From Nicaragua to the World

History of León City.

León is named after León, Spain and is one of the oldest cities in Nicaragua. It is also warmer than Granada or Managua and a little cooler than Chinandega. The full legal name of the city, granted in Spanish Colonial times, is Santiago de los Caballeros de León, but this is rarely used. It is the capital and municipality of Nicaragua's León department. As of 2005 the city had an estimated population of about 175,000 people.

León is situated on the Río Chiquito (Chiquito River), some 50 miles northwest of Managua, and some 11 miles north of the Pacific Ocean coast. Although less populous than Managua, León has long been the intellectual center of the nation, with the university founded here in 1813. León is also an important industrial and commercial center for Nicaragua. León used to be the hub of cotton growing but that has declined. The economy is relatively depressed. Tourists are not a large, visible presence in León, though it is popular amongst more seasoned travelers. León has more colonial churches and cathedrals per capita than any other place in Nicaragua.


The first city of León in Nicaragua was established in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba about 20 miles east of the present site. After the 1610 eruption of the Momotombo volcano, located only a couple miles away, caused extensive damage, the inhabitants of this old León decided to move to another location to prevent the loss of life and property again to an eruption. That earthquake, and subsequent eruptions from the Momotombo volcano destroyed every single building. The "New León" was built on a different site and incorporates massive architecture that represents the religious art of the 17th century. This new site had been a Native American town named Subtiava. The ruins of the abandoned city were excavated in 1960 and placed on the UNESCO World Heritage list in the year 2000.

León has fine examples of Spanish Colonial architecture, including the grand Cathedral of the Assumption, built from 1706 to 1740, with two towers added in 1746 and 1779.

When Nicaragua withdrew from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839, León became the capital of the new nation of Nicaragua. For some years the capital shifted back and forth between León and Granada, Nicaragua, with Liberal regimes preferring León and Conservative ones Granada, until as a compromise Managua was agreed upon to be the permanent capital in 1858.

In 1950 the city of León had a population of 31,000 people. Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza García was shot and mortally wounded in the city on September 21, 1956. The building of El museo de tradiciones y leyendas was once the infamous XXI jail before the 1979 revolution. There are also several political murals around the city.

Construction of the colossal Metropolitan Cathedral began in 1747 and lasted over 100 years. It is the largest cathedral in Central America and displays outstanding works of art in its interior. To its north, the 18th century cathedral Iglesia de El Calvario features a colorful facade illustrating scenes from the bible between a pair of red brick bell towers.

After Granada, which is better preserved, León has the best colonial architecture in Nicaragua. It is a university town that stubbornly remains somewhat pro-Sandinista. During the 1979 revolution, the Sandinistas took over León in violent street by street fighting. Somoza then had the city bombed, an unforgivable move considering he was bombing his own people. The National Guard took León back over, again in street by street fighting, but this time less intense since the Sandinistas melted away. Finally, the Sandinistas took León back over and held it until the Somoza government fell. You can still see bullet marks on some buildings. Also, there is a shell of a church on the road out of town that was destroyed during the bombing. Across the street from this church is the Museo de las Tradiciones (Museum of the Traditions), which prominently displays a statute of a Sandinista guerrilla holding a handmade bomb. Some sarcastically call it the Museo de las Traiciones (Museum of the Treasons) as a reference to how the Sandinista rank and file has been cheated by Daniel Ortega and the rest of the Sandinista elite.

Domestic buildings in the Spanish colonial style are usually built of thick stone walls covered with stucco. The bare exterior walls contrast dramatically with the carved doorways and other highly ornamented details. The red tile roofs are either flat or low pitched. These houses typically have multiple exterior doors and few window openings, usually with grills or bars and heavy shutters.

Long narrow wrought-iron porches often open into interior gardens or exquisite courtyards. Inside, the rooms frequently lack connecting doors, and the balconies function as secluded passages between them.

Getting Around

The city is very walkable if you can stand the heat. You do not really need a car once there, unlike Managua. The locals get around by bicycle and walking, and if you need to get across town you can take a taxi. However, to go to the places outside the city, such as the beach, a car is convenient.

Ruletos (trucks) serve as local buses (C$ 3 per ride). Taxis are C$ 10 per person anywhere in the city.

