Why Leon Gets My Vote For The Most Livable Place In Central America


Little, perfect, Leon.

Land of the volcanoes, land of the liberals.

This university town is home to many famous Nicaraguan poets, countless students and a small but growing population of savvy expats.

Leon by night
Leon by night

It’s a fiercely independent city, out there doing it’s own thing in a true Leon way.

And as far as Central America goes, I’d throw my “favourite place” vote to Leon any day of the week.

Cheapest place in Nicaragua.

First and foremost, Leon is a university town.

These days, tourism I’m sure supports a good portion of the local economy. But students are the towns bread and butter.

Just as you’d find in any big university town or city back home, prices are usually pushed low to accommodate.

And if there’s one thing backpackers have in common with students, it’s our love of the cheap and cheerful.

A local chicken bus gets ready to leave
A local chicken bus gets ready to leave

Leon is the easily the cheapest place I’ve travelled in Central America.

Coming directly to Leon from Utila in Honduras and Belize surely helped with really noticing the price difference, but even after a month travelling around Nicaragua I haven’t found anywhere to come close to the low cost of living in Leon.

Private double rooms with private bathroom? $16US a night. With free breakfast.
Dorm beds? 5US.

And there’s enough stores and markets (more on that later) dotted around the city to make groceries not only easy but damn cheap.

If you don’t feel like cooking yourself, you can also take your pick from some awesome street food stalls round the back of the cathedral, where you shouldn’t be paying much more than 100C or around $3 for a standard plate of food. By standard, I mean the Nica classic of rice beans salad and meat.

Insider tip from Katie Hogan @ The Ungraceful Guide:

“We picked up a little tip that allowed us to eat the same dish at the local price. Ask for a “BX” (pronounced “bay-eckiss”) and only pay 30-40 córdobas (€0.89 – €1.20) depending on what meat you choose.”

You could live – albeit reasonably basically – here for $20 a day. That’s only $600 US a month.

It’s just easy.

What most blogs and articles about travelling Central America wont tell you, is that almost everything here is just a little bit more of a challenge.

Finding a decent sized grocery store where you can get actual food and supplies rather than the same old little tiendas all selling the same few things. Figuring out how the busses work. Getting to the doctors if you get sick. Finding a shop to buy some new runners if your old ones fall apart on you.

Accessing simple things and simple information that you’d take for granted elsewhere. Central America just makes you work that little bit harder.

And after a while, it’s tiring.

In Leon, life just seems a little easier.

It’s more comfortable.

The town has several good sized grocery stores. Everything is in walking distance. It feels completely safe and you never need to worry. Just about every street has at least one hostel or hotel of some kind, so you’re never stuck for finding a decent place to stay.

They’re small things that sound trivial, but they’re a huge relief after several months of dealing with not having them.

Surrounded by great hiking.

If there’s one thing I love more than a cheap place, it’s a cheap place surrounded by great hiking.

Nicaragua is known as the land of volcanoes, and the surrounds of Leon are home to more than their fair share.

Some are dormant, some are active. Nearly all of them are hikable.

Leon has some epic hiking
Leon has some epic hiking

Whether you want to climb long dormant volcanos with awesome views, volcanoes you can volcano board down, active volcanoes you can see sulphur vents and deep magma chambers on, or volcanoes with water filled craters you can swim in.

Like hiking? Read my guide to Hiking Acatenango Volcano In Antigua here.

There’s a volcano for every occasion just outside Leon, and enough hikes to keep your legs sore for the foreseeable future.

Perfectly situated.

So we’ve already established that Leon is basically perfect.

But the thing about living in an awesome place is that occasionally, just occasionally, those feet will start to itch again and you’ll be craving that familiar excitement of the new and different.

That’s where, yet again, Leon comes out swinging.

If you ever find yourself in need of a break from Leon Life (I’m definitely coining that phrase for the blog!), you’ll never need to travel far to get it.

You’ll find everything you need just an hour or two away.

Fancy a lazy beach day? Los Penitas is less than an hour away on the public bus. It’s beautiful, pretty much deserted, and a world class surf beach. And a single US dollar gets you there, where for one more dollar you can enjoy a beer in one of the bars on the beach, or just relax and enjoy the sound of the waves.

Got the beach to ourselves at Los Penitas just outside Leon
Got the beach to ourselves at Los Penitas just outside Leon

Need to visit the city? Managua, the country’s capital is under two hours away via bus or shuttle and is where you’ll find most of those little things you need to top up on every now and again. As well as those western comforts you secretly and guiltily crave. An achievable day trip or an easy weekend getaway.

This view.

View from the top of the church roof in Leon
View from the top of the church roof in Leon

Soak up the greenery in rainy season.

Most people think of rainy season and they want to be nowhere near it.

The truth is though, travelling Central America in rainy season is great providing you know how to make the most of it.

Once you’re onboard with the occasional bit of rain, Nicaragua in particular is a fantastic place to spend your time.

The hills and countryside around Leon go from dry and dusty to lush and green.

Fueled by the fertile soils of the many nearby volcanoes, plantlife and farmland erupt from nowhere and give you a perfect contrast between the seasons.

And the afternoon shower helps to cool off what is widely accepted to be the hottest place in Nicaragua.

Markets, markets, markets.

Give me some cheap fruit and I’m anybodys.

One of the first things I’d look for when out exploring a new place on our Central trip, is a market stall with a good selection of fruits and veg.

They would then become by ‘pina contact’ for the rest of the time we were in the town.

My pina contact in Leon was a fruity jackpot, and the seller of one of the best pineapples I’ve ever eaten.

That pinapple, cost the equivalent of $0.50 USD.

50 cents.

And that was just one guy.

Leon has heaps of markets and a lot of people selling a variety of produce.

The hustle and bustle and the fresh tasty bearings on offer is so much more like what I imagined Central America to be like.

Rooting for the underdog.

Everyone loves an underdog, right?

Throughout Nicaragua’s long and complex history, two of it’s biggest cities (Leon and Granada) have battled it out for the right to call themselves the country’s capital.

In 1858 however, by way of a compromise between the two rivals, Managua was deemed to be the nation’s hub, and has remained so ever since.

These days, Leons battle with Granada lies more on a tourism front that a political one, but the outcome is the same. And the emergence of Managua as the capital has done little to ease their rivalry.

Spending time in the two places, you’d have to say that on the surface at least, Granada seems to be coming out on top.

It’s much more popular with tourists and expats than it’s little brother Leon, and businesses there seem more geared up to take advantage of the fact.

Rush hour in Leon
Rush hour in Leon

Give me the Leon Life any day! (See, it’s catching on already!)

Steeped in history.

Current day Leon is a city built on the roots of rebellion.

The 1979 revolution, which started 23 years prior with the 1956 assassination of the ruling Somoza dictator, was born in Leon.

With many of Leons leading intellectuals, budding students, renowned poets and humble farmers leading the charge for change, the city became the first in Nicaragua to be liberated from the repressive Somoza dynasty.

Leon is home of the revolution
Leon is home of the revolution

The citys heart lies firmly on the left.

Equality, democracy and freedom are as important to its people as the food they eat.

Following the revolution, the new ruling Sandinista Party vehemently opposed the values and policies of repression dictated to them by the Somoza family who were themselves a hangover from the US occupation of the region back in the height of the ‘Bannana Wars’.

Firey politics, stoked by a potent history of rebellion make modern day Leon a vibrant, independent and exciting place to be. In a cool, “carving it’s own path” kind of way.


Where’s your favourite place in Central?

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