León and the North Pacific
Among the so many colonial cities in Nicaragua, León and Chinandega are two of the must-visit ones. León has an attractive way of recording its history through murals while Chinandega goes low-profile with its past but boasts its nearby grand volcanoes: San Cristóbal and Cosigüina. León's nearest volcano, Momotombo, is also a proud mountain challenging climbers to get on its top and fall in love with the fabulous view. In the mean time, surfers and water sports lovers flock in to the Pacific beaches to enjoy either their active or lazy moment in the ever so tranquil Poneloya and Las Peñitas beaches.
León : A city loaded with culture
One of the 3 most prominent cities in Nicaragua is León, a culturally rich city located along Rio Chiquito (Chiquito River), 90 km northwest from Managua and 18 km east of the Pacific Ocean. It is an important industrial, agricultural and commercial center for the country as well as a historical colonial midpoint. There are more churches and cathedrals in León than anywhere else in Nicaragua, so a visit to these places -along with other amazing attractions in nearby areas- is highly recommended.
The name León was made up after the Spaniard Francisco Hernández de Córdoba founded it in 1524. The initial location of the city was about 20 miles east of where it is now. It was relocated in 1610 when the people fled the site fearing that Momotombo Volcano that was about 2 miles away would explode. They moved to a location close to the indigenous town called Subtiava.
After separating from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839, León was in competition with Granada to become the capital city of Nicaragua. The fight lasted for almost 20 years with the capital status being thrown back and forth to León and Granada, until Managua became the permanent capital in 1858.
Today, the history can be enjoyed and learned through the murals painted all over the city. In Leon Mural Park, just off the Main Cathedral, the history of the revolution and FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) was recorded in beautiful and colorful wall murals. It is certainly a unique León characteristic that can't be missed.
Colonial Churches and Cathedrals
The aggression from the French pirates in 1685 brought León to a rather miserable moment with most of its main buildings destroyed and burned. The people managed to catch a pirate named Dampier who happened to be an architect. He was then made to redesign the ruined cathedrals and other buildings. However, Bishop Benito de Baltodano had another thought. He commenced the rebuilding of the cathedral in 1747 and the construction lasted for over 100 years. In 1860 León officially owned the biggest cathedral in Central America, until now. The remains of some famous people are kept here, including the tomb of Rubén Dario, a famous Nicaraguan poet.
Apart from the Cathedral of León mentioned above, there are about 13 interesting churches to see like La Merced, El Calvario, San Juan, San Francisco, Sutiava and La Recolección. Museums come next in the must-go places within León. Rubén Dario Museum, Museum of Legends and Traditions, and Indigenous Sutiava Museum are to name some.
The ruins León Viejo are what were left from the first location of León city post Momotombo's eruption. It was unearthed in 1960 and declared as one site in UNESCO World Heritage list in 2000. Apart from its historical value, an exploration to the ruins will lead you to the cellar where León's founder's remain was found and you will also get to see the ever so amazing view of Lake Managua and Momotombo Volcano.
Next to the list of your ideal itinerary is the volcano chain called Maribios Range. It features some of the most active volcanoes in Nicaragua. One of the youngest ones is called Cerro Negro, where hiking and sand-skiing are favourite activities for the visitors. Momotombo Volcano is in Maribios Range, too, standing about 2 miles from León Viejo. This active mountain is considered as one of the most challenging climbs to do in Nicaragua. Average climbing journey is about 8-10 hours, so a sleepover may be necessary. But once there, a superb view of the surrounding will be an equal reward for the hard effort made. On a clear day, a breathtaking view of Momotombo's crater, neighboring volcanos and even the further away Masaya Volcano and Ometepe Island is within sight.
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Poneloya and Las Peñitas : Tranquil and smiley
Only 20 kilometers from León, there are two little lazy beach villages situated next to each other called Poneloya and Las Peñitas. Both towns offer a laid back atmosphere with a wide range of beach activities to do, like swimming, surfing, or simply sunbathing.
The two towns are connected with a long stretch of wide sandy beach along the Nicaraguan Pacific coast surrounded by a nice complex of hotels and restaurants. Both Poneloya and Las Peñitas especially attract surfers and beach lovers alike with their smooth small regular waves. If you are interested in learning to surf, one of these beaches can be a perfect choice to start. Some of the local hotels and small businesses are even ready with surfboards and trainers to lead and teach beginner surfers to do their first expedition in the water.
Another interesting attraction is visiting a nearby uninhabited island in front of Las Peñitas.
Isla Juan Venado -that's how the island is called- is a protected natural reserve home to mangrove forest and wild animals, including hundreds of birds and large crocodiles. Juan Venado has an easy access since it is only 100 meters away from Las Peñitas. You can go by kayak or boat and arrive there in no time.
If you happen to be in León and wish to have a little getaway from the city atmosphere, Poneloya and Las Peñitas are a great deal. With their total tranquility, inexistence of supermarket, traffic light or ATM, life can't get any simpler with delicious yet cheap seafood and jovial rum drinks when you are not swinging on the hammock.
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Chinandega : Fun and adventurous
When it is time to visit the place with the most tourist attractions in Nicaragua, a map to Chinandega is needed. A lovely colonial city located in the most northwestern corner of the country, Chinandega offers stunning volcanoes and unspoiled Pacific beaches. If you love nature, you won't be disappointed here as spectacular views are about everywhere.
Some say it is one of the hottest cities in Nicaragua, so if you are not used to tropical climate, walking around may be a challenge. Still, Chinandega has a nice large central park, where some of the approximately 441,000 inhabitants of the city spend their day and early evening time for a stroll. If mingling with the locals is your thing, visiting the park could be a nice thing to do.
With most of Chinandega residents practicing Catholics, churches are quite plenty. One of the most visited is Our Lady Saint Anne Church, the one church having withstood rigorous storms, earthquakes and wars for over 100 years.
A glimpse of San Cristóbal, Nicaragua's highest volcano, can be seen from the city. Being the most active volcano in Nicaragua, San Cristóbal is often seen emitting some smoke and gas. If you are seeking for an adventure, an expedition to this mountain can be a great remedy. The journey is rather challenging, but the scenery at the top is very rewarding.
Another not-to-miss volcano is Cosigüina in the northwestern point of Nicaragua. It is less hard to get to this volcano, thanks to the trail that leads up to the crater. Nevertheless, during the rainy season, tracking Cosiguïna Volcano is tougher with overgrown plants covering the trail. The volcano had a brutal eruption in 1835 where it lost one third of its crater. Over the years, the rain water filled it and an extremely beautiful crater lake was formed.
40 kilometers from Chinandega, you will find this possibly largest Nicaraguan beach in Pacific, named Jiquilillo. It is quiet and friendly; although during national holidays, it draws so many visitors and the beach is so packed. Other than that, this place is great for a couple of days relaxing.
Chinandega's attractions are endless: from volcanoes, beaches to the life of the inhabitants and their massive shrimp farming. It isn't like any other destination and it is surely to amuse you in different ways.
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