<>Leon was founded in 1524, the same
year as Granada, and is larger than Granada, but not as popular
with tourists (not that anywhere in Nicaragua is a major tourist
is historic, comfortable, cheap and safe if you don't do anything stupid (number one rule of life--Don't do anything stupid). It also has some nightlife, but mostly for young people who know latin dancing. I arrived on Thursday, April 24 and stayed until the following Wednesday. I got a room in Hostel Via Via for 130 Cordoba, about $9 a night. The hostel used to be the house/hacienda of someone wealthy, and my room was huge but lacked a bath. That's ok, they had built a bathroom/shower house nearby. While in Leon I walked around the city taking pictures, cleaned and waterproofed my boots--they were in sad shape after the muddy hike up Vulcan Madera, read the local newspaper, and not a whole lot more. The pictures begin with two of the 18th century Iglesia del Calvaria, followed by the city's Cathedral and the adjacent Bishop's Palace:
The interior of the Cathedral, with the stone lion on the grave of Ruben Dario, Leon's most famous poet:
Out of the center of Leon is the San Juan de Bautista de Subtiava, built in the early 18th century. Below are pictures of the exterior of the church and two of the interior, including the sun emblem on the roof. The sun emblem was probably put there to make the church more appealing to the indigenous people at the time. Following that are the remains of Leon's first church, the Templo de Vera Cruz, built in the late 16th century. It was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1835:
Near the Templo de Vera Cruz is a museum with art and relics that were salvaged from it. What was most notable about it was the guard, a young soldier with the most battered and questionable looking AK-47 I've ever seen. When I started to enter the museum he leaned his gun against the wall, collected the trivial admission charge from me (a few cordobas, less than half a dollar), then walked me through the museum while his automatic rifle was left unattended outside. He was a nice guy but not a well trained soldier.
Back to the center of town. Near the Cathedral is the Mausoleo de los Heros y Martires. I was impressed by the mural bordering the monument which symbolically traces the history of Nicaragua. I attempted to Photoshop my pictures into pieces that give a sense of the scope, but didn't do a very good job:
My guide book and the people at the hostel
told me that there was an interesting abandoned building of historical
interest, El Fortaleza, on a hill outside of Leon. This was one
of the last places that Somoza's forces held out prior to surrendering
to the Sandinistas in 1979. I was assured at the hostel that it
was safe to walk there during the day and the only problem would
be the smell of a garbage dump on the way. I was not told about
the scavengers in the garbage dump, pathetically skinny people,
dogs, and cattle trying to scrounge enough from the refuse to
survive. I was alone, miles from help, among some of the poorest
people on the planet, and all they did was acknowledge me with
a "Buenos Dias" and a puzzled smile. They could have
easily emptied my pockets and sold my camera, clothes and passport
and buried me in the garbage and probably gotten away with it.
This would have left them with more money than they would have
earned from months from scrounging, but none of them made the
slightest hostile move towards me. If I had wandered into this
kind of situation in many parts of Central America I might have
disappeared forever. While I never call any place totally safe
and always advise travelers to be cautious, I've got to say the
parts of Nicaragua I visited were much safer than expected.
I can't help but contrast the poor but honest scavengers in the garbage dump with the elite of Nicaragua who have their children chauffeured to a coming out parties in limousines. I believe the main reason for this discrepancy in wealth is that the left and right wing parties of Nicaragua, derived from the Sandinistas and Somozans, are equally corrupt, unconcerned with the poor and unenthusiastic about investigating and prosecuting each others plundering. The poor stay very poor, the rich stay very rich, and elections and revolutions only change the names and speeches of the crooks in charge. That's my impression of Nicaragua; I think it applies to a lot of countries.
Now for the pictures from El Fortaleza, starting with the view of Leon, an exterior and interior shot of some of the buildings, and the garbage dump and scavengers:
Leon was worth a short visit, but no more. So on April 30 I took the bus the Managua to try and arrange another volcano hike.