16 FUN Things to do in Leon, Nicaragua – Volcano Boarding & SO MUCH MORE
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There’s more to Leon, Nicaragua than what meets the eye – and a ton of fun activities to offer travelers. In this blog, we outline 16 fun things to do in Leon so that you can have the best time possible in this vibrant city!
We planned our trip to Leon, Nicaragua to do the one thing every backpacker goes for – the volcano boarding! Sandboarding down the active Cerro Negro volcano is advertised as an adrenaline-filled activity that can only be done in Leon. It sounded like another adventure, so we jumped on a chicken bus from Granada to experience some of the thrills for ourselves!
Little did we know, Leon was actually a pleasant city that grew on us after a day or two, and on day seven we were sad to be leaving.
In the short time we spent in Leon we discovered that there is so much more to do in Leon than just the volcano boarding in which the city is famous for. We discovered unique cafes, fun day trips, and amazing architecture.
That’s right, there are actually a ton of fun and interesting things to do in Leon, Nicaragua – and in this blog, we’re going to tell you about all of them including important info to know before you go!
About Leon, Nicaragua
Leon is a culturally rich and vibrant colonial city in Nicaragua that is home to museums, university students, churches, restaurants, and cafes. Leon is surrounded by volcanoes and the coastal beaches of the Pacific are not far.
It is here you can experience the best of both worlds; a rich city filled cultural history and nightlife paired by raw adventure and natural attractions waiting at your doorstep.
Arriving in Leon, Nicaragua I was bombarded by a group of peddling bike style tuk-tuks all offering their services and speaking their best broken English. I wasn’t surprised, I mean, there has not been one bus station (if you can call a slab of concrete in the middle of what feels like a market a “bus station”) that has felt remotely organized or peaceful.
I didn’t expect Leon to be any different. So with sweltering heat combined with the offer of a $1 USD each ride to our hostel we jumped in and were off.
Surprisingly, as soon as we exited the bus station, the city was relatively calm for it being a weekday around noon. There were some stalls and shops lining the streets and a few people riding around on bicycles, but next to no foot traffic and no cars. The streets felt somewhat empty in comparison to the chaos that was Granada. In those moments, riding around in the tuk-tuk, I felt that Leon may be a place we could stay awhile.
How to Get to Leon, Nicaragua
Most people visit Leon, Nicaragua from either El Tunco in El Salvador or from another destination in Nicaragua.
From El Salvador
A shuttle is the easiest option to Leon from El Salvador. We did this is the reverse direction riding a shuttle bus (minivan style) directly from Leon, Nicaragua to El Salvador.
I must warn you, it’s a long journey but it’s much shorter than taking chicken buses which involve many bus transfers and an overnight stay in El Salvador. Chicken buses will cost you a few dollars in total, where you can expect to pay $35 USD for a reliable shuttle.
The other option is to take the comfortable Tica Bus (coach-style bus company) from San Salvador to Managua. Times are available on their website. Once in Managua, you would need to get the chicken bus which leaves every 30 minutes, takes 1.5 hours and costs $2 USD.
From Granada or Elsewhere in Nicaragua
By chicken bus, you need to get yourself to Managua from either Granada or anywhere else you happen to be within Nicaragua. From there, you change buses to go directly to Leon. This journey from Granada is fairly straight forward should take about 3 hours and cost around $3 USD.
Alternatively, you can arrange a private transfer or shuttle to Leon.
16 Fun Things to do in Leon, Nicaragua
1. Cerro Negro Volcano Boarding
Okay, so I know that I said I will tell you about other things to do in Leon, Nicaragua besides the volcano boarding. Well, those activities are coming next.
The truth is that you really need to do the volcano boarding trip from Leon. It’s really that fun! No matter if you’re a thrill-seeker or not, this is a fun activity where you can actually control your own speed as you slide down the side of a volcano on a sandboard.
To do this activity, you’re going to need to book a tour from Leon. It is typically done on a half-day tour where you’ll drive about for about 30-minutes before reaching the base of Cerro Nego (the volcano you’ll be sliding down!)
