Volcano boarding is fun, but it isn't the only thrill to be had in western Nicaragua.
Credit: Ashlee Drew

LEÓN, Nicaragua — Visitors to León are greeted by a large sign reading, “First Capital of the Revolution.” A museum focusing on the 1979 Sandinista uprising sits in the center of town. On a recent afternoon, a short, stocky ex-guerrilla, Marcelo Pereira, stood outside inviting tourists in.

The few who entered found only a couple of dark halls with chipped paint. Faded photos and posters hang haphazardly on the walls. Guides speak only Spanish. Half a dozen veterans sit listlessly, as if they have nothing to do but wait for the next revolution.

Tourism in Nicaragua is increasing rapidly. European and American magazines have raved about the country’s beaches, unspoiled scenery, colonial architecture, and welcoming people. The phrase “new Costa Rica” has become a cliché. Yet as tourism revenues soar — they tripled from 2008 to 2013 — León finds itself left behind.

This is the country’s second-largest city and main college town. It is full of attractions. The few tourists who show up, though, rarely spend more than a day or two here.

In Granada, 80 miles southeast of León, scores of old buildings have been restored and chic hotels have sprouted. Pacific resorts like San Juan del Sur attract hordes of tourists. León is barely on their radar.

Leon Cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua.

Many of the relatively few tourists who come here are headed to the nearby Cerro Negro for a unique adventure: volcano boarding. They hurtle down its slope on wooden boards, at speeds of up to 60 kilometers per hour.

Thrill seekers trudge up the volcano, catching views of surrounding mountain ranges streaked with white, burgundy, and yellow. From the peak, one by one, they plunge down. As they gain momentum, soot and rocks whiz by them. They reach the bottom with ash-speckled faces and pebbles in their shoes.

Most find the experience exhilarating, but quickly move on.

“They come volcano boarding, but they don’t go and see the city,” said Ashlee Drew, 21, an Australian who works for a “volcano tourism” company. She said many tourists have no idea of León’s rich revolutionary history — or its spectacular 18th-century cathedral, elegant art museum, and unique literary tradition.

People here are now realizing that tourists are coming to Nicaragua in droves, and that León is not attracting its share.

“There are so many places we don’t promote,” lamented Julio Pineda, owner of an agency called Julio Tours near the cathedral, which is the largest in Central America. “We’re blind. We don’t see what we have. We have a huge potential, but we don’t have the resources or intelligence to see it.”

Pineda points to the Museum of the Revolution as an example of how poorly León showcases itself. “It’s an offense,” he said. “This cannot be the state of a museum representing a conflict that the whole world watched.”

Nicaraguans make sawdust carpets for Holy Week in Leon.

Many tourists who come to León now are on low budgets. Pineda hopes they are just the beginning of a boom.

“Backpackers are the first to arrive, because they are escaping what is expensive,” he said. “Others will follow. Little by little, the backpackers will have no choice but to leave the city because it has changed and developed more.”

Granada, with its high-end boutiques, chic bars, and growing population of American expatriates, may be a model for León. Yet Granada has lost some of its local charm. The same is likely to happen in León as the city primes itself for foreign tourists.

An old convent has already been converted into a lovely hotel. New restaurants and night clubs, and even an English-language bookstore, have opened in the last couple of years.

Right now León is Central America’s hidden gem, but it may not remain so for long. “We’ll lose some of our authenticity, but there’s nothing we can do about it,” Pineda mused. “We’ll have to adapt.”

This article is part of a series reported by Brown University students of veteran correspondent and author Stephen Kinzer during their trip to Nicaragua.

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