresh air.  It’s only about 45 minutes away so a day trip is definitely doable. You can take a chicken bus to Las Peñitas for only 12 córdobas. Buses leave from the Sutiava Market, and one bus leaves every hour until sundown. Tell the bus driver where you want to go so that he can stop someplace nearby if it’s not along the bus route. Alternatively, you can take a cab. They charge 200-300 córdobas, depending on the time of day. This is a viable option if you’re going as a group. Now if you’re staying at Bigfoot and you have no plans of going to the beach early, you might as well wait for their own shuttle that leaves at 3 PM daily (actually it’s a huge truck, the same one they used to bring us to and from Cerro Negro) . It costs 50 córdobas for a round trip. On days when they have a beach party at the hostel in Las Peñitas, a round trip costs 100 córdobas. Girls get free rides either way. Go figure. The truck goes back to León at 7PM on ordinary nights. It goes back at 9PM when there’s a party. On the shuttle ride back, we were joined by a number of people who were not staying at Bigfoot. Apparently it’s not easy taking a bus or taking a cab from Las Peñitas back to León after sunset. So take note of that if you’re planning on taking a chicken bus back. If you can’t find your way back, there’s plenty of room in the Big Foot shuttle if it’s not a party night. Just be at the Bigfoot Hostel before 7PM. Speaking of the Bigfoot Hostel at Las Peñitas— man that place was awesome. It’s a really chill place, it has its own pool surrounded by hammocks, and the bar is right at the beach front. It had such a relaxing ambiance. If it wasn’t so far  from everywhere else, i would have chosen to stay there. I’d definitely recommend staying there if you have a day or two to spare.

León was a great stop in Nicaragua. You get to experience authentic Nicaraguan culture, and with its close proximity to the beach and the Cordillera de los Maribios Mountain Range (of which Cerro Negro is a part of), you get to experience Nicaragua’s natural wonders as well. For me, it’s THE must visit place along the country’s backpacking trail.




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