From the base, you’ll need to hike to the top of the 2,382-foot (726-meter) high Cerro Negro. In all honesty, it isn’t a difficult hike by any means and we took plenty of breaks for photos. Our group completed the trail in about an hour and although it was very hot (bring water), it was well worth it!
At the top, I looked over the edge where we would be sandboarding down, and was terrified! It looked way steeper than it did from the bottom and it didn’t help that we had to listen to all of the safety advice from our guide, “don’t do this, or you could break this.”
After gearing up, I conquered my fear and went for it. It wasn’t scary at all, really fun actually! I had complete control over my speed (your guide will teach you how to do this) and when it was over I wished I could go again – faster!
Overall, it was a great day. If you only have time for one thing in Leon, this should be it! You can book your Cerro Negro volcano boarding tour online in advance to secure a highly-rated tour at a good price!
2. Go on Top of the Basilica Cathedral
I was expecting this to be the same as every church tower we have climbed before, but to my surprise, the lookout at the bell tower was not the main attraction. You can also walk around on the roof of the cathedral and witness its architecture from this unique angle!
From the different sides of the roof, there were more views of the city. I haven’t been to a cathedral yet that lets people run around on the roof – it is definitely the most unique of the things to do in Leon, Nicaragua. Just don’t break their strict rules or you will be up for a $20 USD fine.
The times you can visit the Cathedral are very limited and you must buy a ticket first and then wait to be let in at a certain time slot.
The stairs up/down to the roof are very narrow so they let everyone up altogether after the other group has come down. You are given about 20 minutes on the top, which is enough time. The cost is $3 USD. The Cathedral is closed on Sundays to visitors.
You’ll find the Basilica Cathedral’s location right in the central area of Leon, walking distance from most hotels and hostels.
3. Enjoy a Smoothie Bowl at Batidos Pitaya
Located in the scenic and beautiful Plaza Central, Batidos Pitaya is Leon’s leading smoothie bar and health cafe. The cafe provides a great option for the health-conscious traveler seeking a delicious meal. Or, it’s simply just a great place for anyone looking to cool off on a hot day by enjoying a delicious blend of tropical frozen fruits.
Their smoothies are all either served in a mason style-glass jar complete with reusable straw or in a bowl paired with granola and other fruit toppings.
Their crowd favorite is definitely the “Dragon Bowl” made with local pink pitaya (also known as dragonfruit) which gives the bowl its picture-perfect bright fuchsia hue.
The cafe’s exterior street wall is painted with a pastel pink mural complete with living cacti which serves as the perfect backdrop to take memorable Instagram selfies and appetizing food photos. The cafe also has a curated selection of local artisan products such as Nini’s nut butters, Eco-Vida jamaica chia jam, select trail mix, and more. It’s definitely a place worth checking out while you’re in Leon!
4. Join the Flor de Caña Rum Tour
You simply can’t visit Nicaragua without sampling some of the locally produced (and world-famous) rum! And the best part is that one of the best rum tours departs right from Leon.
Nicaragua is known for its world-class rum for good reason. This rum is sustainably produced, carbon-neutral, and fair trade certified. It contains no artificial ingredients, is distilled with 100% renewable energy, and is naturally aged without the use of sugar at the base of a volcano no less!
The Flor de Caña factory is located in Chicigalpa, a small town located after Leon and just before Chinandega. Here you can learn all about how rum is made and sample some along the way.
The Flor de Caña rum factory tour is so much fun, and one of those must-do activities in Leon. It is a leaning experience with drinking – what more could you ask for?!
You can either hire a taxi and join a tour once you arrive at the factory, or you can simply book their tour online in advance that includes transport to and from Leon.
Tip: If you’d like to purchase rum, this is your place to stock up. The factory offers the most valued prices and you will not regret splurging for the 25-year rum.
5. Release Baby Turtles into the Sea
This one of the most unique things to do in Leon – one of those experiences so many travelers regrettably miss! From an off-the-grid lodge located on a private island, you’ll have the opportunity to watch baby turtles start their lives in the ocean as part of a conservation project.
Surfing Turtle Lodge is located on the Pacific Ocean about a half-hour outside of Leon. You’ll need to get yourself to Poneloya Beach by either local transport (local bus, shuttle bus, taxi) or rent a vehicle. Make your way to Chepe’s Bar where you cross a river by panga boat to reach the lodge!
