After a very long day of travel from London, via Miami & Managua, we arrived in Leon on my birthday, and I was determined to celebrate that (and the fact the I’d survived my first four months back at work without being fired for daydreaming).
On arrival in the city, we booked ourselves onto a volcano hike for a couple of days later, and headed out for a few drinks. As luck would have it, we soon ran into the couple we’d be hiking with in a local bar, and they insisted we join them down the road at a great local club they’d been to the night before. With Leon being a big student town, I was imagining it’d be full of students dancing to ear-splitting reggaeton but instead I was delighted to see it was a salsa club full of locals of all ages including a few families. The four of us took up position round a table at the edge of the dancefloor to watch the dancing and listen to the band.
It soon became clear that wouldn’t be acceptable to the locals, who insisted the gringos join them on the dancefloor. Despite protesting we had two left feet, they weren’t taking no for answer, and soon we were out there having a marvellous time making fools of ourselves with our attempts to salsa.
It was a very welcome reminder of why I’d so fallen in love with Latin America during the seven months I was there last year – the love of music and dancing everywhere you go really appeals to me, especially married to the fact that the locals are always so keen to get to know and have fun with visitors – and was instantly at home in the country.
I couldn’t have wanted a better place to start my visit to Nicaragua. Leon is a beautiful colonial city in a similar vein to Antigua in Guatemala or San Cristobal in Mexico – but with one big difference: it has nowhere near as many tourists. This means it’s a little more rough around the edges – the buildings aren’t always quite as well-preserved, for example (although that’s just an appearance thing – I never for once felt unsafe, even at night) but other than that it’s just as beautiful, with a lovely historic centre, and you get loads of fascinating sights all to yourself – like the roof of the cathedral, with gives fantastic views to the chain of volcanoes in the distance.
The other revelation from the roof of the cathedral is quite how green the city is – this is because the heart of the old city has the usual colonial grid pattern, and almost all of the houses are in the traditional style built around courtyards that are full of trees. For me, this is the secret to much of the city’s charms – Leon is full of hotels, hostels, bars and restaurants built around these well-preserved courtyards, which make a wonderful place to chill out during the midday heat.
Leon had one more delightful surprise for us once night fell. We’d already learnt about the richness of Nicaraguan folklore at the wonderful and slightly bizarre Museum of myths & legends, and later the same evening while we were having dinner, we heard the sound of drumming out in the street and wandered out to see one of the most popular folklore stories brought to life on the streets of the city. Like much of the country’s richest folklore, this dance comes from the clash of two cultures – and features La Gigantona (the giant lady, representing the tall Spanish women) and El Enano Cabezon (the big-headed dwarf, representing the indigenous men). At this time of year, local kids parade around the streets in these huge paper-mache costumes accompanied by a drummer, dancing round the streets and going from bar to bar – sadly we were a week or two early to be there for the annual event in the main square where all the different groups of children compete to be crowned champion, it must be quite an impressive sight.
After just a few days there, Leon quickly became one of my favourite colonial cities in Latin America, it’s such a fantastically laid back kind of place, and was the perfect place to unwind from work at the start of the holiday – and to get some rest before our next challenge: tackling the local volcanoes.
You can see all of my photos of Leon here.