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All About Leon – Nicaragua

Leon - Nicaragua and nearby volcanoes

Leon – Nicaragua and nearby volcanoes

All About Leon – Nicaragua

Leon is one of Nicaragua’s two famous & gorgeous colonial towns, the other being Granada. Leon is situated in the northwest of Nicaragua, just 20 km from the Pacific coast and 100 km / 1.5 hours northwest of the capital city, Managua.

Leon was my very first destination in Nicaragua. I arrived there from Honduras, Nicaragua’s northern neighbor, on an all-day cushy bus trip from Tegucigalpa City, the Honduran capital.

Being a huge fan of colonial architecture, and having read & heard many other great things about Leon, I arrived already expecting to like the town. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t in the least disappointed. In fact, Leon even exceeded my expectations!

colorful colonial buildings in Leon - NicaraguaFor starters, Leon has a much bigger, more extensive historic colonial center than I’d expected. There are literally hundreds of blocks chocked full of gorgeous colonial buildings.

In fact, Leon was the best colonial city I’d seen since leaving Mexico, a country packed with dozens of beautiful colonial towns and cities. Aside from Antigua, Guatemala, the rest of Central America doesn’t have any noteworthy colonial towns – at least not in El Salvador or Honduras.

So when I arrived in Leon I was ecstatic and starry-eyed wandering the streets. I merely had to step outside my guest house, where I was met with an eye full of beautiful buildings, to feel instantly happy, a big smile plastered across my face.

beautiful colonial buildings in Leon

beautiful colonial buildings in Leon

My delight was no doubt enhanced by the fact that I had just ‘escaped’ Honduras, a country I did not like in the least (read my views on Honduras here) and had, in great contrast, suddenly landed in a wonderful, beautiful colonial city.

However, I would have loved Leon anyhow. Besides the great architecture, Leon also offered me all my favorite ‘treats’. I found excellent, local Nicaraguan dark roast espresso coffee (almost impossible to find in Central America) on sale right in the grocery store! And cheaply, too: 145 Cordobas / under $5 US a bag.

fancy espresso in LeonEqually amazing, I found a charming upscale cafe that actually served dark roast espresso (even more rare in this region of the world) that I liked. I visited the cafe nearly every day.

Then I discovered Leon’s downtown cinema, just two blocks from my guest house and showcasing the latest films. I got to attend the movies one rainy afternoon for under $4 US, popcorn in hand.

Every day I wandered the streets for a couple hours, always discovering other little charms. Horse and carts are still commonly used to haul all sorts of materials, produce and merchandise around town. I regularly heard the clomp, clomp clomp of horses hooves as I explored the streets.

I discovered a bunch of second-hand clothing stores, with imports from the US, a real novelty in my world travels to date. I did a shopping session one afternoon and, quite surprisingly, found some new beach dresses for myself.

I visited museums, including one of the best modern art museums I’ve ever seen in my life (!), joined a free city walking tour, ascended the cathedral bell tower for scenic views over Leon and nearby volcanoes – three of them smoking the morning I went up – tried several local dishes, and learned a lot of interesting facts and tidbits about charming Nicaragua.

interior of Leon Cathedral

interior of Leon Cathedral

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed my time in Leon and highly recommend it to anyone interested in colonial towns and immersion in real local Nicaraguan life.

In particular, I recommend wandering the streets to admire the gorgeous architecture and interesting daily Nicaraguan street life, visiting various historic churches and the cathedral, going up in the cathedral’s bell tower for views galore, and checking out the fabulous Museo Ortiz-Guardian.

Iglesia de La Recoleccion

Iglesia de La Recoleccion

Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardian is considered one of the best modern art museums in Central America. I certainly agree with that!

It’s housed in four gorgeous, adjacent colonial homes of prominent historic families of Leon and showcases the impressive private modern art collection of the owners of Nicragua’s BanPro Bank, who have amassed a staggering collection of modern paintings, prints, sculptures and installations by artists from nearly every country in Latin America and some from Europe.

Included are pieces by some of Mexico and Europe’s most renowned artists, including Diego Rivera, Charles Chagal, Andy Warhol. (Alas, NO photos allowed!)

But I’ve become so caught up in my own little visit to Leon that I’ve neglected to share some important factual and historic data about the town, which helps explain why Leon is the great town it is today.

So here’s some useful information to supplement your visit to lovely Leon, Nicaragua:

Iglesia de Calvario - Leon

Iglesia de Calvario – Leon

Brief History of Leon

Founded in the early 1600s by Spanish conquerors, Leon served as capital city for the region during the entire Spanish colonial era as well as after Nicaragua’s independence up to the mid 1850s. As such, it was the political, cultural, educational and religious center of the region.

During their long reign, the Spanish constructed thousands of beautiful buildings and more than a dozen large churches in Leon, including the largest cathedral in Central America, aptly named Cathedral of Leon. The massive church is also reputedly the fifth largest in all of Latin America, including Mexico,which has some very substantial Catholic cathedrals.

Nicaragua’s first and most important university – UNAN (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua) – was established and still is located in Leon. The country’s most famous poet, Ruben Dario, resided in Leon and his former home is now a modest museum detailing his life and work.

DSC09904 - CopyLeon’s Cathedral and 17 historic Catholic churches were built over several hundreds of years between the early 1600s-1900s. Not surprisingly, each has different architecture, interiors and color schemes. Anyone interested in architecture, particularly church architecture, might enjoy visiting all of them.

Cathedral of Leon is the largest cathedral in Central America and fifth largest in all of Latin America. It is not particularly tall, nor does it have soaring towers. Instead, it’s a massive, thick-walled structure that takes up an entire city block and was built to withstand earthquakes, which it has does admirably to date. The interior is quite grand.

Besides the Cathedral, the most noteworthy churches, in my opinion, are the golden Baroque-style Iglesia La Recolecion, colorful & eclectic Iglesia de Calvario and huge San Juan Bautista de Sutiaba.

horse & cart in Leon Leon Today

Today, as I discovered when I arrived, central Leon still consists of several hundred blocks full of original colonial buildings, currently in varying states of decay, maintenance, repair and restoration.

Most of the churches have been well-maintained. Many grand and modest buildings have been beautifully restored. But mixed among them are less fortunate buildings in need of paint jobs and/or repair.

Partly for that reason, Leon has a slightly disheveled, grungy look and feel to it. The streets tend to be rather dirty and littered with rubbish. And there’s a solid population of down-and-out citizens roaming around.

I have to admit that all put me off slightly when I first arrived, but I soon got used to it and decided that was quite ok. Most importantly, and happily for visitors, Leon is not a dangerous city. It’s just a bit grungy. The stunning architecture, churches and museums certainly make up for that.

Las Pinitas Beach - near Leon

Las Pinitas Beach – near Leon

Things to Do Near Leon

Within one hour of Leon you can reach the little-developed beach of Las Penitas on the Pacific coast, the ruins of Old Leon (the first Leon city that was built then abandoned by the Spanish) and several volcanoes that you can climb and/or ride down on wooden sleds, aka ‘Volcano Boarding’.

Summary

So that about sums up my introduction to charming Leon. I liked the town so much that I’m going back for another week before I leave Nicaragua.

I consider it a ‘must see’ in Nicaragua for anyone into architecture, historic towns, modern art and/or visiting volcanoes.

You might also enjoy:

My Introduction to Nicaragua

My Introduction to El Salvador

My Whopping 5-Day Visit to Honduras

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