Lovely Leon, Nicaragua
Once I returned to mainland Nicaragua via my flight from the Corn Islands, I caught a minibus to Leon, only a couple of hours away from Managua. Leon is a charming city in Nicaragua, the second largest city after Managua. It is well-known in Nicaragua for its youthful vibe, due to the many students that reside in the area. I was eager to see and take part in some Nicaraguan cultural activities as well as do some trekking and volcano boarding (post to come), as Leon is the base point for these activities.
Throughout my travels, I’ve seen hundreds of different churches, most of which start to blend together. However, the Leon Cathedral (officially known as Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of Leon), will always stick out in my memory thanks to its stunningly white exterior and exquisite rooftop.
The inside of the church is nice, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the rooftop. Walking along the white spires on the roof, one feels like they have been transported to the Greek Isles instead of being on mainland Nicaragua. It also offers impressive aerial view of the charming city and the many volcanoes that seem to be only a stone’s throw away from the city.
Flor de Cana Distillery Tour
The Flor de Cana distillery is located in Chichigalpa, a small town not far from Leon. After doing a bit of research by asking around at the various travel agencies in Leon, I determined that the “package tours” that they offered merely consisted of transportation to and from the distillery as the tour of the distillery is run by actual employees of Flor de Cana. Hoping to cut out the middleman, I caught a public bus to Chinandega, got off at the designated stop (a large sign advertising Flor de Cana), and walked a mile to the factory. Make sure to call ahead to reserve a spot in the tour, as there only a few tours conducted in English each day.
I arrived about a half hour early for the 11am tour as I had given myself plenty of time to get there due to the uncertainty of Nicaragua’a public transportation. The tour costs $20 for the 90 minute tour. The various tour agencies had quoted prices to me in the $40 range, meaning I saved about $20 just by simply taking public transportation!
Our group was small with only four other people in the tour. Our guide was impeccably dressed, wearing a Flor de Cana hat and red pants. I received a distinct “Willy Wonka” vibe, and the tour turned out to be exactly that! After a brief introduction, we boarded a golf cart-like vehicle and were transported to an old-style theater we learned more about the history of Flor de Cana Rum and the Pellas family, the creators of the delicious rum.
After the video we went underground to a rum cellar where our guide instructed us on the proper way taste rum-using all of our senses but touch! It reminded me of the complexities and intricacies of wine tasting.
Next we learned how the barrels are assembled and tested for durability. I never considered the importance of the vessel for a liquid, but our guide explained the the rum gains its smoky flavor from its years of storage in casks. To enter the storage room where the barrels are kept as the rum ages, our guide selected a volunteer to open the door using a giant key (again with the Willy Wonka vibes!) As I stepped into the giant warehouse, my senses were assaulted with the strong smell of rum-definitely not a bad thing! Our guide selected a 29-year old barrel that had yet to be watered down and currently consisted of 77% alcohol! With the exception of trying absinthe one time, I had never sampled alcohol that strong. I took just a tiny sip, but could not believe how strong the taste was as it hit my throat-definitely not for the faint of heart!
Lastly, the tour finished up at the small museum that surprise-ended up right at the gift shop. Here we were treated to one last drink, this was a Macau cocktail made with the Flor de Cana clear rum. The gift shop was full of Flor de Canal merchandise and alcohol and I was going to buy a bottle of rum to bring home when one of the guys on the tour with me tipped me off to buy it in the airport, as it would be cheaper.
All in all, I greatly enjoyed the tour. While the price was pretty high (even for Western standards), the free drinks and tastings definitely helped to offset the price tag. I was also even able to catch a ride back to Leon with two guys who were renting a car, making me extremely glad that I hadn’t booked a package with one of the agencies!
While I had heard of rooster fights existing in the world, I wasn’t aware of its importance in Nicaraguan culture until I arrived in Leon. Usually held on Sunday evenings, the events offer an opportunity for Nicaraguan men and teenage boys to gather together and socialize. These events are held on private property where a small ring has been constructed and makeshift risers ring the perimeter. As such, it is nigh impossible for a foreigner to find it on one’s own.
I did find an agency that would take me to one. Costing about $15, it included transportation to and from Leon. My guide was a man in his early 30s named Hector. It ended up being just me and him, which I preferred, as I feel it would ruin the authenticity if I arrived along with 15 other tourists.
When we arrived at the location, Hector and I grabbed a beer and mingled with a few other people as we waited for the fights to start. Some of the men played a gambling game while they waited. After about a half hour, it was determined that the fights would be canceled as the electricity for the lights above the ring weren’t working. All of a sudden, the place became a ghost town, as the men grabbed their roosters who were waiting in cages and all sped off on motorbikes. I was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to witness any fights, but Hector said he knew of another location where we could go.
Luckily the electricity at this place was working! By the time we arrived, the fights were already underway, and there were about 100 spectators surrounding the ring, loudly cheering on the rooster for which they had placed a bet. There were a few other men off to the side either hard at work prepping their rooster or having it weighed on the scale. I weaved in and out of the crowd and the fights were nowhere near as bad as I had though. Very rarely would a rooster fight to the death. When they know they can’t win, they often attempt to run away, speeding around the ring, or simply lay limp to “play dead”. Hector explained how the owner of the rooster then takes extra care in nursing it back to health, as it is considered a valuable asset to its owner
It was a great experience watching the excited crowd and hearing their cheers and excitement. A few of the other spectators came up to shake my hand, happy that I was here. Hector also told me that these roosters lead a better lives than their brethren that are bred solely for human consumption. While ethically, one might argue that cock fights should not exist, I do not think that it is intrinsically wrong. There is no tie-in to tourism in an effort to exploit money from tourists. There are monetary prizes for the owners of the winning roosters and the spectators do place side bets with each other however. It is nowhere near the level of the Tiger Temple nor elephant riding in Thailand, nor the sea turtle “hatcheries” in Sri Lanka.
Next post: My experience boarding down an active volcano as well as camping out on a dormant one!