Many travelers I know suffer very seriously from FOMO. Fear of missing out. I know I do. I listen with envy as I hear travelers I meet describe all the wonderful places they have been and I find myself second-guessing past travel decisions.
Man, rando-tour-friend here says that Berlin is way better than Munich. Why didn’t we go to Berlin?
I know that I too have traveled many amazing places, so I try really hard to curb my little green jealousy monster, but my guess is that most travelers would back me up in saying that the more places I travel, the more places I want to travel. The world is a pretty big place, after all.
Making decisions about destinations is tough, and often you have to cut places you really want to go because you simply just don’t have enough time to get everywhere on your list. Sometimes though you decide to punish yourself for having such ambitious goals and you end up spending a very short amount of time in a couple places, versus an appropriate amount of time in one. This is what happened to us in Nicaragua. We just couldn’t choose whether to spend four days in Leon or Granada. So we spent (a ridiculously short) two days in each.
(According Wikipedia) Leon is the political and intellectual center of Nicaragua and has at various times in Nicaraguan history served as the capital city. Granada is the tourist gem of the county and caters far more to visitors than its northern neighbor. Leon is politically liberal, while Granada is politically conservative. Leon is in the far north of the country, while Granada is closer to other tourist hot spots such as San Juan del Sur and Isla Ometepe.
Other travelers described as Leon as unpolished and far grittier than manicured, upscale feeling Granada. Where Granada is clean and calm, Leon is dirty and full of hustle and bustle.
So which did we like more? If we could do it all again, would we still split our time or would choose one over the other?
Leon vs. Granada: Travel Smackdown
Part 1: Leon
We didn’t actually plan to go to Leon, but after a few rave reviews from fellow travelers we decided to spend a couple of days the northern Nicaraguan city. Nicaragua is home to nearly twenty active volcanoes and I swear I felt the temperature rise as soon as we crossed the border. You can see many of these volcanoes from Leon and trekking and volcano boarding are the most popular tourist activities offered by the hostels in the city. We opted not to spend our days hiking in the sweltering heat and instead spent one day exploring the city and another day at the Las Penitas beach, located just 30 minutes by public bus from the center.
Just like any colonial Central American city there are churches everywhere in Leon, with the crowning jewel being the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption, which is the largest cathedral in Central America. From the top of the cathedral you can catch sweeping views of the city and the string of volcanoes that surround it.
The market in Leon was one of the most interesting ones we visited during our time in Central America in terms of both variety of goods being sold and specialty items we didn’t see in very many markets. There were papayas the size of watermelons sold next to bags of dog food and televisions, which was across from a stall selling live iguanas and baby parrots. We bought some fresh shrimp to cook back at our hostel. Delicious.
Leon was our first stop in Nicaruaga and it was from a hole in the wall food counter (literally a hole in the side of a building) that we got our first plate of gallo pinto. Gallo pinto is spiced rice and beans and is ubiquitous in Nicaragua (and Costa Rica). If you don’t like rice and beans then Nicaragua is really not the country for you. We got pretty tired of eating the same dish meal after meal, but gallo pinto is cheap, filling and pairs perfectly with Tona, the Nicaraguan beer. Side note, Tona is, in my opinion, the best beer in Central America and should be consumed regularly in order to maintain a proper Nicaraguan mindset and body temperature.
Although we mostly consumed cheap plates of gallo pinto while in Leon, we did take a break from Nicaraguan food when we stumbled into Paz y Pan, a restaurant specializing in French style sandwiches served on freshly baked bread. After months of meals looking (and tasting) very much the same we were stoked to find delicious, fresh, and decently cheap western food.
All of Nicaragua was hot, but Leon was freakin’ HOT. Like four cold showers per day hot. We were a tad miserable. The heat was the driving force behind our decision to skip the very popular volcano boarding in favor of a day at the beach. Despite the heat we did have a nice two-day stop over. Of the two cities, Leon was far less touristy and we saw very few other foreigners. It is a young feeling city with good food options and a vibrant spirit. The city makes little attempt to hide its imperfections and the central part is filled with locals going about their daily business, versus tourists snapping pictures.
So how did we feel about Granada? Check out part 2 to find out!