Picture streets lined with beautiful baroque colonial architecture, a pleasant warm climate year-round, a regional center of art and culture, welcome to Leon, Nicaragua. The cathedral and the ruins of the oldest part of the town, Leon Viejo, are both UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nestled among the many volcanoes of Nicaragua, the city of Leon was founded in 1524. In 1680 the second university in Central America was founded in here, and the city was the first capital of Nicaragua upon independence in 1839.
It still remains a major political, industrial and cultural center. Not only does the city have a strong connection to the past, but it is also thriving in the cultural present and future, with avant-garde murals painted on many walls in the city, as well as intellectual coffee shops, and modern fashion trends. Leon is located on the river Chiquito, just 18 miles from the Pacific coast and 56 miles from the national capital in Managua. Nicaragua has been repeatedly ranked to have the lowest crime rate in Central America, so you can feel very safe living abroad in Leon, either as a digital nomad or retiree, and enjoy living in a city rich with the culture and history of Central America.
Cost of Living
A one-bedroom apartment in the city center runs around $355. In some nice neighborhoods you can get a wholly furnished house for $500 a month. Expect to spend $100 a month per person on groceries. Internet can be between $25-$125. Getting around the city is easy, taxis cost less than a dollar to get from place to place in most cases and many locations are walking distance from each other — many expats get along fine here without a car. A couple can expect their total costs to be around $1,500 a month to live here.
Things to Do
The first thing that must be mentioned is something truly unique to Leon. You can go sandboarding down the black sand slopes of the nearby Cierro Negro volcano! As an expat you might not do this every day, but it’s certainly a local must.
Upon arrival in Leon, one must also of course visit Leon Viejo. This World Heritage Site is the original location of the modern town, on the western end of Lake Xolotlan, aka. Lake Managua, 30 miles east of the current location. The nearby volcano of Momotombo didn’t destroy the town but certainly made the citizens very nervous with an eruption in 1610 and by a referendum the residents moved the entire community to the current location. Volcanic ash and lake sediment gradually buried the old town but it was rediscovered in 1967 and today 16 ruins have been partially restored, and as well interesting discoveries pertaining to the indigenous people inhabiting the site previous to the Spanish arrival have been found there, which one can learn about on site.
But before you even arrive at Leon Viejo, you won’t even get halfway there before you come across another arresting natural wonder. The San Jacinto hot springs in the Asososca Lagoon is halfway between Leon and Leon Viejo in the municipality of Telica. Here you will want to stop and marvel at the series of small craters emitting steam and gases like miniature volcanoes.
Drive half an hour the other direction, to the coast, and come to Juan Venado Island nature preserve. The island consists of a long-forested sandbar between the ocean and a mangrove forest, and teams with wildlife. Crocodiles lurk among the mangoves, crabs scuttle across the sand, legions of different varieties of bird flutter, call, and peck the sand for food. You can explore the watery mangrove forest by kayak or boat, or sit on the gorgeous beach, where you can easily find yourself alone with nature and the waves. You are allowed to camp on the island and at night from August to December you can see olive ridley turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. An organization called Palo de Oro Ecotourism runs a permanent turtle nursery on the island. But more importantly, you’re not a tourist, and as a long term resident of Leon you may be interested in volunteering with Palo de Oro. While volunteering with the organization you could get involved not only with the sea turtle hatchery, but mangrove reforestation, biological research and monitoring, and much more!
Take a Drive to the Beach
And of course, if you just want a beautiful Pacific beach, the Playa Las Penitas is only half an hour from Leon and offers all your usual beachgoing activities, from lounging on the beach to surfing or boating, fishing, etc! It’s so close and accessible, you can live in Leon and still be a “beach bum” every day.
In conclusion, if you want to live, working abroad, in an ancient Central American city that is the culmination of centuries of cultural development, and to live cheaply with many fun and unique things to do around you, Leon is the place.