In this piece, I’ll first explain some historical events that took places in those two cities to give you a taste of the rivalry between them. Because both towns are rather picturesque, I’ll give you quite a few photos to illustrate that. We will also take a brief look at nightlife in both cities as well as how to get there from San Juan del Sur.
A bit of history first
OK. Once upon a time, there was a República Federal de Centroamérica (1823-1841). It was a bloc of countries and regions (present day’s Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) that signed the declaration of independence of Spain in 1821. Surprisingly it was a peaceful process – but I you have guessed that they have started fighting each-other pretty much straight-away, you are unfortunately right.
With Mexico’s annexations of the new sovereign territories, things evolved fast and pretty much as they always did around the globe throughout human history. There was blood. Then came the Nicaexit (1839) and here we are, in sovereign Nicaragua. If you thought that there was peace after that, you are unfortunately wrong.
So once upon a time there were Liberals and Conservatives, the best inter-oceanic route available at the time and an abolition of slavery. To crush their Conservative opposition from Granada, León‘s liberals hired a mercenary William Walker to help them to end the ongoing bloody civil war.
However, the Nashville born “adventurer” Walker had different plans. This was in 1855 and therefore it was during the infamous Manifest Destiny era, which pretty much stated that the people of United States are destined by God, to expand its dominion across the entire North American continent.
Walker managed to seize Granada but then he declared himself a president of Nicaragua, establishing Granada as a capital – what a silly irony León, innit? His first “presidential” decree was to sanction slavery in Nicaragua, which was celebrated by many wealthy people north of Mexico. The US president Franklin Pierce recognized Walker‘s regime as the legitimate government of Nicaragua in 1856.
Almost unreal, right? And the more reading I’ve done upon this subject, the more I’ve kept diving deeper into it because it kept being first class crazy. Not to overload this piece with history, I decided to write a separate article on some events from the vibrant Nicaraguan history. For now I will only say that it all ended up with thousands of dead and Granada burned to the ground. As a result of the Civil War, Managua became the capital to prevent further conflicts between Granada and León.
It appears that the rivalry keeps going until the present day, although its form is thankfully peaceful. Granadians consider their city more beautiful and in many ways they are right about that.
They do call their city a “Paris of Americas”, which is a bit of a stretch though. The pictures bellow however confirm the beauty, although I must say that León is not that far behind and due to the similar colonial architecture the two cities could appear quite similar sometimes. The major difference is that Granada is better preserved, while León can get a bit grittier sometimes.
Numerous churches and two cathedrals dominate both cities just as well as the vibrant colours, not to mention the tiled pavements and nice parks. There’s basically a lot of character and a teen art photography student would go mad here 🙂
So which one do I prefer?
Surprisingly it turned out to be a rather easy pick for me. I went first to Granada and I loved it because I like places with character as and the more there is, the more I like the place. And while I thought Granada had a lot of it, I got even more stunned by León. Why? It’s just a bit grittier.
Furthermore, there’s energy and night life to get points for. This division is even clearer here. León hosts the National Autonomus University (1813), hence there are more young people, more bars and so on. It does create a different energy if you like a bit of a bohemian atmosphere.
A little tip for a late night sip 🙂
Both cities do come with some nice places to enjoy a nice frosty bottle of Toña or Victoria but as I’ve mentioned above, León somewhat offers a bigger variety of bars as opposed to Granada‘s lively but rather identical bars on its gringo strip, although if you put the cafés into competition, it would be a tough one. You can usually find the great authentic retro cafés withing a block or two distance from the main square of either town. I won’t mention any particular ones here – there’s a lot to pick from – just walk around a pick one that suits you 😉
If we however talking bars only, I must say that León is way ahead. I feel obliged to mention that this city of revolution comes with one of the best atmospheric bars I’ve visited in Central Americas: Via Via. It’s amazing place with ceiling fans and original decor – I personally felt like drinking inside some 70’s spy movie 🙂
Granada fights back with it’s beach as well as with it’s vibrant Calle La Calzada AKA Gringo street but we’re talking one street filled with bars and restaurants for tourists. It’s nice – but – it’s just a bit too much of a Gringo magnet.
In conclusion, Granada is prettier and it has a lake with a beach. León has more character, more young people and better bars. And cafés, those cafés in both cities are just amazing but those of León, again had an edge IMHO. Both cities are pretty in their own way and at the end of the day – they are not so different as I’ve mentioned above.
How to get there?
Both cities are a couple of hours drive from each other. Using the public transport, one can easily get to Managua‘s UCA Bus Terminal in just under an hour for 70,- Córdobas (€1,90), from where it’s equally easy to grab a minivan for 70,- Córdobas to León. From San Juan del Sur, it takes just under two hours to get to Granada by grabbing a chicken bus, you might however need to change in Rivas but it’s a very straight forward journey.
- Granada: I’ve stayed in a place called El Arca de Noe. $11.70,-USD for a private room with bathroom en suite sounded like a good deal and I didn’t regret my decision at all. The hostel is an old Granadian house with a nice patio to chill out in with kitchen and great central location. Friendly and attentive Carlos, who runs the place will take you for an original and funny city tour that is included in the price, while you’ll be 2 blocks away from the main square. I’d certainly recommend this place to any of my mates
- León: I’ve traditionally decided to stay off the party central hostels such as Big Foot or Via Via (that came with the best bar in town btw) just to have an option of no party. My pick was Casa El Rio, a nice little place run by a young friendly family. For $8,-USD per night it was one of the cheapest private rooms with shared bathroom in town. I can’t say that the bed was the most comfortable of all beds I’ve ever slept in but the whole atmosphere was genuinely nice. The hostel is about 8 minutes walk to the main square and I would recommend it if you like privacy, while being on a budget.
- Panama: Entry fee was reported to be $3,-USD by some people, I wasn’t asked to pay one. Exit fee was $3,-USD. Many travellers reported that they have needed to show the proof of onward travel. I’ve purchased the bestonwardticket.com for $12,-USD but I wasn’t asked to provide it.
- Costa Rica: No entry fee. Exit fee is $7,-USD. You might need to show a proof of onward travel. I have passed without one.
- Nicaragua: Entry fee was $13, exit was $3,-USD
What would I do differently visiting Granada and León with the knowledge I have now?
OK. I was aware that these places can get pretty hot in April and May. But I wasn’t ready for this heat. Except the silly Cerro Negro volcano boarding near León, I have skipped pretty much all physical activities because of that. I haven’t visited the Mombacho National Park, which is meant to be pretty and which has sloths, my fav animal I’d love to see one day. So if you can – avoid the hot season.