March 16, 2016

Getting to Know León

My only regret about our time in León was not staying longer. We only had two nights in this charming city, which left us only one full day to explore. We covered a lot of ground, but I fear we only scratched the surface. I would love to return to visit its ruins and beaches, and simply absorb more of the impressive city. It's the second largest after Managua. Home to eight volcanoes, likely the most well known is Cerro Negro. Famed for its volcano boarding. I admit it is what put León on the map for me. I so badly wanted to go, but as the trip neared I came to terms that my ankle would hold me back. The hike and the boarding seemed like to big of risk so I nixed it from our itinerary. The city still intrigued me, and I felt we'd have plenty to see even if León still very much belongs to its locals and students. Every step of the way, our experiences felt authentic. In no way did it seem to cater to tourists. I absolutely adored it.

We stayed at Hotel Flor de Sarta which is a lovely colonial building owned and operated by a delightful French couple. Everyone there was warm and welcoming from the moment we entered the wrought iron gate. Accommodations were very comfortable, the pool was refreshing and breakfast offered a fabulous spread of eggs, gallo pinto, crepes and fruit. There was a resident hen that greeted us each morning, and bats fluttered around the pool in evening. The location is superb, just minutes from the Cathedral, museums and art galleries. We walked the area during the day and night, restaurants and bars were open late and the variety was such a pleasant surprise.

We began our enrichment with a visit the Museo de la Revolucion. It broadened our understanding of the war torn years, FSLN and the unfortunate role USA's foreign policy played. Nicaraguans certainly don't think highly of Reagan and who could blame them? But they hold no grudges against Americans. Those we spoke to said it'd be silly to hold people responsible today for mistakes made in the past - how wise, but I digress. Our guide at the museum is a veteran he proudly pointed himself out in photos on the wall and showed us battle scars. I appreciated his passion greatly. I only wish I understood more Spanish so nothing would've been lost in translation. He was patient and kind, and found ways to explain when I'd get lost, "no entiendo." Our tour included a walk up to an old and tattered corrugated metal roof. He pointed out where it was "safe" to step so we could enjoy the view. The museum is housed in an old post office, which has scars of its own, but the remarkable architecture remains.

Next, we visited a free art gallery using various medias. A man passing through was eager to point out the painting with Reagan. And then, we strolled over to the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian. This was a private collection so no photos were allowed, but there were many paintings and sculptures. I enjoyed the art installations, but my favorite part were the architectural details of the colonial buildings. From the ceilings to the floors, I was in awe. It was lovely just to sit in the shaded courtyard, the peacefulness and cool breeze was a delight.

After volcano boarding, the second top attraction is the Basilica Catedral de la Asuncion. We first passed it in the evening. It appeared mass was being held, it was very striking lit at night. It is the largest church in Central America and for $3 you can walk the roof barefoot. Once you climb the narrow stairs the contrast of the stark white domes against the bright blue sky will make you feel like you've been transported to Santorini. The 360-degree views highlight the many churches and volcanoes in the distance. Walking barefoot on the roof of a church had never made my bucket list until now. It was a breathtaking sight!

León is quite hot, we found ourselves parched more than once and cold smoothies and fresh juice really quenched our thirst. Jugoso puts Jamba Juice to shame, it's all natural, fresh and they have a huge menu. Plus, one smoothie is plenty for two and it's less than $2. We had a fabulous blend of berries and golden fruit. Outside the cathedral, we took a break at El Sesteo. It seems to be a popular tourist spot. I had a trenta sized glass of watermelon juice that hit the spot, while Frank enjoyed an iced coffee.

The food in León was outstanding. We didn't try any street foods; we were too late at the market, most vendors were packing it in for the day and we were too full for the night vendors. We did however, have a fantastic lunch at La Mexicana with fresh salsas, empanadas and delicious chilaquiles - some of the best I've had. The tortillas in Nicaragua were thicker than what we find in Mexico and they were perfect for absorbing the sauce without getting limp or soggy.

For our first dinner, we wandered the streets and found ourselves at Al Carbon. It specializes in grilled meats and set in a beautiful courtyard garden. We had a starter of stuffed jalapenos and we tried a sampler platter and found the chicken and steak (great marinade) to better than the pork. I really dislike chicken at home, so it was such a surprise to be fond of it in Nicaragua. It was much more tender, juicy and flavorful. It was here, I had my first taste of Toña beer. One of the two national beers - Victoria is the other. It's light and refreshing, and often cheaper than bottled water.

Our last dinner was at El Bodegon, which was recommended by the hotel. It is a quaint space located in the owner's home. The Cuban influenced menu is simple and ever-changing. The frozen mojito is the drink of choice. Despite a number of attempts, I believe I can officially claim I'm not a fan of the mojito. Even when not too sweet, the mint is just too overwhelming. I associate it with toothpaste, rather than a cocktail. Aside from that, the food was excellent. We were offered pork, chicken or fish. The pork was quite good, but again I preferred the chicken - what's happening here? Our dinners would be considered upscale, but when it came time to settle the bill - we were pleasantly surprised. At most, we were looking at $15 per person, alcohol included.

English was often spoken and US dollars were widely accepted. We ran into some trouble using the ATM's in León. Our preferred debit card is a Mastercard it carries no fees and typically accepted everywhere in our travels. However, here, the machines rejected our transactions because only Visa cards were approved. So, we paid about $15 in fees to use our secondary card for 10,000 Cordobas. I'm told this was unique to León, and Mastercard isn't a problem elsewhere in the country. That very well may be true; we had no trouble at the Managua airport when Frank withdrew 1,000 Cordobas to test it out upon arrival.

As I mentioned before, I wish we had more time in León. I have no doubt, we'll return. Hasta luego! Next up, San Juan del Sur.

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