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The cultural centre of Nicaragua and home to its most famous out-of-circulation poet Rubén Darío. León is a big university town with lots of cheap comedores, great street food, and plenty of happy hours.

León has a scruffier feel than Granada and much of the south. Its grab bag of colonial edifices are, for the most part still waiting for their fresh coat of paint; the massive cathedral is looking rather grubby.

There are more hostels than really necessary in León, and most of these will want to book you onto a volcano boarding tour. This is one of the hottest, dullest activities on the Nicaraguan backpacker circuit. Think pushing a wooden board down a long gravel slope. If you really must do it, make sure your agency allows time for two runs down the slope.

There are plenty of other volcanoes around León, and plenty of better and more challenging ways to see them – alone or on a tour (non-profit trekking is an everyone-wins deal). The Pacific coast with its vicious tides is only 20km away.

León is saturated in history, both old and new. The ruins of colonial churches shelled by the National Guard stand opposite a political prison. Outside of town are the volcano-destroyed ruins of the first León settlement (bring your imagination), and another fortress used by the Somozas to torture and execute political prisoners.

Phil Johnson

Phil Johnson is an editor at Road Junky and more of his work can be read atHe keeps a his blog. You can also enjoy his bountiful wit via Twitter.