By Conor Sanchez
“Hablas espanol? ” he asked.
“Claro que si,” my friend replied.
The boss of the billiards table was ordering another round and stood for a while chatting with us about where we were from and how we knew Spanish. I explained I’d picked it up in the year and three months I’d been living here. My friend, who was visiting from California, spent 12 years of his childhood in Costa Rica.
Our banter earned us a spot in the long line of patrons waiting to play a round of pool against the boss. After buying him a Toña, we received an invitation to sit at the chief’s table, which was raised prominently on a platform that screamed VIP status. Then we saw him play pool and immediately realized we had somehow just made friends with Nicaragua’s Fast Eddie.
With a cigarette in one hand and pool stick in the other, Martin circled the billiards table eyeing his options like a shark spotting its dinner float at the water’s surface. He paused. He took a drag. He motioned to the pocket where his ball would sink and as he exhaled he took aim with his cigarette still burning between his fingers in his left hand.
The thing I like most about León, Nicaragua’s second largest city, is its indifference toward tourism. It’s there, but it’s an afterthought. It’s profitable, but it’s not crucial to the city’s economy. It’s as if the whole city is saying, yeah, we’re awesome – we know it – take it or leave it. In that way, its charming arrogance kind of reminds me of San Francisco, CA. Another thing I like is that restaurants and bars aren’t segregated here. Unlike Granada or San Juan del Sur, there isn’t a single place I’ve been where the patrons are exclusively foreigners.
A city known for its leftist tendencies, León was first in line to support the Sandanistas in 1960s and ’70s. As a result, it suffered some of the worst attacks during Somoza’s crackdown. The central market was torched, different parts of the city were bombed, and anyone suspected of sympathizing with the Sandanistas was often tortured or executed. Today the city very much still retains a strong loyalty to the FSLN and a proud sense of the role its people played in the history of the country. The general attitude is that despite the trials their city has faced, they have somehow always prevailed, as evidenced by the popular chant, “León! Jodido, pero nunca vencido!” which basically translates as “León! F***ed, but never beaten.”
Again, the best part is that wherever you go, you’re bound to start talking to locals about their city, which they love dearly. Even in that place with my friend, Via Via, a chain-hostel located on “Gringo Alley,” the bar services a steady crowd of local regulars who apparently have a hierarchy of who controls the pool table on any given night. We stayed there an hour or so talking about Nicaragua, playing pool, and the history of León. After the couple tried to set my friend up with one of the boss’ sisters, we decided it was probably time to say goodnight.
We stepped out onto the street and after a block or so we suddenly found ourselves in a crowd of chavalos following a parade of floats carrying one princess after another. They stood on a platform surrounded by gaudy arrangements, waving to spectators while trying to keep their balance. What we were celebrating, I haven’t the slightest clue. Pues, ni modo. Music was claring and my friend and I danced a bit with the crowd.
I’ve now been León about four times during my time in Nicaragua and its definitely one of my favorite cities. Every so often, Michaela and I have to travel there to teach and because it takes us nearly 11 hours to reach, we usually give ourselves a day either before or after our commitment to play tourists around town. During my most recent trip, my visit happened to overlap with a friend from the United States who was traveling around the country.
One day my friend and I went to the Museum of the Revolution. Located in a dilapidated building originally used as a communications center under Somoza but later converted into a military control center during the 1980s, the museum offers a short tour given by veterans. As you walk in a group of sit chatting away much like you’d expect to see at a VFW hall in the US. The first one to get up gives you a tour of two rooms which are filled with pictures depicting the revolution and the subsequent Contra War. He then takes you upstairs where you can get a great view of the cathedral and volcanoes off in the distance.
You can also get a good view from the one of cathedral bell towers, however, I’ve never had an opportunity to go up. But that’s ok. We got the best view when we climbed Cerro Negro and volcano boarded our way down to the bottom, not once, but twice! This is by far Leon’s biggest tourist attraction and I can now see why. It’s hot, dirty, and slightly dangerous considering there’s no medical team up there and very little instructions were given by your guide. But where else are you going to slide down an active volcano at almost 40 mph??
The last thing that can be said about León, which everyone says about León, is that it’s HOT. It’s made me appreciate living in the cool, albeit humid, rainforest in the east. But it’s definitely worth visiting and I’m always happy to spoil myself in a city that offers lots of amenities in comparison to my community. Below are a list of things I’ve done, places I’ve eaten, and places I’ve stayed at either with Michaela or while my friend was visiting. Enjoy.
Things I’ve done:
- Volcano Boarding – We used an outfit called Quetzal Trekkers. They charge $30 and that includes transportation to and from the volcano, equipment, a snack, and lunch.
- Revolution Museum – Not a particularly stellar museum by any measure, but the experience of being walked around by a veteran is worth it alone.
- Museo de Arte Fundación Ortiz-Gurdián – An awesome contemporary-art museum all housed in a refurbished Creole Civil style building. Includes works by Rubens, Picasso, Chagall, and Rivera. On the day I went they had pieces by Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol.
Place I’ve eaten or drunk at (ranked in order of my preference):
- Imbir – A fusion menu of Sri Lankan and Polish dishes because the couple that own it are…Sri Lankan-British and Polish.
- Carnivoro – Decent steak and real good pita pockets.
- Quesillo from a street vendor – Surprisingly good considering its not from Santo Tomas.
- Paz de Luna – Great coffee shop with delicious crepes.
- Pan y Paz French Bakery – Everything is delicious. Order it all.
- Bigfoot Hostel Restaurant – Makes amazing pizza and burgers.
- Kiss Me – Out of this world Ice Cream
- Via Via – They’ve got a craft-brew called Morepotente on tap.
- Ya Voy – Energetic ambience.
- Manhattan Sushi – Decent sushi considering it’s a delicacy here.
- Atorches Bar – It’s fine for a beer.
- Fried chicken and fries from a street vendor – Terrible, don’t eat this. Unless it’s 11:30 pm on a Wednesday night and you’re starving and nothing else is open.
Places I’ve stayed:
- Hotel Enrique – Awesome service, decent prices. The breakfast that’s included isn’t amazing but there is a place called Desayuno right across the street that’s super good.
- Hotel Azul – Definitely high-end but worth every penny. Has a pool and a great restaurant.
- Lazybones – Cheap clean rooms. Dormitories can be a little hot but just throw yourself in the pool if you’re sweating too much.
- Trail Winds – We may have stayed there at a bad time, but our experience wasn’t great. A little overpriced.
- Paz de Luna Bed & Breakfast – Hands down my favorite. Breakfast is included and it’s deeelish.