Things to See

The Cathedral of León is the biggest cathedral in Central America. The cathedral is also the final resting place of Ruben Dario, as well as many other notable Nicaraguans. You can pay a small fee to climb the stairs up to the roof, where you can get a nice view of all of León's churches and the surrounding volcanoes, and you can go into the cellars beneath the cathedral. On the roof you can see close up the giant sculptures holding up the cathedral bells, just don't ring them.

The Iglesia de San Juan Bautista de Subtiava is one of the oldest colonial churches in Leon and has served a traditionally indigenous community. The rustic wood interior is a pleasant deviance from the often ornate styles that are more typical of the period.

The Fundacion Ortiz  is an artistic treasure trove. It has a collection of European masters and a stunning collection of Latin American art. There are murals all over the city. One of the more unsettling commemorates a massacre of protesting local students by the militia.

What to Do

Quetzaltrekkers Nicaragua offers non-profit volcano treks. They are located just around the corner from ViaVia and Big Foot. Big Foot Hostel offers excellent value Volcano Boarding trips with an English speaking guide.

Take advantage of the beaches of Poneloya and Penitas nearby. Be careful once there though since tThe waves are large and quite fun but watch out for the currents. The surf claims a victim or two every year, including the young and fit. There are accommodations from hotel Lacayo, old and historic, all wood structure, to Hotel Poneloya, recently refurbished rooms with a/c across the street. They have upgraded the beds, famous for uncomfortable before. Still, the rooms have no real windows but the rooms are $25 dollars a night. There are better hotels in Penitas. Try the Hotel Suyapa Beach. Rooms are a bit more expensive but well worth it if you have the money (still less than $60). They have a pool and a popular beachside restaurant.

Besides hanging out at the beach, there's a billiard hall popular with locals at the end of the paved road in Poneloya though at night it gets a little rowdy as locals get drunk on Lijon - cheap sugar cane liquor and the La Flor rum. Buses depart from the road to Poneloya on the outskirts of town (by Subtiava), they are quite affordable. Splurging on a taxi is also an option (C$150 to $250 depending). The beaches are less than 20 kilometers away.

Catch a baseball game if you are there during the season. The Leónes won the championship in 2004 and are perpetual contenders. For fifty cordobas you can sit right behind home plate, or pay less for 3rd base side where the lively crowd sits with the unofficial band. Order some vigoron, get a Victoria and enjoy. If Chinandega is visiting, it can get quite rowdy and tickets sell out. The stadium is in the northern part of the city.

Visit the Museo Ruben Dario. Pick up some of his poetry (Azul is a good beginning). There is an art museum that has a good collection, including contemporary art. It occupies two houses. The main part on a southeast corner of the street that runs from Parque Ruben Dario to the Cathedral (Avenida Central).

For the best view over the city and the volcanoes, go to "el fortin", an old Somoza stronghold southwest of León, best reached from Subtiava. It's a 20 minute walk, ask locals for directions.

Nicaragua-Así Tours takes you to places you wouldn’t think of visiting. The activities give an insight in how people really live in León, you spend a day in the life of a Nicaraguan. If you are really curious about real life, ask for one of the tours and you will not be disappointed. Nicasí Tours introduces you to local people and local families.

Volcano Boarding

Cerro Negro is accessible from León which is becoming synonymous, at least among backpacking adventure-seekers, with volcano boarding.

Cerro Negro is the youngest volcano in Central America, and like a rambunctious youth, it’s active. Born in 1850, it has erupted over 20 times since.

Volcano boarding, a young adventure activity that has popped up, most notably at Cerro Negro, is becoming popular in Nicaragua. Boarders hurtle down the active volcano’s bald, steep slope atop a sledlike piece of plywood, at speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. It’s hot, dusty, a little scary — and crazy enough to be fun.

You are given a board and a cloth bag containing a jumpsuit and goggles. First you have a steep 45-minute climb up the cone’s rocky backside which can be difficult. Pull on your goggles and the oversize orange jumpsuit then listen to a brief lesson on boarding techniques — how to balance, steer and control speed on the slope, which is 41 degrees at its steepest, they say. Off you go!!

It is dusty, fast and a little different than tumbling into snow or water but they say it is fun and so Nicaraguan.

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