The beach is home to three different turtles; the olive ridley, leatherback, and hawksbill turtle. The hatchery is fully funded by the lodge and sustained by guests through donations alone.
Primetime to witness the release of the baby sea turtles is from the months of September through February which is the peak nesting and hatching season. Imagine being able to save 12 endangered eggs by donating only $4 and witness the life-changing event of baby turtles hatching and making their way to the sea! It’s an incredible experience and one I highly recommend.
You can either visit Surfing Turtle Lodge on a day trip from Leon or spend a night or two. I recommend staying at least one night to really enjoy the remote area and have the best chance at seeing lots of turtles! You can book Surfing Turtle Lodge on either Booking.com or Hostelworld – they are often fully booked so be sure to secure your room well in advance!
6. Shop the Best Local Produce at Mercado Central
Newly renovated Mercado Central is located across the street from the Cathedral and it may just be the most well designed local market in all of Nicaragua! The market is complete with organized outdoor parking and an undercover, but well-ventilated, area with high ceilings which creates a comfortable space to shop for local produce.
All of the fruits and vegetables are found in the first area upon entering the market but you will need to venture deeper in search of other items.
Nicaragua is known for its world-class cashews which can be found with a local woman who sits at the entrance to the market surrounded by refreshing coconut water. The exterior of the market really comes to life during the holidays and is set up with local vendors who sell colorful homemade sweets and treats like trocánter dulce, purisimas, and caramelos in the Christmas season.
The market is open daily from about 5 am to 6 pm and is free to visit. Do bring some cash with you though as I guarantee you’ll want to buy something! It is a great place to visit in Leon and well worth spending a few hours.
We did this awesome food tour in Leon through Mercado Central. With a guide, we tried so many sweets and foods that we wouldn’t have otherwise!
7. Hike Volcano Telica at Sunset
After Cerro Negro volcano boarding, this hike is often referred to as the next most popular thing to do in Leon – it’s a definite natural attraction you don’t want to miss! I mean, it’s not every day that you have the option to take a scenic hike up an active volcano and peer into its open crater to witness the lava below!
Well, if you hike Telica Volcano you can do just that!
The hike takes about 45 minutes to the top. Time it right and you can witness the setting sun at the top of the volcano. Once the sun sets you may be lucky enough to witness the lava in the crater below.
Most people hike Telica with a guide on an organized tour. This way, you don’t have to organize transport or try and time the sunset exactly right.
8. Eat at Nicaragua’s First Vegan Restaurant
Coco Calala is Leon’s, and Nicaragua’s, first fully plant-focused restaurant. If you have an aversion to refined sugars or gluten, you are a practicing vegetarian or vegan, or you just enjoy guilt-free delicious whole food cuisine, look no further!
The restaurant is nestled in a beautiful and spacious tropical garden oasis setting perfect to escape the bustling streets and heat of Leon and rest your tired feet for a while. Make a day of it and bring along a swimsuit and spend some time taking in the sun with a beverage in hand.
That’s right, the restaurant has a pool that you can use in between healthy meals or drinks!
Another option is to spend an evening dining under the stars and among the tropical foliage.
The menu includes everything from smoothies, fresh juices, cold-brew coffee, kombucha, exciting salads, plant burgers, pasta, tacos, various desserts (try the cheesecake or brownie) and assorted homemade vegan bread available for take-away. A plant-based lover’s tropical paradise and an overall unique activity right in the heart of Leon!
You can actually stay in the colonial house attached to Coco Calala by booking one of their rooms on Airbnb. The hosts are lovely, and they are the restaurant owners too!
9. Join a FREE City Walking Tour
Free walking tours are one of the best ways to touch up on a city’s history and culture. The free walking tour in Leon is no different and was one of my favorite things I did in Leon.
Free Walking Tours in Leon start at 9 am, 4 pm, and 5:30 pm daily and cost as much as your willing to tip. We tipped $10 USD, however, most people only tipped $5 USD. Tip what you can and what you think the tour is worth.
The tours meet at the Northwest corner of the Cathedral, however, you can check this map on their website for the exact location.
