In León and Chinandega, you can delve into the volcanic half of “the land of lakes and volcanoes.” Explore the Ring of Fire by peering into a crater lake at the top of Cosigüina, catching a glimpse of lava at night from Telica, or sliding down Cerro Negro at high speeds.
The high temperatures may make you feel like you’re actually inside a volcano, but to beat the heat, just head to the coast, where you’ll find beaches that are quickly becoming surfer favorites. You will find long stretches of sand, black from volcanic rocks, which are less crowded than those farther south in San Juan del Sur.
At different points in history León has been the capital of Nicaragua, as well as a breeding ground for poetry and revolution. Nicaragua’s literary legend, Rubén Darío, spent much of his childhood, and, later, the end of his life, in this colonial city. It was also here that the young poet Rigoberto López Perez, disguised as a waiter, assassinated the first of the Somoza dictators. Today, León is a university town filled with cathedrals and cafés that still plays an important cultural role and boasts a lively nightlife.
Chinandega has historically been the agricultural center and home of the country’s main port. You will find much of the country’s sugar and rum production in Chichigalpa, with San Cristobal, Nicaragua’s tallest active volcano, looming in the distance. Today, blossoming eco-tourism projects that benefit local communities allow you to kayak through mangroves and estuaries and visit sea turtle reserves in northern Chinandega.
Planning Your Time
León has a wide range of activities, so plan on at least one day to visit the museums and cathedrals of the city, another if you plan to hike a volcano, and another if you head to the shore. Las Peñitas, Isla Juan Venado, Padre Ramos, and other points outside León require more effort to reach but are excellent destinations for those traveling on a slightly slower schedule. It’s worth slowing down in fact, so you can paddle through the estuaries and observe the wildlife (like nesting turtles on Juan Venado). It is also one of the places where visitors stay to study Spanish both in and around the city.
There is plenty to do, whether you come for two days or two weeks. In general, getting around on public transportation is easy in this region. Buses and interlocales run regularly and are inexpensive. To reach some of the volcanoes, secluded beaches, or nature reserves, drivers will need four-wheel drive vehicles or transport through a tour operator.
The principal metropolis of the low-lying Nicaraguan northwest, León has had several incarnations over the centuries. The Spaniards first built the city along the shores of Lake Xolotlán, but they picked up and moved when Volcán Momotombo shook the ground beneath their feet. Modern León is at once a dusty provincial capital and an architectural delight.
Traditionally designed colonial homes, churches, universities, and immense cathedrals stand shoulder to shoulder in a tropical torpor that keeps city life to a low but exciting hum. León is an easily walkable city, with a plethora of interesting cafés and restaurants, Latin America’s largest cathedral, and an ambience quite unlike anywhere else in Nicaragua. Its longtime political rival, Granada, may have more fresh paint and international adoration, but León remains an irreverent, unique city where tourism is an afterthought, not a necessity.
The provincial capital of Chinandega is the last major town before the Güasaule border with Honduras, and also the gateway to Nicaragua’s distant corner of the Gulf of Fonseca. It’s a town you’ll get to know well if you are stocking up for a visit to the desolate coastline or the unvisited crater wall of Volcán Cosigüina. It’s also undisputedly the hottest corner of the nation.
The same threatening volcanoes that loom over the city of Chinandega and its surrounding plains are also responsible for the high fertility of the soil. Chinandega suffers the same poverty as the rest of the nation, but also boasts a prosperous community of old and new money, based primarily in sugar, bananas, peanuts, sesame, soy, and shrimp. The agricultural activity of the region and proximity to the northern borders and Port of Corinto make Chinandega Nicaragua’s most important agribusiness center.
The U.S. marines occupied Corinto in the late 19th century. Later, the United States illegally mined the harbor during the Contra war. Cotton was the number-one cash crop in the 1960s, but the deforestation and agro-chemicals essential to its production caused monumental environmental damage that affects life to this day. In recent years, Nicaragua has started exploring organic cotton production.
More Nicaraguans migrate from Chinandega than from anywhere else in the country except Managua. Many head north to America, unlike in other parts of the country where people mainly migrate south to Costa Rica. So you may find Chinandeganos who speak English or know your neighborhood.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.