León. Granada. León. Granada. Try and search for them and you’re more than likely going to end up Spain. While these two cities share the same names and ancestry as the León and Granada of Spain, they are vastly different, and beautifully Nicaraguan.
I spent a few lovely, sunny days in both of these cities, exploring the colorful streets, bustling markets, and historic cathedrals – climbing the towers of both cathedrals is a great way to start off a trip to either city, giving you the best views and a nice layout of the city (I take a city map and a pen up to the top and map out everything I want to see). While León and Granada are both historic colonial cities, at one point fighting for capital title of the country (Managua, in the end, being the winner), they each have their own distinctly different flare.
Granada is seemingly the more popular of the two, but I definitely preferred León. Tourists flock to Granada, generally as a first stop off the plane from Managua, making it a bit more gringo friendly, and a bit more expensive. León, while still popular, is set up a bit better [read: cheaper] for the backpacking tourists on a budget, as it’s generally a stop for folks traveling up and down Central America, versus those flying in to Nicaragua.
I spent only 2 days in Granada, and while it is arguably one of the prettiest cities in Nicaragua, I found it rather dull, and almost unauthentic. Sure, there is the cathedral and other churches to explore, and plenty of perfectly painted streets to meander, but that’s just it – they’re too perfect. Central America, and Nicaragua especially, is gritty. Their people have been through hell and back with brutal dictator regimes and violent revolutions, but it’s as if Granada tries to hide this history for the sake of tourism.
Now, if you are looking for outdoor adventures of all sorts, including volcano hiking, freshwater lakes, kayaking, and more, Granada is indeed a great place to be based out of. It is located right next to Lake Nicaragua, and is a short bus ride to many different attractions, including Laguna Apoyo and Volcano Mombacho. (Or you can head over to Isla de Ometepe for all of the same but in a more relaxed atmosphere. But that’s just my opinion…)
León, on the other hand, is full of that grit. It was, after all, one of the main fronts of the Sandinista Revolution in the late ’70’s. The streets are not as well maintained, the buildings’ once vibrant colorful paint peeling away, some of them still riddled with bullet holes, but the city is alive and bustling. Everywhere you look, you’ll find smiling Nicaraguans, most overwhelmingly excited to tell you about their city.
Both cities have wonderful markets to peruse. I am unfortunately easily overwhelmed in most traditional bustling markets, so the main market in Granada, with it’s very tight aisles, dark passages, and massive amount of people yelling is just a bit too much for me, and I’ve heard the “old” market in León is rather similar. Both are definitely worth the trip if you can handle the chaos, but for me, I fell in love with the newly established central market in León. Just built this year, it is one of the cleanest, most organized markets I’ve seen in Central America, and it’s located just next to the Cathedral.
You can spend hours wandering up and down the aisles of this market. It was the only place I shopped for food, and honestly the only place I ate out – treat yourself to a perfectly cheap and delicious meal just outside of it, where local women are grilling up the tastiest meat of all sorts, and they will pile whatever you’d like on top of a heap of gallo pinto (rice and beans), and curtido (cabbage salad), all for a measly 120 cordobas ($4 USD). The only unfortunate part of this is that the prices are essentially set inside the market, and bartering is mostly impossible, but the prices are still significantly lower than the nearby grocery store.
One of my absolute favorite things to do in any city is to check out the museums. I find it’s the best way to get to know the culture of the area, and the museums of León are just perfect for this – Granada is decidedly lacking in museums. I spent almost an entire day nerding out in the Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián, They have a fantastic collection of artwork from all over Central America, and it’s built into a series of old colonial homes, so even if you’re not into art, a visit to the museum is a great way to see how these homes were built in the 1800s.
I also visited the eclectic Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones (Legends and Traditions). Housed in La XXI, an old prison used from 1921 to 1979 (the Samoza regime), the museum offers a dramatic combination of the history of the prison, with its inhumane treatment and torture of its prisoners, alongside wild depictions and stories of local myths and legends, with many life-size (and larger than life) papier-mâché figures.
Now, while Granada may lack a bit in cultural activities, it definitely has the nightlife going for it. The whole main avenue is more alive after dark than it is during the day, with a plethora of restaurants and bars to choose from. This was the time the city mostly resembled its European counterpart. While my wallet wasn’t fat enough for any of these places, it was still lovely to stroll along the avenue in the cool of the evening and people watch.
León, on the other hand, was actually rather quiet at night, oddly enough. Meandering the main streets at night, while it still felt safe, was definitely a bit more abandoned than Granada’s. The only exception here was Backpacker’s Alley, or “Calle Gringo,” where the infamous Bigfoot Hostel is located. There is almost always a party at Bigfoot, and neighboring hostel ViaVia has a lively bar scene as well.
Overall, I just found more to enjoy in León, and I didn’t even do the most popular attraction of volcano boarding down Cerro Negro, but of course to each their own. Also, if you’re interested in one of the most entertaining analogies of these two cities, check out what Bacon is Magic has to say about it. I love it.
Have you visited both cities before? Which one do you prefer?