The only downside to free walking tours is that they attract large groups. If you want a more personal tour, you can book a paid private city tour!
10. Enjoy AMAZING Coffee, Croissants, and More at Pan y Paz Panderia & Cafe
Pan y Paz is the home of Leon’s traditional French bakery and there are two locations available to choose from in the colonial city.
For those who would like to grab a quick bite or coffee to go, a smaller location next to Batidos Pitaya along the Plaza Central is ideal. The second location is appropriate for lengthier cafe sit-downs as the space is complete with a spacious open-air courtyard which exudes the buttery aroma of freshly baked goods wafting through the air.
All of this makes for the perfect setting to enjoy pan, charcuterie, postre, or vino – the perfect place to indulge on your holidays!
Pan y Paz features Nicaragua’s finest Twin Engine Coffee and the cafe always has delicious fresh fruit juice of the day. They also offer a selection of local products and handmade goods available for purchase including natural tobacco and a selection of quality wine and artisan beer to choose from.
It’s a place that locals and expats love, and one that tourists should visit while in Leon too!
11. Learn About Traditional Weaving at the Artesania de Leon
The family produces one-of-a-kind woven textiles (think blankets, throws, and other accessories) in their home environment using manual hand-crafted wooden looms that promise unique designs every time. You’re invited to watch the family weave their magic right in front of your eyes or try your hand at weaving with the help of a seasoned professional!
Made in a sustainable way, these products are not only beautiful but made of the highest quality 100% cotton and wool yarn. Call a few days ahead or visit the space to request a custom piece.
From your central hotel in Leon, you can take a local taxi for just 30 cordobas one way to transport all of your new handwoven goods easily! Although not necessarily on the tourist trail, Artesania de Leon is one of the most interesting (and unique) things to do in Leon!
12. Visit a Couple of Museums
Wanting to escape the heat, noise, or maybe spend some time indoors during a rainy day? Well, lucky for you there a few different museums to choose from in Leon, Nicaragua.
Although there are quite a few to choose from, for the purpose of this blog I’ve selected my two personal favorites that I think are worthy of a visit while you’re in Leon.
The first, Ortiz-Guardián Foundation Art Museum (Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián) is an architecturally stunning colonial mansion complete with multiple curated rooms, natural lighting, and a spacious and airy indoor courtyard.
The museum has a vast selection of art and with only a $3 USD entrance fee. Your money is well spent and allows for hours of wandering, gazing, and pondering the diverse collection of Warhol, Picasso, an array of Central American pieces and other European artists. It is open from 10 am to 5 pm every day except for Mondays, when it is closed all day.
The second museum is the most popular museum among visitors in Leon, Museo de la Revolucion (Museum of the Revolution.) This museum displays photos, books, and memorabilia from the revolution and tells the story of the hardships of the revolutionaries.
The Museo de la Revolucion is open daily from 8 am to 5 pm and costs $3 USD to enter. The entrance fee includes a guide and the tour takes about an hour.
13. Cool Down With an Ice Cold Beer
The cheapest beers we found in Nicaragua were in Leon, 50 Cordobas for a liter of bottled beer (less than $2!) Yes, we consider drinking beer one of the best things to do in Leon, Nicaragua. Being on a backpacker budget means we must choose our drinking binges carefully and the price in Leon made it an easy decision.
However, every now and then we do like to splurge and in Leon, we found some great craft beer that was well worth the extra few bucks. Beers & Pallets is Nicaragua’s first “Beer Shop & Tap Room” which showcases the Cerro Negro Brewing Company.
In only the last few years artisanal beers have begun to make their appearance in Nicaragua and this fact could not be more exciting if you love craft beer as much as we do!
Cerro Negro Brewing Company is paving the way for the production of artisan beers and the importance of supporting and consuming locally made products in the country. Cerro Negro celebrates Nicaragua by naming the beverages after volcanos, beaches, and other select locations in the country.
When you visit Beers & Pallets in Leon, be sure to try the beer called Cerro Negro, a coffee cacao stout (two ingredients that are celebrated and grown in the country); or Poneloya, a beer made with local passion fruit.
You can find Beers & Pallets’ location on Google maps.
