Day 70: Leon, Nicaragua
Everyone wants to know what cities to visit in Nicaragua. I wanted to know as well so I asked around. The worst advice I have ever received was that I should go to Granada or Leon, but not both. That makes them sound alike but in reality they are as similar as Los Angeles and New York or Toronto and Vancouver.
Perhaps there is a comparison because of Nicaragua’s history. For years the two cities waged brutal battles over which city would be capital. Finally, to keep the peace, Managua was named capital because of its geographic midpoint. I think both cities benefited from this as neither have become as dangerous as taxi-thieving-ridden Managua.
Without knowing anything about either city I went to Granada first and considered heeding the bad advice until an art student told me Leon was nothing like Granada and it sported the best art museum she had been to in Central America. The next morning when I stepped off the bus in Leon I was shocked at how different it really was.
Granada is like the pretty blond girl in high school. She’s attractive, dresses well and people seem to like her but once you get to know her you realize she has nothing to say; she’s just a vessel of beauty. Granada truly is beautiful; with a fresh coat of paint, you’d never know it’s the oldest colonial city in the entire Western hemisphere.
People often compare it to Antigua and I can see the resemblance, particularly on Granada’s mango tree street with English menus featuring pizza, pasta and 2-for-1 mojitos, which are apparently the drink du jour.
Like the pretty girl who knows all the right people, Granada is associated with its neighboring surroundings of Laguna de Apoyo and Ometepe. A lake in a volcano crater? What more could you want?
I stayed in the Hostel de la Libertine and enjoyed great Internet, drinkable tap water and airy dorms. But outside this haven I was bored, aimlessly wandering the street for something interesting but kept running into the Disney version of Nicaragua. I wanted more.
Leon is the pretty girl’s best friend. The buildings are in a bit of decay, the sidewalks have lots of upturned stones and there is graffiti all over the place. No one would say it is the cleanest or prettiest city. But as many soon realize, the pretty girl’s best friend is more interesting and you may spend all night talking to her when you realize the pretty girl is dead boring. After a while the best friend starts to look a lot better and you wonder why you didn’t see her beauty in the first place.
Leon has a bit of an edge – in a good way. A university town, the revolution started with an uprising its citizens, which inspired the Sandinistas to leave the mountains and carry it into the rest of the nation. A liberal city that celebrates its history, murals and statues are prominent, including one of a Sandinista guerrilla holding a handmade bomb outside a museum that was once a political prison. T-shirts of Che aren’t the mark of a tourist trap but the sentiment that real people can create change, just as they did decades ago.
I’ve decided to stay in Leon to take Spanish classes and learn more about Nicaragua, and particularly Leon. Stepping outside my comfort zone, I’ve arranged with the school to stay with a family. They do not speak English and neither do most people in the city so this will push me to really connect with people in their language.
Wish me luck!