Leon, Nicaragua

When I think of Nicaragua, I think of the fighting that went on here during the 80’s (as well as the scandals). More recently, I have read what a beautiful country Nicaragua is. We docked in Puerto Corinto, but our tour is of colonial Leon. I had signed us up for the tour on Cruise Critic but the person who organized it decided against taking the cruise so I volunteered to take over. This one was an easy one because the tour company was very professional (www.juliotoursnicaragua.com). I collected the money ahead of time so if someone canceled at the last minute, I still had their money! This has been a problem when I’ve organized tours in the past – people don’t show up but the tour company still expects a certain payment.

The only negative about the day was getting off the ship. We were scheduled to dock at 9 am. Every other port we have either been early or on time so I assumed this would be the same. I like to get off the ship early when I have organized a tour so after the ship docked, we headed down to deck 4 to wait until we could disembark (about 8:40). The cruise staff on deck 4 chased us back upstairs; they didn’t want us waiting on the stairs so they directed us to deck 7. We headed to deck 5 and soon, many others joined us. By 9 am, the stairs were full and there were people crammed onto deck 4. I guess the cruise staff gave up on trying to monitor the situation. There were huge numbers of people in wheelchairs and walkers as well as the more mobile. And, the elevators kept bringing cars full of people and dropping them off. So, it was quite packed. Every once in a while, the cruise director would make an announcement over the loudspeaker that that local authorities had not cleared us for arrival yet, so we could not get off the ship. I think we finally were allowed to exit at around 10 am. People were not happy; there was no attempt at organization or crowd control so everyone was pushing, shoving, and yelling at each other. The elevators were still operational so as each arrived, more people were disgorged into the already chaotic situation. It was a huge relief to get off that ship!

We were promptly greeted by Cesar, the tour company representative, and taken to our air conditioned bus. It took awhile for everyone on the tour to get off the ship, given what a madhouse it was, so we did not leave the port until 10:30. Our guide today was Miguel and he did an excellent job. He gave us the “usual” information but he had a very engaging personality which made the day so much more pleasant. I’ve said it before and I will say it again – the tour guide makes all the difference in whether or not a tour is enjoyable.

The port itself is on an island of about 50,000 people, most of whom are employed by the port or in the tourism industry. Nicaragua itself has around 6 million people; it has quite a bit of land, but very few people. It is divided into Departments (like states) and Municipalities (like counties, I think). Coffee is its main agricultural product. They claim to grow the best coffee in the world, but so did the last few ports we stopped at! Nicaragua is known as the land of lakes and volcanoes. It has the two largest lakes in Latin America – Lake Nicaragua and Lake Managua. We drove past the San Cristobel volcano (last eruption in 2012). People come here to do a sport known as “volcano boarding” – kind of like snowboarding but going down the side of an active volcano on the ash at speeds of 55-60 mph. Miguel also showed us a YouTube video of someone riding a bike down the volcano at 110 mph. Unfortunately, the bike broke apart before the man made it down the mountain. He spent several weeks in the hospital recovering from his injuries but ended up marrying his nurse. Happily ever after, I guess!

Fourteen percent of the population are pure natives; they live on the Caribbean side of the country which is divided into two autonomous regions. Miguel told us about a native legend that says that the people were supposed to settle in an area that had the two breasts of a woman. They found an area with two volcanoes and figured they had found the right place!

Lake Nicaragua is a fresh water lake but contains sharks. I had no idea that sharks could live in fresh water, but these do. There are also caimans there, but no crocodiles. Crocodiles live on the other side of Nicaragua (Caribbean side). Peanuts, rice, sugar cane and coffee are the chief agricultural products. Cotton used to be grown here, but no longer. Bananas, plantains and sesame are also grown here. Planting takes place during the rainy season and crops are harvested in December. Most of the peanuts grown here are exported to the US. Mangos grow everywhere!

We had a drive of over an hour to reach Leon. Nicaragua is very beautiful. Occasionally we would pass cows and horses that were wandering along the side of the road. They are supposed to be accompanied by a cowboy; they are not supposed to be allowed to roam freely. We also passed some horse carts carrying produce. We also saw many bicycle taxis. The bicycle taxis will take you a maximum of 4 km, but only cost from 30 cents to $1.

There are 19 active volcanoes in Nicaragua; 7 of them more active than the others. There was a small eruption of the Talica volcano in 2016 and a major eruption in 2015 by Momotombo. The last big earthquake was in 1972 but there have been many smaller ones since.


We were now driving on the Pan-American Highway. If we kept going, we would’ve ended up in Alaska!Miguel talked a bit about how safe Nicaragua is compared to some of its neighboring countries. In Latin America, Chile is the safest country; Nicaragua is #4 on the list. Like me, many people still remember the violence here in the 80’s during the civil war with the Sandanistas (USSR backed) versus the Contras (US backed). The war ended in 1989 and a woman was elected president. She was the first woman president in Latin America. Elections take place on a 5-year cycle here. After serving a term in office, you cannot immediately run for reelection; you have to wait until the next election cycle to run again.

Nicaragua is still one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Violence against women is improving (it has definitely been an issue in the past). Women must be paid equal wages here. Nicaragua had a matriarchal society during colonial times so women are coming back into power here.

Cartels are not a problem on the west side of the country but continue to try to establish drug routes on the Caribbean side. Guatemala has more gangs and they are trying to infiltrate here. The police and army try to keep this at bay but there is some corruption so are not completely successful.

