We left the monkeys in the trees and headed for “culture” and “big” city life; our next stop would be Leon, a two hour drive north of Managua. To get to Leon we had to change minivans in the town of Granada which is considered to be one of the most attractive colonial era Spanish cities in Latin America. However we are going to give this jewel the flick and instead head straight for Leon which is a city of about 200,000 also renowned for its style and with enough churches to put you to sleep if you tried to count them all.
Most of the Colonial towns we visited in Mexico and Cuba are laid out in a grid with a central down-town square and church. Within a few blocks of the centre and in all directions there are other squares, also with churches, and depending on the size of the town this pattern repeats itself the further out you go, these neighborhoods are called Barrios, each with its own square. So you’re never too far from a little leafy place to sit and a few shops plus a church and a tavern regardless of what part of town you stay in.
The minivan change-over meant we had less than an hour to get a quick look at Granada and find some lunch for the ride. The central square in Granada was indeed pretty with low colonial buildings painted in a rainbow of colours all with terracotta roofs, cafes with tables under arches or leafy pedestrian streets, but like Campeche in Mexico life in the center of Granada is geared mainly for tourists. It’s overrun with restaurants, souvenir shops, and ice cream parlors and has no everyday necessities like groceries, bakeries, bike repairers or the very essential pinata shops and my favorite ferreterias which are hardware outlets. This must be common across the world where over-nurturing and UNESCO listings etc can lead to a loss of identity, we don’t have the answer or even think we do so we are heading to Leon.
Our driver was a hoot!! his last job would have been with Extreme Sports, he was a master of no hands driving and dual phone conversations. I rode shot-gun (front passenger as on the old stage coaches) so managed to take this photo as he was in the midst of twin conversations whilst avoiding oncoming traffic, but we got to Leon on time.
We were dropped off at our very nice and super neat guest house which is one barrio away from the main square, we got settled in and went out for a walk to size up the joint.
Leon is clean, as most places in Nicaragua, the streets look nice and have that a lived-in feel, there are lots of nice places to eat, so we came back to our b&b happy with our choice of town. As with Cuba, there are holes in the sidewalk due to missing utility covers that are large enough to loose a foot in and cause bad injuries so being vigilant and calling out to each other has become part of walking around. The center is lovely, not as restored as Granada, it has a good vibe and is far more interesting when wandering around the shops and markets.
Leon by the markets and public transport in the back of a truck
Churches in the different Barrios. Volcanoes ever present in the background
There was a concert the following night just off the main square which was part of a Latin music festival so the next day after dinner we decided to check it out. All the singers were quite good but the lady from Mexico was a real diva and put on a show filled with spectacular and dramatic poses which led to some of the spectators getting the giggles. The closing performance was a large Cuban gentleman who got the crowd worked up with his strong voice and energetic rhythm which reminded us how much we missed that side of Cuba. Back at our b&b I played the Cuban music we bought whilst we were there and brought the day to a close with an attempt at salsa.
We have been in need of a good walk to test our legs given we haven’t done much running whilst on our travels so we looked at the options for a day’s hike. There’s literally a string of volcanoes in Nicaragua that run just past the outskirts of Leon so it’s a good starting point if a hike is what you are looking for. We picked a walk that would take us up one volcano “El Hoyo” followed by a 20km hike round the base of another to an extinct crater, now a lake, where we would cool off with a swim before heading home. On the way we would get a close up view of “Cerro Negro”, the newest addition to the volcanoes which is a black gravely mound used by many to volcano board (like sledging on gravel rather than snow). We gave boarding a miss as it’s only a one off 15 second thrill and not worth the effort. So the El Hoyo hike it was and along the way we would see Momotombo close-up, Lake Managua and a handful of other volcanoes.
Our guide would be Jennifer from Canada, occupation: world traveler. As part of her travels Jennifer became a hiking guide for a few months at “Sonati” a non profit organisation striving for environmental change in Nicaragua. We met up the evening before for a briefing, she was charming and petite, but did she have the stamina for this?, we would find out. Among the essentials for the climb were sturdy shoes ‘No’, we had none, long socks ‘No’, long pants ‘No’, food and sun-cream ‘Yes’, the rest we would have to improvise. Jennifer mentioned we would be the only two on the hike apart from her and we had a 7am start, yuuuuk. We decided pasta would be our fuel for the next day and headed for the nearest Italian.
En route the next morning we learned that it was her fourth hike this week and there was nothing holding her back other than us. We made conversation that made the painful bits of the climb seem easier, we brought lunch and Jennifer the snacks but she forgot the ice cream. We wore our light weight trainers and cut away the toes from an old pair of Malene’s socks to use as gaiters to protect our shins.
Nothing gets in the way of a good conversation, not even a million dollar view
Our path was strewn with boulders (aka volcano bombs) which we were told are regularly spat out by volcanoes but ours was dormant so that’s good news. That day we witnessed two eruptions, first it was Telica about two volcanoes back from where we started and then as we got to the top of El Hoyo, Momotombo next door put on a show.
The view from up high was amazing and so was El Hoyo, in Spanish El Hoyo means “The Hole” for obvious reasons.
A massive sink hole opened up on the side of the volcano at some point in history, so it’s not just the side walks that have holes in them – in Nicaragua they can get you anywhere.
Bad hair day fir Malene and The Hole
We made the hike up the volcano and on to the lake in record time according to our guide, the legs were ok but the quiet gave away our tiredness.
Enlarge the 3rd photo and The Hole is visible from a distance, in the centre
Next day we took it easy, explored the local markets and visited the main cathedral which is the largest in Latin America, there was a surprise in store for us when we made it to the roof. Finished off the day with a Pina Colada on a different roof top, a little bar overlooking the street which is great for people and crowd watching, it was Valentine’s day and the couples were out in numbers.
We chilled in Leon, visited an old house which is now a gallery, had lots of good food, learned a little more about how to get to Guatemala and bumped into people we had met previously but it was time to move again.
We decided to spend time at the nearby beach about 18 km from Leon. So bought a pineapple just in case they were hard to find (Malene and I share one each morning before breakfast), got on the local chicken bus and headed for Las Penitas and a new b&b.
The chicken bus and road by the beach. The Chicken bus: Converted US school bus with a crew of 3, one driver and 2 who are people packers and bag handlers, the three communicate using high pitched whistle calls and if I was 5 years old again they would be my heroes. They can move a huge suitcase through a packed bus with the grace of a Lemur and never drop the ball or miss an impromptu stop. The on-board music is cool (Men at work: In a land down under) and I bet they have names for their buses like ‘Galactic Cruiser, the Enterprise or other.
So happens pineapples are easy to find even here. Today we kayaked through mangroves against the wind in the hope of seeing exotic birds or the odd Cayman crocodile but no luck, no ‘Deliverance’ either, as we got back the sun was setting and the soft light on the nearby village and the beach made for some nice photos.
Our new place is right on the beach, sand in Nicaragua is dark grey to black as the volcanic sand mixes with beach sand, the sea is warm but without a reef the waves come rolling in so the surfers are about doing their stuff, by normal standards the beach is almost empty. We are killing a lot of time at our b&b as it has a nice pool and a few hammocks to swing in when we feel energetic.