Imagine searching for a place to retire for over a year and practically tripping over a top contender—filled with a stately grace, colorful cobblestoned streets, delightful garden cafés, and ancient churches at every turn—and then discovering it comes all wrapped up in an affordable package.
León is a historically rich city, sporting 10 colonial churches and nine museums. It is also an intellectual center, with 10 university campuses. But even with all it offers and a population of approximately 210,000, it still retains a small-town feel.
There are many places I’ve fallen in love with on my travels, but as someone who relies only on my Social Security income, affordability is a big factor and I found everything from accommodation to transport well within a limited budget.
I happily stayed in a private room at a hostel three blocks from the heart of the city for $14 a night with free breakfast. Even better, I discovered that a small apartment in the same area would run me about $350 per month, with all utilities included, and then was offered a bedroom in a local home for $150 monthly.
Eating out was a matter of choosing from many options—from a gardened French bakery restaurant to a tiny but elegant coffee shop. Meals eaten out generally cost me about $4 to $5, with my favorite being a crusty Quiche Lorraine and coffee for $3.35.
Living cheaply isn’t enough, however, for a sense of fulfillment and community. At the heart of the matter, is how comfortable did I feel in this city, and the answer is extremely. The people are very welcoming. A simple smile and “hola” nets you a return smile and often a conversation of real interest. I walked the few blocks to the shopping area at night by myself without fear. One night I managed to turn myself around and get lost, so I simply stepped into the nearest hostel and asked them to call me a taxi. A dollar and 10 minutes later, I was safely delivered to my hostel.
The sheer beauty of León can be a bit overwhelming, with its regal-but-worn quality. I found it was essential to carry my camera at all time, for fear that something amazing would be missed; the sun setting behind a weathered old church, a tiny woman carrying a large bundle balanced on her head, a shy little girl all dressed up and paraded by her proud papa, or just a blaze of color painted on the side of an otherwise ordinary building.
There are a couple of La Union grocery stores, owned by Walmart, and clothing boutiques abound. A couple of city blocks are consumed by the local open-air market, where you will find the real bargains; you can easily walk away with a week’s fresh produce for under $10. Major shopping is often done in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, about one-and-a-half hours away by car or shuttle (which costs $10 each way), where many American big-box stores can be found.
Taxis cost a couple of dollars for a short distance in León, but you’ll probably find yourself walking much more and enjoying it. There is so much to see, and do. Walking to the park one day, I found myself at a corner where three local ladies set up daily with fresh fruit, pastries, and coconut candy. I bought watermelon slices and a crescent roll for lunch with a piece of bright pink coconut candy for dessert and had an impromptu picnic in the park. Going for a walk with no agenda can be the best fun in León.
The day trip opportunities are endless. Tourists love trekking and boarding down Cerro Negro, the local volcano and two lovely little beach towns are just 20 minutes away: Poneloya and Las Penitas. Granada is about an hour and half away and offers its own delights for a weekend getaway.
For sports fans, there’s even baseball. The local team, The Leónes, are a championship team within their league. To satisfy the movie buffs, there’s a small cinema, which shows some films in English.
The City of Lions offers the ultimate low-key, low-cost retirement in a majestic location. Visit León and you may find it will lure you with its Old World charm and ultimately capture your heart
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