We came to Leon for one main reason: to study Spanish. Learning a new language is something we have wanted to do for years and spending so much time in Latin America has given us the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Leon is almost 500 years old and for many of those years was the capital of Nicaragua. This has left it full of interesting stories and beautiful architecture.
During our first day in Leon, we went to Leon Spanish School Nicaragua (LSSN) to speak with the school’s director David. He’s a bubbly, talkative man who knows just about everything there is to know about Nicaragua and it’s history. From our very first conversation with him we were certain this was the right school for us and we were able to get started with our lessons the very same day.
The school itself is just one part of a busy cultural center. Among other things, they also teach music, dance, art and tae kwon do. LSSN has two beautiful courtyards with long hallways where our lessons were taught. The colourful murals, impressive sculptures and outdoor environment creates a comfortable space for learning.
The first two days of lessons were quite challenging. It’s not like kindergarten where you start with the ABC’s; with the immersion-style lessons you dive right in. Both of our teachers, Soleyda and Luvys, spoke very little English so we had to communicate using fragments of sentences and plenty of hand gestures. After the first two days we felt like “what have we got ourselves into??”. It seemed as if we were spinning our wheels and not really absorbing much. However we persevered, did some studying at home, and day three was a real turning point; we left that day feeling much more optimistic. During the following two days we continued to progress and before we knew it our course was complete.
After 20 hours of basic Spanish lessons we realized we have A LOT more to learn. But thanks to LSSN we now feel like we have the right tools to build our vocabulary, tackle the verbs and eventually have more in-depth conversations with the people of Central and South America.
One way we were able to practice on a daily basis was by staying with a local family as part of a homestay. Our accommodation there was excellent. The family lives in a sprawling old colonial house with many bedrooms, sitting rooms and courtyards (hardly a difficult place to stay for a week). Their house was located in a part of town outside the normal tourist area adding to our immersion. Right across the street from our homestay were the best tacos in town! Seriously, if you go to Leon, go to Tacos Alba Luz (just look for the line up down the street) on Calle Reuben Dario, you will not regret it.
After our morning lessons, most of our afternoons were spent wandering around the city. One day in particular we ventured out in search of a large botanical garden. Of course, we got lost and never actually found the gardens, but we got to see another part of town with narrow streets, colourful yet modest homes, women touting their fresh baked goods, kids running around playing etc. One of the best parts of staying in a big city is the fact that there is never a dull moment. If ever you find yourself bored or antsy, you can simply put on a good pair of shoes and start walking. This is one of our favourite things to do and it always pays off.
While wandering the streets we found that Leon is home to many cathedrals, however the largest, oldest and most impressive one is right in the middle of town, facing the central park. It holds the title as being the largest in Central America. As the story goes, the original architect submitted plans to the diocese in Spain that were for a much more modest cathedral in Leon, but then pulled the old switcharoo and built this gigantic one instead. It is currently being refurbished and we’re really happy we had a chance to see both the old and the new. After years of weather and use, the outside of the building had been quite worn down. The white walls had become yellow and stained, with cracks and chips out of the stucco. However, some plaster and a fresh coat of white paint makes the cathedral stand out like a white dove on a cloudy day. Inside the cathedral are many highly detailed murals and statues, many a bit gory, depicting the crucification of Christ. There are also several tombs under the cathedral that provide for an eerie bit of exploration. Our favourite part of the building is the domed roof that you can climb up to. From the top we were able see gorgeous views of the entire city and several of the volcanoes that surround Leon. While we were up there we could see a storm brewing over by Cerro Negro and caught a quick glimpse of a rainbow.
Since Leon is known for being so full of culture, we wanted to take part in some local festivities and dishes. We had asked David if there was anything we should see or do while we were in Leon and his biggest recommendation was to watch the boxing match that night. Chocolotito is the Nicaraguan golden boy. A tiny boxer with fists of fury, he is widely considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Ask anyone in the country about him and their face lights up with pride. He had a fight that evening (in Madison Square Gardens in N.Y.C.) so we went to a sports bar and watched the match with a standing-room-only crowd of eager fans. Coming into the match, Chocolotito was undefeated in 43 fights with 37 knock outs. He didn’t let us down and after 8 rounds he knocked out his opponent to hold on to his title and the crowd went WILD. The energy of the bar was buzzing and we cheered along with everyone else then had a few celebratory drinks.
The other recommendation we had been given was from Tyler’s Spanish teacher. She told us that Saturday night is when many people eat a traditional meal called nacatamales – a favourite Nicaraguan dish – and this was one we should definitely try. Ironically, that’s what the mother at our homestay was planning on serving for dinner. She went out to buy the meal from around the corner (it’s very labour intensive to make) and then served it up to us hot and fresh. It’s hard to explain what nacatamales are but we’ll try…. It’s made up of essentially two things – a thick almost doughy outside made from ground corn, with an inside of pork, rice, vegetables and spices all wrapped in a banana leaf. To be honest, it wasn’t our favourite meal but it was worth trying for sure.
Needless to say, we really enjoyed our time in Leon. Have you ever been? How was your time there? Interested in studying Spanish there? Let us know in the comment section below!