As we continued our drive, Miguel continued to tell us about his country. Leon was the first Spanish settlement here and was the link between the old and new worlds. Ponce de Leon and DeSoto lived here before exploring other parts of the world. Nicaraguans are known as “Children of the Corn”; corn is an ingredient in many of the foods eaten here. There are several types of tamale – sweet, salty and naca (a huge tamale with rice, potato, onion, pork, and mint, wrapped in a banana leaf and boiled for 3 hours). There is a drink made from fermented corn that has been ground up, becoming soft meal. Water and sugar are added and it is ready to drink. He also told us about a dish known as “old Indian” that got its name because a local told someone that the meat in the dish was. . .old Indian. Beer is considered to be a female drink so the names of the local beer have female names – Tona and Victoria beer are the ones brewed here.

School starts at age 7 (1st grade) and continues for 11 years; university follows. University is paid for by taxes and receive 6% of the national budget. Children that have to work to help support their families attend school on the weekends. It obviously takes them longer to complete their education (if they ever do). There is no mandatory 2nd language learning here, though many schools are now offering English. There is a 15% sales tax, property taxes and service taxes that pay for the services provided. There is no income tax.

There is a siren every day at 7 am that tells kids to get to school. There is another siren at noon for lunchtime. Children attend schools in two shifts – morning and afternoon. Primary (up to 6th grade) attend in the morning; secondary in the afternoon. Public school teachers here only work one shift, so have a much shorter teaching day than those in the US do!

Miguel told us that he learned English by listening to music and then using a dictionary to look up the words; he had no formal English classes. He had no one to speak English with so watched tv shows to help learn the language. Eventually, he had a job in technology where he had to communicate in English so perfected his skills there. He continues to work on his English skills by looking up new words he hears from those on his tours. He says the internet has made learning the language so much easier. I really admire his passion for self-teaching English!

Finally, we have reached Leon. On the outskirts of the city we passed by a modern mall. There was a cow tied up outside.

The capital city used to be located near Mombotombo and Lake Nicaragua but was moved here in 1610. The old capital was destroyed by a volcano. Also, the natives were dying from diseases (STD’s) brought by the Spaniards. The city was moved here for the fresh water (2 rivers).

We got to Leon right around noon so got to hear the siren. Miguel had warned us about it so no one worried that it was a signal that we were under attack. We waited in a courtyard outside the Basilica of Leon for Miguel to make some type of arrangements. Music was playing (over loudspeakers). It was definitely hot – 99 degrees with over 90% humidity. We were approached by numerous street vendors trying to sell us their wares.

We took a tour of the Basilica, the symbol of Catholicism in Nicaragua (the country is 75% Catholic). There is another cathedral at the end of Royal Street but we did not visit it. This is the third version of the basilica. The first was burned by pirates, the second was destroyed by an earthquake. At this point, they entire cathedral was redesigned because the original and its rebuild were known as the Cathedral of the Pirates (unlucky!). It was rebuilt between 1747 and 1860 and made of adobe. It has survived 2 big earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and wars, so it definitely is built to last! There are many famous people buried here, including the Poet of Leon. There are relics here as well. Statues of lions are scattered around; Leon means lion.

There is a small room that has the original flooring from the first church; the ramp into it is made from materials from the second church. The pulls for the clock tower are contained in here. Only one person knows how to fix the clock but that person is getting old. Time to train someone new, I guess. Across from the church is a building that used to be a seminary. It is now a school.

We walked through a large market on the way to lunch. Most of the food for sale was a variety of fruits and vegetables. Miguel had us try the local bananas. They are much smaller than the bananas we have at home and also much easier to peel; they are very sweet. The stalls here are mostly run by women. One woman was selling homemade bread products; she has worked here for 40 years. It was lunchtime and so many of the vendors were eating. It is common to have a one to two hour lunch break; most people eat homemade food rather than eating out. We passed by a couple of meat stalls. The meat was not refrigerated and had flies crawling all over it. I asked Miguel about it; he said most people buy their meat first thing in the morning when it is fresh. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to buy meat that has been sitting out in 90+ degree heat for hour after hour. Yuck! There was also some salted meat for sale. I am not sure if the salt helps cure the meat, therefore preventing illness or if it is just a local delicacy.

As we walked from the market to our restaurant, we were passed by a pickup truck that had a decal across the front that read, “F*** you Trump!”. Our president is not a popular guy, even here.

Lunch was at a restaurant called Via Via. We had fajitas, rice, beans and fried plantains. Very tasty. The restaurant is also a hotel. Very good rates!

After lunch we made a quick stop at a church that had been bombed during the war. Across the street from that was a building that was used to house political prisoners. It is now a small museum. We passed by traditional Leon houses. The corner houses have two entrances which is a unique feature.

Our final stop in Leon was at the Centro de Arte art museum. It contains one of the most impressive collections of art in Latin America. The museum was originally used as the presidential palace until the capital was moved from Leon to Managua. The artwork was impressive. I guess excessive heat must not damage the paintings because there was no air conditioning. I especially enjoyed the collection of pop art.

It was now time to head back to the ship. We stopped at San Cristobel volcano for photos and then continued our journey back to Puntarenas. We stopped at an unusual tree that grows fruit known as jicaro. What’s unique about it is that the fruit grows right out of the bark of the tree. It is tough and inedible but horses and cows like to eat it. The fruit is used to make maracas and cups; its seeds are mixed with rice, cinnamon, and milk to make a delicious beverage.

Unlike the nicer houses in Leon, the people that live in this area don’t have such nice houses.

This was an excellent tour. I am not sure if I would’ve enjoyed it as much if not for our excellent guide. We will be at sea tomorrow and then in Acapulco the following day for our final tour of the cruise.