Leon – Nicaragua

I was roused awake by the arctic temperatures of my room and drowsily checked my phone clock – 5.30a.m. In reality since this was 12.30p.m. back home I knew there was little chance of getting anymore sleep and so grudgingly got up and fixed the A/C to a manageable temperature before watching the sunrise over Managua.

Managua is one of the most ‘un-city-like’ Capital cities I have ever visited. All of the buildings are maximum two stories tall. It reminds me a lot of rural streets in Africa or Asia all tumbled together to make up the Capital. I had arrived the night before after an epic 23 hours of travelling and managed an impressive 11 hours sleep courtesy of the lovely Hotel Hex. It was super near to the airport and they offer free transfers to hotel so a perfect option to get some rest before the start of our trip.

I was meeting my best travel friend Carolyn for this trip, and since the last time we had seen each other was over a year ago in Cape Town I was VERY excited to catch up on her year. She came down to pick me up for breakfast and over a free buffet of rice and beans, fried plantains, re-fried beans, eggs and juice we caught up on a year’s worth of  gossip.

After packing up we then headed back to the airport to pick up our car for the next 7 days. It took us a while to navigate the airport and fill-out the paperwork and I also managed to pick up a local sim for data! The cars were kept in a parking lot a short drive from the terminal building and so we jumped in the transfer bus and drove to meet our new wheels. After the necessary car check where we pointed out every scratch and bump (there were not too many but it’s always better to over-exaggerate these things) we were off.

The plan was to drive from the Capital Managua up to the colonial city of Leon about an hour and forty-five minutes north. The driving took us some getting used to, with the obligatory car honking, switching lanes at a moment’s notice, and sharing the old beat up roads with horse and carts as well as huge trucks, we soon got the hang of it and were able to relax and enjoy the fantastic scenery en-route. Thank god for the sim card purchase, google maps was a lifesaver!

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On our arrival into Leon we managed to navigate the one-way streets to finally find our hotel just next to the main square and cathedral. On choosing hotels for the trip private parking had been very important to us, we didn’t want our car to be damaged or stolen. Thus, we were more than a little surprised to find out that despite as advertised, Hotel Azul did not have private parking. Luckily we managed to find a spot right next to the entranceway and so parked up and check-in while being treated to some lovely ice-water. The hotel was beautiful but we had come to see the famous architecture of Leon, so after dumping our bags we headed out to explore.

It was after lunchtime and so we decided to head up to the San Juan Market as we had heard there was some great cheap food in the area. We passed the beautiful San Juan church and park en-route but when we arrived realised this was perhaps a great place to buy fresh local ingredients for cooking rather than lunch food. It was an interesting experience walking through the bustling streets between vendors selling vegetables, clothes, shoes, and pirated films to name but a few. With our tummies rumbling we decided to head back into the main square area to find food.

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On the way we passed the gorgeous La Recoleccion Church which is really famous landmark (the one used on all of the tourist pamphlets to advertise the city). In comparison to the previous church this was much more beautiful with a colourful yellow façade and pretty carvings. After passing by we arrived at the main square and decided to check out El Sesteo for lunch. It was a tad pricey for Nicaraguan standards due to its location but it had a pretty view across the main Central Park so we sat down to enjoy some very yummy iced tea and a Leonese special board. It consisted of fried chicken skewers, fried cheese and plantain crisps, hard cheese with starchy cube, sausage and caramelised plantain, stewed spiced chicken with potato and a quesadilla with beans. It was absolutely superb to try out some of the local delicacies and with full bellies we continued to wander the city.

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Our next stop was the Cathedral. As the largest cathedral in Central America our expectations were high and it was a bit disappointing to see it covered in scaffolding. Undeterred we bought tickets to the roof and wandered around inside. Although huge, the architecture inside the building was very plain with a few pretty engraved panels. We made our way to the side entrance to check out the roof and climbed the narrow staircases to emerge onto the bright white domed roof. After removing our shoes we were allowed out on to the roof to explore and had some phenomenal views of Leon surrounded by volcano after volcano. It was truly a breath-taking sight and definitely the highlight of the day for us.

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After we finally left the beauty of the rooftop oasis we checked out the pretty nearby theatre before heading to the last must-see church on our list – El Calvario. Again, quite like the second church we visited it was beautifully colourful but although the front was very impressive when we went to walk around we realised the beauty stopped there and the rest of the building was quite average to look at. We sat on the steps taking in the sanctuary of the area before heading back through the hustle and bustle to our hotel.

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It was great to enter our cool room after the heat of the afternoon spent walking the city. We took a few hours to shower and recuperate before dinner. After picking up some water from the local Supermarket we made our way to Meson Real – which was described as a pretty tapas restaurant. What we actually ended up at was Mediterraneo Terraza – a very romantic Mediterranean restaurant. The plus side – they had some lovely Chilean (clearly not strict about the Mediterranean theme) Cabernet. We both had steaks which were great and came with salad, chips and rice as well as a lovely pepper sauce.

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Leon was particularly beautiful at night and as we made our way back to the hotel the bars were just getting started. Jetlagged and with an early start in the morning we rainchecked the partying for another night in another city. Tomorrow – Granada!

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