Nicaragua’s other grand colonial city is Leon. Home to the country leading university, Leon was country capital from the time of the Spanish to the mid-19th century, and its grandest architectural monument is the rococo Catedral de la Asuncion (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the main square. It took 100 years to build, is the largest in Central America, and its interior gives sanctuary to magnificent treasures of colonial religious art, as well as the tombs of famous poets including Leon’s favorite son Ruben Dario. On a clear day, take a roof tour for the best view of Leon. It’s easy to find the prettiest church in town, the baroque Iglesia de la Recolecion with its yellow façade and beautifully decorated inside and out. Also in Leon, one should not miss visiting the Ortiz-Gurdian Foundation’s Centro de Arte, with an excellent and eclectic collection of distinguished Latin American artists—Rafino Tamayo, Diego Rivera, Fernando Botero—keeping company with Europeans Rubens, Chagall and Picasso. For visitors in Leon on Saturdays, head for Parque Central, which comes alive afternoon-to-midnight for the Tertulia Leonesa, inviting everyone to eat, drink and dance to live combo music.
Among Leon’s top hotels, one occupies a colonial convent, another a colonial mansion; outside town are more Spanish colonial remains of another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Leon Viejo (Old Leon) in the foothills of the Volcano Momtombo whose eruptions flattened most of the original city in 1610. Momtombo (requiring a two-day ascent) is one of many easily accessible from Leon and offered on guided volcano tours. But the most popular adventure of all is hiking up Cerro Negro Volcano and sand boarding down. Leon is also a convenient base for guided mangrove and lagoon tours by motorboat or kayak in the Juan Venado Island Nature Reserve, nesting ground for thousands of Leatherback and Olive Ridley turtles. (Nighttime turtle tours available August to December)
Getting there: Leon is 55 miles (88 km) from Managua.