Central America Travel Writing

León: the driving force for Nicaragua’s culture

While sitting under the relentless sun, eating a plate of gallo pinto along uneven cobbled alleys – with no McDonald’s in sight –  the Nicaraguan city of León seems like one of those places left unaffected by globalization and the spread of the west. Here, it feels possible to embrace an authentic, foreign culture and live like the locals.

Tourists typically overlook Central America’s poorest country, yet it offers old colonial towns and a diverse expanse of natural beauty. The laid-back vibes of Latin American culture and inexpensive prices have made the country a destination for low-budget vacations and backpacking trips.

Central to this draw, León is an impressive city that is rife with a history of natural disasters and political conflict.

It has survived volcanoes, tropical weather, earthquakes, wars, and a political rebellion and it still succeeds in harbouring a culture dedicated to arts and freedom.

Stubbornly remaining liberal through past decades of conservative authority, the city allows visitors a glimpse of the idealism that helped shape León’s present culture.

Older residents spend their siestas in rocking chairs on the streets, underneath murals illustrating the Sandinista revolution of the 1970s. Freely exchanging smiles, they invite visitors to sit and share cups of fresh coffee while laughing cheerfully at their attempts at broken Spanish.

Museums and galleries are frequent throughout the centre and the daily newspaper publishes a page dedicated to poetry. Still, León is a thriving university town filled with an abundance of students partying into the night at trendy patio restaurants and discotheques. In the vibrant area known as Zona Roza, locals and backpackers blend together as they salsa to home-grown beats in the unairconditioned bars.

High temperatures bake the narrow, cobbled streets lined by colourful-Spanish style buildings. The city is one of Nicaragua’s most impressive colonial sites, yet there is an unrefined aspect that places it firmly on the backpacker radar.

Languishing in the hot sun, travellers come to realize that the city is not pretty. When compared to it’s attractive, tourism star competitor, Granada, León is downright grimy. Instead of catering to a tourism-boosted economy of freshly painted hotels and restaurants around a meticulously tended picturesque square, Leon allows travellers to experience a believable Nicaraguan lifestyle – without the fanfare of horse-drawn carriages.

Like much of Nicaragua, León’s inhabitants experience frequent power and water cuts that the government refers to as rationing. With no advance warning, many times people are stuck without showers as temperatures rise into the 40s.

When this happens, there’s nothing to be done except to take it in stride. Go out, talk with the neighbours, sit in one of the many functioning squares and embrace living in a city where everything is not delivered at the push of a button.

With a rising influx of backpackers, adventurists, and volunteers, the city, with a population of around 200 000 people, has created a harmony between traditional and modern perspectives. For all the contemporary bars and cafes situated in the city centre, American fast food chains still appear to be non-existent. León embodies the pulse of the Nicaraguan nation, allowing many travellers to grasp what they endeavour for while travelling: a realistic cultural perspective.

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