There are two places that one can’t miss when visiting Nicaragua: Granada and León. One is picture perfect pretty, and the biggest tourist destination in the country. The other is the revolution capital, a lively student town perhaps a bit more run down, but nevertheless fascinating.
Nicaraguans like taking sides and express their preference for either one or the other in a passionate and engaging way, to the point that visitors end up doing the same. I have been to each three times, and enjoyed both, for different reasons. Of course, I have my preference, but before I cast my vote, I will highlight the things to do and places to visit in each.
The first stop for most of those that visit Nicaragua, Granada is simply elegant and photogenic, and has a lot to offer whether in the city itself or in its surroundings. It has that colourful charme that reminds many of some of the most beautiful cities in Cuba, such as Trinidad or Cienfuegos. Cobblestone little alleys, plenty of churches such as the beautiful cathedral and the Iglesia de la Merced, from whose tower there is a beautiful 360 degrees view; lovely squares such as the Parque Central; interesting museums like the Museo San Francesco; and beautiful buildings: Granada is set on Lake Nicaragua and surrounded by volcanoes, among which Mombacho and Masaya. Even in the hottest days it enjoys refreshing breeze.
Photo by Georg Kenyon
A visit to Las Isletas on a boat tour is a great way to discover the incredible wildlife of Nicaragua. The 365 tiny tropical islands house some fantastic villas of Nicaragua wealthiest families, but they are also home to various species of monkeys (capuchin and spider monkeys among them) and birds, such as the kingfisher and the weaving bird. A good captain or guide will be able to point them out, but bringing a pair of binoculars will increase the fun. Taking the tour that leaves from Granada at 3:45 pm is better for a variety of reasons: most animals come out to enjoy the air that is finally cooling down, and on the way back you can enjoy an incredible sunset view of the lake and the volcanoes surrounding Granada. Top tip: carry a cooler and a drink to enjoy a perfect sunset cocktail!
Photo by Georg Kenyon
Granada is the perfect starting point to visit other places in Nicaragua. Masaya, which has a lovely market of traditional crafts, is definitely worth a look, and a guided tour of the nearby Fortaleza de Coyotepe, currently run by boyscouts, where many political prisoners were held during the revolution, is a great way to learn about the history of this incredible country. Not far from Masaya, Parque Nacional Volcano Masaya offers access to a spectacular active volcano, up to the Santiago crater.
Photo by Georg Kenyon
The intellectual capital of Nicaragua, León is surrounded by smokey volcanoes and close to some of Nicaragua most amazing beaches, such as Las Peñitas and Poneloya.
It is a very hot city, not only for the heat that constantly characterises it, but also for being very political, buzzing with university students, and simply gorgeous in a decadent way, which in this case reminds me more of Havana! This is the most lively city of Nicaragua, where day and night you will always find locals running about. The Parque Central is surrounded by places of interest, such as the beautiful cathedral from which roof there is an incredible view of the volcanoes.
A proper visit of León is never complete without a guided tour of the Museo de la Revolución, on the opposite side to the Cathedral right on the Parque Central. It is run by former participants to the revolution who will proudly show their scars and give visitors a guided tour (generally only in Spanish), through which they can get an insiders’ view of Nicaragua history and people. The seemingly tacky Museo de Leyendas and Tradiciones is actually very entertaining: housed in La XXI (a former prison), it offers a collection of the main legends and stories of Nicaragua.
The Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Guardión is hosted in an incredibly beautiful colonial building with perfectly kept gardens, and has a great collection of some of Nicaragua best artists as well as internationally acclaimed ones such as Picasso, Diego Rivera and Botero.
Not far from León, there are several volcanoes. Cerro Negro can be hiked and, even better, surfed, if you are up for being covered in the dark volcanic dust! The view from up there is spectacular, especially at sunset. The nearby beaches of Poneloya and Las Peñiitas are perfect to walk, relax, take a dip in the ocean, surf and enjoy an incredible sunset on the Pacific.
Whether one likes Granada or León better, it is all a matter of personal taste. I certainly like Granada, but I couldn’t help falling in love León. It may be that it is so lively, that there are so many things to do, that it is close to the ocean and that I have met some incredible people there that really made me feel welcome. Part of it, however, is that it is not as perfect looking as Granada, yet more real and, in a way, human. Just what I love.
Have you ever been to Nicaragua? Which city do you prefer?
Claudia is from Cagliari (Sardinia) and is obsessed with travelling. A former human rights lawyer and academic, after devoting her life to the protection of cultural identity, in November 2013 Claudia decided to give in to her biggest passion and started travelling around Latin America, and she has hardly stopped since. Blogging came as a natural consequence, for Claudia wanted to let her family and friends be updated with her adventures.
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