Nicaragua is an assault on the senses. Its streets are a chaotic melee of activity, its landscape lush and dramatic, pierced by conical shaped volcanoes, and its towns home to beautiful colonial architecture. Any traveller through Central America will notice the contrast with the relative prosperity and stability of neighbouring Costa Rica. Here, cars are outnumbered by bicycles and the horse and cart is still a staple transport mode. However, whilst poverty may be more apparent, and the tourist infrastructure less developed than some of its neighbours, the result is a more genuine and less sanitised tourist experience. Tourists are still greeted with a true sense of warmth and hospitability which has been lost to some extent in other Central American tourism hotspots.
Leon, along with Granada, are the colonial gems of Nicaragua. As with the country itself, Leon is not as clinically preserved as other colonial centres in the region. It is still very much a living and pulsating city. Tourists are comfortably outnumbered by locals which is as it should be, giving the city a certain authenticity and richness. The Cathedral Square is the beating heart of the city. Here people work, shop and relax in equal measure, all the while in the shadow of the immense presence of the Cathedral. It is said that the initial plans submitted to the Spanish were for a much smaller version to ensure it was approved by the colonial rulers. In reality, the Cathedral built was in fact the largest in Central America, and this grand structure dominates the town. Its intricate interior provides a cool retreat from the searing heat in the Square. However, the real attraction lies at roof level. Accessed via a narrow spiralling staircase, the gleaming white roofscape is near blinding in the Caribbean sun. This surreal lunar-esque environment provides a unique perspective of the city and surrounding countryside as one meanders around the distinctive domes and is a must on any visit to Leon. From here, Leon’s chequerboard roofs spread out below, with the menacing outline of the distinctively shaped Momotombo volcano providing a suitably dramatic backdrop.
Leon is the intellectual capital of Nicaragua and the country’s history is very much interwoven with the city itself. Nicaraguan President and Dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia was shot and mortally wounded in Leon in 1956, and the city’s hotbed of intellectuals and students played a pivotal role in the revolution. Aside from politics, several of Nicaragua’s most celebrated poets have lived in the city, including Saloman de la Selva, Alfonso Cortes, and most famously Ruben Dario. Dario’s former home is now open as a museum to this most famous of Nicaragua’s sons, and rather fittingly his first poem is on display. His tomb is housed at the nearby Cathedral which seems apt.
To gain a real sense of Leon, one should wander its colourful and bustling streets. The city is incredibly photogenic with pastel shades contrasting against the surrounding landscape. The presence of Momotombo is never far away, and for those more adventurously minded, treks up the volcano are available locally. Leon provides a unique insight into the Nicaraguan psyche, playing a key role in the country’s history and culture. It therefore makes the perfect place to begin your Nicaraguan adventure.
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