Nicaragua's León has grown from the ruins of their relatively recent civil war into a colourful, optimistic province. Josh Ferry Woodard goes volcano boarding, cheese making and political art spotting in this truly revolutionary city. 

A city transformed

Leon
A basketball court decorated with revolution murals. Image via Joseph Mortimer / Shutterstock

Standing at the foot of Central America’s youngest volcano with a heavy plank of wood in one hand and a bright green jumpsuit in the other, I marveled at Cerro Negro’s unusual form.

Rising out of emerald forest into a deep blue sky, its bizarre loose black slopes made it seem more like a giant pile of ash than a volcano.

But then again I was becoming accustomed to things being a little different to my expectations during my time in León: a city with revolution running through its veins.

León is the place where radical poets, intellectuals, farmers, soldiers and landowners united to form the Sandinista Party, which later went on to overthrow the hugely exploitative and oppressive Somoza dictatorship.

It’s also the place where quesillos cheese tacos were invented and home to the nation’s best art gallery. Its streets are filled with revolutionary murals and it’s the world’s premier destination for the ultimate extreme sport: volcano boarding.

 

 

Boarding down an active volcano

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Volcano boarding. Image via Micky J Young

After hauling my board and jumpsuit up the 2,300-ft black gravelly path to the top of Cerro Negro, I was afforded sumptuous panoramic views of the Maribios volcanic complex and surrounding valleys, which stretch all the way to the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

Volcanic peaks and cones jut out of the ground like steep sand dunes or turbulent ocean waves.

Sat beneath the scorching midday sun, our guides gave us a safety tutorial and a little bit of background information on the area.

Some members of the group were slightly alarmed to learn that Cerro Negro has erupted 23 times since its inception in 1850, making it one of the continent’s most active volcanoes.

 

 

I was becoming accustomed to things being a little different to my expectations during my time in León: a city with revolution running through its veins.

 

 

After the talks, I donned my green jumpsuit, put on a pair of plastic goggles and sat on my board ready to race down the ashy slope.

The highest recorded speed is 95km/hour. Although I could feel the friction from the gravel beneath my board as plumes of ash came shooting out behind me, my velocity was more appropriate for a Nicaraguan dirt track road than the iconic Pan American highway.

I managed to make it down without falling off the board but others—and their grazed knees—were less fortunate.

 

 

Nicaraguan cheese tacos

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One of the chefs behind the famous quesillos

Less blood was spilled creating quesillos than during any given day of volcano boarding, but this unique cheese taco dish is a source of pride for the area and the artisans who produce it.

Located on the highway just outside of León, Quesillos Guiliguiste claims to be the inventor of the cheesy snack. To this day they use the traditional methods to make everything from scratch on the premises.

 

 

This unique cheese taco dish is a source of pride for the area and the artisans who produce it.

 

 

Unpasteurised milk is heated in giant silver cauldrons over open log fires to produce salty rubber discs of cheese. With a metronomic clapping rhythm a team of female chefs roll, flatten and stretch a mixture of corn and water into tortillas.

The homemade cheese and sour cream is then stuffed into the tortillas, along with some dry roasted nuts and pickled red onions.

After seeing these artisan chefs put such care and attention into their craft the quesillos, unsurprisingly, tasted amazing. If only motorway meals in Britain were this good.

 

 

Camping on a volcano

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A view of Momotombo volcano from across Lake Managua

Another meal that stood out was a bowl of tomato and vegetable pasta. The food itself was unremarkable, but the setting was spectacular.

Sat beneath a blanket of a million stars we ate beside a campfire at the top of a volcano with views over Lake Managua to the capital city and beyond.

Dots of orange and yellow lights from distant settlements shone like flames in the gloomy landscape reminding me of paintings of the Great Fire of London.

That day we had embarked on a gruelling four-hour afternoon hike across a hilly volcanic complex to reach our camping spot: the mysterious El Hoyo volcano–named after its mammoth sinkhole.

The hike was led by Quetzaltrekkers, a volunteer-run adventure and trekking association based in the province. Unlike almost all other tour organisations in the world, Quetzaltrekkers donates 100% of its profits to locally-run projects that work with disadvantaged youth.

We awoke early the next day to watch the sunrise through the clouds, showering the verdant volcanic valley in pearly pink and orange light.

 

 

Revolution running through León’s veins

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One such street mural on the streets of León 

Back on the busy cobbled streets of León, the revolutionary spirit lives on through the city’s many street art murals.

Depictions of local people joining forces with the Sandinista Party to bring down Somoza’s military regime can be found around every corner, nestled between bullet hole stained buildings and crumbling colonial churches.

One such building is the Revolutionary War Museum, which houses a modest collection of newspaper cuttings and black and white photographs alongside used rifles and helmets from the civil war.

Having joined the Sandinistas in their early teens, the affable chaps who run the museum bring the exhibition to life with passionate first-hand tales from the conflict.

 

 

The Art Centre of the Ortiz-Guardián Collection–arguably the finest contemporary art museum in Central America–takes a less hands-on approach.

Its impressive roster of Picasso and Chagall pieces, complemented by Latin Masters such as Diego Rivera and Fernando Botero and local Nicaraguan artists, speaks to León’s strong connection with the arts.

Since the days of the Sandinista Revolution, the arts have been championed as an integral part of the people’s political expression.

From politics and art, to extreme sports, tour guides and cheese tacos: you are never far from something revolutionary in León.

 

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