LEÓN – Once the colonial capital of Nicaragua in the 1800s, León later became the center of the Sandinistas’ armed resistance to the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in the 1970s.
It was the first major city to fall to the rebels in 1979, and today this vibrant town of nearly 150,000 people remains at the heart of remembering the crucial role in the popular uprising.
But León is more than just revolutionary politics. It is also home to some of the country’s most elegant churches and best museums, as well as an active university life that makes this city a true college town.
About a two-hour drive north of Managua, the northern colonial city is also near several beautiful beaches and three active volcanoes, making it a good stepping off point for further eco-adventures.
Though there is plenty to see and do in León to keep visitors busy for a week, the essential sights can be covered in a weekend. Here’s our suggestion on how to spend 36 full hours exploring León.
Mural Walk. The colonial buildings of León share space with various political murals that were painted during the counterrevolutionary war of the 1980s.
Start out on the far east side of Central Park and head north down1st Avenue
towards the Iglesia de La Merced.
One of the most impressive murals is at the beginning of the walk – a colorful painting that depicts the arrival of Nahuatl Indians, and follows Nicaraguan history through the exploits of U.S. filibuster William Walker (1850s), Gen. Augusto Sandino (1930s) and the overthrow of Somoza. The mural ends with a girl flying a kite across a peaceful Nicaragua.
After circling the block, you can discuss Nicaragua’s intriguing history at the openair café El Sesto, overlooking the park and stunning Cathedral of León, the largest in Central America and a proposed United Nations World Heritage Site.
Revolutionary Dining. Continue your history lesson by reading old newspaper clippings that are embedded in the tables of Payita’s, a modern restaurant that is one block north of Central Park.
The best seats showcase black-and-white photographs of a younger Edén “Comandante Cero” Pastora and Dora María Tellez, rebel leaders who led the takeover of the NationalPalace in 1978. Tellez then went on to lead the Northern Front rebel group until it “liberated” León a year later.
Three blocks west is another revolutionary mainstay, the Ben Linder Café, named after the U.S. engineer who was killed by the U.S.-funded Contras 20 years ago. There is a second colorful mural depicting Linder’s work, one of thousands of U.S. citizens who came here in the 1980s to be in solidarity with the revolutionary government.
A Breather from Politics. For a more traditional night on the town, try Don Señor, a popular hangout across from La Merced Park. You can often catch a live show on Fridays.Via Via, located just northeast of the Central Park, and Tequetzal, about a half block to the west, are also good bets for live music.
Spend the Night Cheap. If you want an affordable, friendly and clean place to stay, Lazy Bones (311-3472), is the city’s newest and nicest hostel. It also has a pool, which helps beat the intense León heat. Tourists with more money to spend can stay in one of the city’s two nicest hotels, Hotel El Convento (311-7053) or Hotel Los Balcones (311-0250).
Old World Charm. Tourists don’t have to stay in the elegant El Convento to visit the historically remodeled convent across from the Iglesia San Francisco. The hotel’s café serves the best coffee in León, which tourists can enjoy while looking out over an interior courtyard with fountain and sculpted garden.
Next door to the hotel is the equally impressive Centro de Arte Foundation Ortiz-Guardian, a two-building masterpiece that houses some of the best artwork in Nicaragua. The museum specializes in collecting Latin American paintings, including original works by some of Nicaragua’s most well-known artists.
You can see artwork as it’s being excavated at the ruins of León Viejo, the original site of the city that was abandoned in the 1600s because of eruptions by Momotombo Volcano. The ruins are just a short bus or cab ride south to the small town of La Paz Centro.
Sun and Surf. If you’re feeling adventurous, take a quick day trip to one of three active volcanoes. You can hike, camp overnight, or even “ski” down the sandy surface of the Cerro Negro Volcano on a modified snowboard.
Va Pues Tours (www.vapues.com) and Quetzal Trekkers (www.quetzaltrekkers.com) organize excursions to the volcanoes. Or check out Nicaragua’s “other Pacific coast” by simply driving 20 minutes west to the sands and surf at the beaches of Poneloya or Penitas. The beaches are good for surfing, but the waves are considered too rough for swimming.
Experience the Culture. Stop in at the Casa de la Cultura (311-2116), one block north of the San FranciscoChurch, to see local artwork and get a sense of what’s happening around town. El Teatro Municipal José de la Cruz Mena (311-1788), on the corner of2nd Avenue
, is the best place to catch a play or live show on the weekends.
The French Alliance of León (311-0126), one and half blocks north of the Iglesia de la Recolección, offers movies and other unique cultural events. If you want to take a bit of culture home with you, try the Librería Don Quijote near the Hotel El Covento, which offers many hard-to-find books on Nicaraguan history.
And don’t forget to top off your day with the best local fritanga (sidewalk grill eatery) El Buen Gusto, about three blocks west of central park on1st Street
Five Cathedrals in Five Minutes. Start the day in God’s good graces with a sermon in one of the country’s most famous and beautiful churches. The grandest of them, the Cathedral on the Central Park, also houses the tomb of beloved Nicaraguan poet and national hero, Rubén Darío.
Circle north to see the stunning Iglesia de La Merced, and then a block and half east to Iglesia La Recolección. Other churches well worth seeing include Iglesia de San Juan, near the old train station, and the Convento de San Francisco, across from Hotel El Convento.
Museums for Every Taste. León hosts an eclectic mix of museums, ranging from revolutionary themes to botany. Most are open on Sundays.
Tour the EntomologicalMuseum (311-6586) if you like to see numerous bug samples. Don’t miss the RubénDaríoMuseum, in the childhood home of the famed poet. His original works and gifts from dignitaries are on display, as well as his former bedroom, preserved as he left it. Straight across from the RubénDaríoPark is the house of another famous poet,Museo Alfonso Cortez, which contains some of his original belongings. Round out your day at the Tradition and LegendsMuseum, off ofCentral Avenue
close to the river, where you can learn about the 14 legends that make Nicaragua so unique.