14. Visit the Beach at Las Peñitas
The city of Leon isn’t actually on the coast – but it isn’t far either! Las Peñitas is a coastal beach town which is a straight shot from Leon on a paved highway and easily visited as a day trip. It is about a 30-minute drive and you can reach it with a local bus or hire a taxi!
Once at Las Peñitas you can lounge by the beach, take a surf lesson, visit one of the cute cafes or restaurants, or have the special experience of visiting La Casa Verde Nicaragua.
La Casa Verde is changing the way their community views trash and with a strong emphasis, particularly on plastics. Casa Verde addresses the importance of environmental responsibility through building creative products and projects and educational trips and community programs.
Upcycling, recycling, reforestation initiatives, language skills, and beach clean-ups are just a few of the many programs being lead at Casa Verde. Volunteers are always welcome and encouraged to visit as the project invites the individual to bring his or her own unique talents in order to teach and inspire. Just contact Casa Verde before arriving to find out if you can help!
15. Shop Local Surf Attire at Get Up Stand Up Surf Shop
Get Up Stand Up’s storefront is located across the street from Coco Calala and just down the street from Pan y Paz – so you can easily incorporate some shopping in between your coffee fix and fuel-ups.
This shop is adorable and the surf attire is not only fashionable but it is good for the environment and the local economy too. The company is invested in creating high-quality local products while minimizing environmental impacts and practicing fair trade principles. All apparel and designs are made and created at the in-house factory and all materials are ethically sourced.
Imagine eco-dyes for colors and fabrics created from recycled bottles. Shop cute reversible surf bikinis in vibrant colors, uni-sex hats and crop tops, tanks and dresses complete with fun graphics.
It’s one quick place to visit in Leon that’s perfect if you’re looking for a high-quality souvenir!
16. Enjoy Sunset from Bar El Mirador Terraza
I have to be honest, this is one thing we didn’t have time for while in Leon – but I wish we did! We did however enjoy the sunset from the top of the cathedral and it was beautiful. We could only imagine how nice it would be to watch the sun go down over Leon with a drink in our hands!
We were recommended to head over to El Mirador Terraza to enjoy some tapas and a cocktail or two from this rooftop bar. The view and the nightlife are definitely the main attraction here and after dusk, the streets begin to come to life in a new and colorful way and the local skate scene emerges at the basketball park below.
Its a great way to relax after a full day of exploring Leon city!
Where to Stay in Leon, Nicaragua
You have lots of choices for awesome places to stay in Leon! All of the hotels are generally in the same area walking distance from the cathedral and central plaza. So, all you have to do is find a place that is comfortable and within budget and you’re good to go!
Here are some of our top recommendations for where you should stay in Leon, Nicaragua.
ViaVia Hostel – Low Budget
ViaVia is the most popular hostel for backpackers in Leon. It is a large hostel set in a colonial building right in the best location in Leon. There is a social bar on the main floor and it’s a popular place for travelers to hang out. We stayed here and it was a really nice hostel – they have beautiful private rooms as well as spacious dorms!
Hotel Flor De Sarta – Moderate Budget
Hotel Flor De Sarta is a great hotel for those looking for a really comfortable stay in Leon. All rooms have air conditioning and there is even a beautiful outdoor pool onsite. The hotel is 500 meters from the main cathedral, so still within walking distance of the hustle and bustle while being in a slightly quieter area. The rooms are large and breakfast is included.
You can check prices and book your room at Hotel Flor De Sarta on Booking.com.
Hotel El Convento Leon Nicaragua – Luxury
Hotel el Convento is Leon’s most luxurious hotel. Set only a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, this hotel has immaculate gardens and ground that make it look like something in a movie. They also have a large outdoor pool, an onsite restaurant and bar, and breakfast is included in the room rate. We never stayed here – but we wish we had!
You can secure your room at Hotel El Convento on Booking.com
Before you go…
So now if anybody tells you “the only thing to do in Leon is volcano boarding”, you can tell them they’re wrong! With the 15 other fun things to do around Leon listed in this blog, you’re sure to have a busy stay!
Leon is charming, and I hope you have a great time there!
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
July 30, 2020