The Lonely Planet says, “Many people fall in love with Granada, but most of them leave their heart in León”, and I agree with the travel guide.
Granada is lovely, the old colonial buildings have been beautifully restored, there are lots of art galleries, handicrafts shops, and stylish restaurants. The central plaza is green and invites to just wander around and enjoy your stay in this charming town. However, if you venture away from the center, it doesn’t feel so pleasant anymore; the difference between the buildings that have been restored and those that have not is a bit too big.
León is different. There are lots of old buildings as well but they aren’t as shiny as those in Granada. However, or precisely because of this, León feels much more alive and, yes, welcoming. The old houses are beautiful beneath their slightly crumbling and dirty facades (and try to catch a glance into the buildings when you walk past, you’ll see beautiful tiled floors and lovely patios), and the churches, like the big whitewashed basilica and the evening light-yellow Recolección, are magnificent.
Sipping ice-cold juices at Jugoso in a corner of the central plaza, trying the most adventurous ice cream flavors at Kiss me ice cream shop, stumbling upon a manifestation or a parade (or both at the same time), eating shawarma and falafel at a real Arabic restaurant or tasteful Nicaraguan streetfood at a fritanga – we didn’t get bored in León even though we spent a few days just hanging around.
There’s whole range of volcanoes close to the city, some of them highly active. At the moment, two of them, Momotombo and San Cristóbal, can’t be visited because they’re too active and dangerous (like Masaya volcano as well). The smoke rising from these two can be seen from miles away.
Another active one is Telica volcano but it’s possible to go there (though not all agencies offer tours to Telica due to its activity – anyway it’s worth to ask different tour operators about their prices and services, they vary greatly). Since we love volcanoes, we had to go on that tour. It started at 2 pm, and after about an hour and a half drive (very, very off-road) we started the easy and not very long hike to the smoking crater, which is on the side of the volcano. The crater is huge and there is no fence or security whatsoever, you can go as close as you like and look into the smoking and grumbling abyss until you feel sick from the sulphur fumes.
Sunset on Telica
We then walked to another spot to watch the sunset (always accompanied by the beverage seller with his cooler, in case someone wanted a beer or a coke), and it was beautiful. You can see the Pacific Ocean, and the chain of volcanoes rising from the plain, with the two active ones sending smoke columns to the sky.
Back at the crater in darkness, we tried to see some lava and really: There it was; a red glow in the smoke, but definitely lava at the bottom of the crater.
The second volcano we hiked was El Hoyo, next to Cerro Negro where most people go volcano boarding (must be fun, but I wasn’t keen on swallowing dust). The volcano is called el Hoyo (“the hole”) because of the huge gaping hole on the volcano’s southern slope. We were supposed to start at 9am but then changed the time to 6am – the days are just way too hot (around 38 degrees Celcius) and it’s best to go as early as possible and the hike up took almost 2.5 hours.
Though very dry, the landscape is still beautiful, and from el Hoyo you have amazing views over the surrounding volcanoes and lakes. It’s a good spot to observe the very active Momotombo volcano. The hole of El Hoyo is quite impressive and heading further to the top (and the actual crater) there’s a smoking fumarole. Though the volcano is dormant, it’s still alive.
At 1pm we were already back in León in the sweltering heat, taking cold showers, drinking icy batidos, and packing our stuff for the journey to Honduras, always with a fan turned toward us and once again considering moving to a hotel with A/C.