Bloody hell, León is hot. Sure, it's a dry heat without a hint of moisture in the air, but the sun beats down without mercy and the breezes are hairdryer-hot, and as you walk around the colonial streets of Nicaragua's capital of political intellectualism and poetry, you can practically hear the walls panting. How anyone manages to survive in this furnace of a city, I don't know, but any plans we'd made soon evaporated in the stifling heat as even mad dogs and Englishmen waved the white flag and ducked inside for a cold drink.
The main plaza of Parque Central seems to be the proverbial top shelf of this fan-assisted oven of a city, despite a handful of trees and a wide open space that you would assume would be light and airy. Instead the sun pounds down on some wonderful colonial architecture, from the faded grey-white of the Basílica de la Ascuncíon cathedral – the largest in Central America – to the clean Spanish lines of the orange Bishop's Palace. Indeed, there's excellent architecture all over the city, from the magnificent churches and museums to the crumbling colonial houses that pepper the streets. If it wasn't so damn hot, this would be an urban walker's paradise.
We managed to explore a reasonable amount of the city centre before succumbing to the heat. The highlight was a trip up to the roof of the cathedral, from where you can see across the whole city and to the stunning volcanic peaks beyond, but this is no ordinary roof terrace. For 50 córdobas per person, a slightly glum girl takes you up a series of winding staircases to the top of the building, where she points across a curved roof to a small tower with a balcony. The only problem is that you have to tightrope-walk along the apex of the curved roof, which falls away to either side and into what looks like oblivion (though there are wide gutters on either side, so you probably wouldn't fall to your death if you slipped... probably). For anyone who gets vertigo – like Peta, for example – this is the ultimate test, particularly as there's only one way back from the tower: the way you came. Health and safety has yet to reach this part of the world, and doing it in the head-spin of the stifling heat of the city centre only adds to the thrill.
Luckily León is also home to lots of enticing restaurants and bars for when the heat gets too much. Indeed, the Parque Central is one of the few plazas we've come across with a restaurant that spills out into the square, rather than huddling beneath the dark colonnades. And even though the backstreets have the usual thin, high pavements that you find in most Spanish colonial towns, which tend to prevent life from spilling out into the streets, it's easy to wander along and look inside the shops and bars, because instead of hiding everything in the distant courtyards you find in places like Antigua, they instead have high ceilings and large windows to let the air in, so you can see what's going on from the outside.
This means you can also look out from beneath the whirring fans of your chosen hidey-hole, making people watching not only possible, but fun. And there's a lot going on in the streets of León, especially when the sun fades away to leave the colourful walls radiating heat like the world's biggest storage heater. On our first night, we holed up in a restaurant and watched an astonishingly drunk man stagger from bar to bar, taking one step forward and two sideways in his attempts to find his way into the karaoke joint on the opposite corner. The staff patiently turned him around and pushed him on his way, but after staggering away, he'd eventually turn around and fall back through the doorway, until the staff fished out a large stick which they used to poke him away, gently the first two times, but slightly more suggestively as he failed to take the hint.
After being turned away for the umpteenth time, the drunkard noisily threw a beer bottle at the waiters, missing by some distance, and turned his attention towards the restaurant where we were enjoying some of the spiciest chicken wings in the world. Unfazed by the traffic whirling through the junction between us, he staggered in the front door and came right up to our table, which was just inside the front door of the restaurant. He grunted drunken nothings into the spaces above our heads and pointed noisily at our plate of wings before a waiter ran over and whisked him back out again, apologising profusely as we smiled that it was fine and not to worry, that this was life and what can you do? Luckily a man walked past the door with a tray of street food balanced on his head, no doubt heading for the excellent food market round the back of the cathedral, and the drunkard locked his sights on this new target and staggered off towards the man and into the depths of the hot night. We would see him the next day collapsed in a doorway in the main plaza, dead to the world like the dogs panting in the meagre shade of the nearby trees.
We'd had plans to explore more of León, and had considered taking a bus to the ruins of the first attempt to build the city, which were buried in ash from nearby Volcán Momotombo in 1610. But we just couldn't function in the heat, and the fans in our hostel room served only to recycle the stifling air, sucking the moisture from our skin and shrinking our brains until they rattled inside our skulls like desiccated walnuts. We did manage an excursion to climb Volcán Telica, which was well worth the effort, but we spent most of the time hiding indoors, mainlining cold fruit smoothies and iced water while planning our escape to Estelí, in the much colder northwest of Nicaragua.
It was even too hot for Peta. Need I say more?