We were not sorry to leave Masaya on Tuesday 2nd February. We went by bus to Léon, in NW Nicaragua. This involved changing buses in Managua, although fortunately we did not have to change bus stations. We went by ‘minibus’, since they are reportedly much more comfortable than the so-called ‘chicken buses’. But all minibuses are not the same. The one from Masaya to Managua was like an ordinary bus, but smaller, and it was crowded, with lots of people standing in the aisle. The one from Managua to Léon was a more typical minibus, with five rows of benches, three seats each, and no space for people to stand. We bought a row, so there was room for our case and it was much more comfortable for us – but still very cheap.
We really liked Léon. In contrast to Granada (a tourist town) and Masaya (a working town), Léon has a real mix of tourists, local people and students. It has a very pleasant atmosphere. We’d booked two nights at a cheap hostal which was infinitely nicer than the one in Masaya, though still pretty basic. (It did have water, but not hot water.) As we liked Léon, we decided to stay for a third night, but our room was not available, so we had to switch to another hostal. We decided to go upmarket, and the one we chose was certainly much smarter, and promised hot water – but it did not materialise.
We liked the Parque Central: not as quirky as the one in Masaya, but lively, with a bar that did excellent coffee and was great for people watching. There was a statue, and a gigantona (enormous figure of a woman, from a tradition representing the encounter of tall Spanish women with short Nicaraguan men). There was also, bizarrely, a Christmas tree. We’ve noticed in other Nicaraguan towns that Christmas decorations and cribs are still up in February! But the day after our arrival the tree disappeared, so perhaps they decided it was finally time to take it down.
And there was a cathedral. In fact there were several elaborate churches in Léon, but the cathedral in the centre is massive. They are in the process of repainting it, but only the front and roof are completed so far, so there is a contrast between brilliant white and blackened with age. You can go up the tower and onto the roof, from which there are great views. But before going onto the roof you have to take off your shoes. We thought at first this was a previously unknown Catholic tradition, until we realised it was to stop the fresh white paint suffering from dirty footwear!
Trips from Léon
While based in Léon we went on two tours. The first took us to the ruins of ‘Old Léon’, the original location of the city before it was destroyed by earthquake and volcanic eruption in 1609. The remains of several buildings have been excavated, and it is a peaceful place to explore. There are also good views of the Momotombo Volcano. Afterwards we hiked down to a crater lake for more great views.
Our other trip (in a group of 12) was to the Telica Volcano. We set off in two vans, each with benches along the sides. After a few miles on the highway, we turned onto a dirt track between trees. This got narrower and rougher as we progressed, so we had about an hour of being bumped, jolted and thrown around. After leaving the vans we had a steep climb (about another hour) up to the crater, where we could see the steam billowing. We walked on further to a spot on the side of the volcano, which was good for sunset watching. A local man had climbed to the same spot carrying an ice box, and so canned drinks were for sale. Watching the sunset from a volcano with a beer in your hand (Sandie anyway) was quite an experience.
After the sun was down, we walked back to the crater, and peered down. By then it was dark enough for us to see glimmers of lava below. But then we had to climb down the volcano, and even though torches were provided, doing so in the dark was far from easy. We were glad to get safely back to the vans – but then there was the journey back to Léon…..
On to Managua
On Friday 5th February we left Léon and went by minibus to Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. We knew that there is not a lot for tourists to see, and also that parts of the city are considered unsafe. So when planning our trip, we had debated whether to go there. But the city is virtually impossible to avoid, so we decided to compromise by spending just one night there, and confining ourselves to the safe areas.
We’d chosen a relatively smart hotel, and were delighted to have a large comfortable room with luxuries such as hot water, and even a bath (our first since leaving Florida!). The hotel has its own taxi service, but the price demanded for the relatively short journey to the old centre of the city was ridiculous. So we walked the first part of the way (which gave us the opportunity to visit the ‘New Cathedral’) and then hailed a (much cheaper) taxi in the street. It dropped us near the Plaza de la Revolución, where we saw the old ruined cathedral and several monuments.
We then went over to the lake shore, from which there are views of nearby volcanoes. Walking east, there were few people around, and just one café which had a very limited range of drinks. There was however an old Boeing 737 painted with revolutionary slogans – why, we could only guess – and a kind of miniature model city. The lakeshore west was blocked by a building site, but after negotiating this we came to something we can best describe as a political theme park. In addition to a pleasant lakeside promenade, with flags of all colours, there were bars, restaurants and a couple of children’s rides. But there was also a list of Nicaraguan presidents, and on everything, including the park benches, there were quotations, encouraging sayings reflecting socialist values, and reminders of the need to care for the environment. Disney it was not – although we did see some children being photographed with someone in a costume, mask and wig that we think was meant to represent Princess Sophia. How she fitted into the ethos of the park, we’re really not sure.