Our shuttle ride from San Juan Del Sur was a fascinating look at the changing terrain between the low, flat lands north of San Jorge and the highlands between Jinotepe and the western side of Managua. It felt like a forbidden land – remote windswept plateaus with far-reaching vistas of the steppes down to the Pacific Ocean.
After descending down to the farmlands south of Leon, our ride was uneventful except for the continuing high winds buffeting our Toyota minibus.
The Political and Intellectual hub of Nicaragua
Leon was a welcome sight and fortunately still in daylight when we arrived. The driver had a number of different stops to make in the maze of one way streets and ours was last. The Blue Hat Hostel was our first planned overnight stay.
The hostel owners were from El Salvador. Lovely people. Comfy bed, shared bathroom and a long-ish walk to the center of town. We walked to the nearest restaurant – The Imbir.
They offered Sri Lankan food along with some Polish dishes… Quite the combination! It was a welcome change from typical Nicaraguan fare.
Next morning, the hosts offered us the makings of pancakes and bananas. Every person was responsible for cooking his or her own breakfast in the shared kitchen. No problem! With great coffee it was a good start for our first day in Leon.
We made the decision to take a room in a small hotel much closer to the downtown core and some the main historical sites we’d be visiting. The Hotel Nancite had a room available so we started the trek with our bags. “Why don’t we take one of the three-wheeled bike taxis?” Heather said. “Good Idea!” They were everywhere so we flagged one down and had a fun game with the driver/rider trying to locate the hotel. Using Google maps was not his forte and we had no idea about the one-way streets. Poor guy, he was huffing and puffing when we finally stopped.
Oh, I should mention, it was about 9:45 and it was already 30 deg. C.
John was our welcoming host at the Hotel Nancite. He kindly let us keep our bags in the storage room and we took off (on foot this time) to start the first leg of the City Walk of Revolutionary & Cultural Leon in the Lonely Planet book. There’s LOTS of history here – the tour stops at 25 different, fascinating places of interest. From a Museo Entomologico with all the bugs, big and small you’ve ever wanted to know about to the world class Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Guardian.
Here are the highlights of our initial walkabouts…
The Basilica de la Ascuncion – the largest cathedral in Central America can be seen from many locations within Leon. It’s big. It’s said that the construction took more than 100 years using “indigenous labourers”.
Today, it was still undergoing the facelift started a few years ago. One can still enter the cathedral and… take the roof tour. We did that and WOW, what a view.
We spoke to a lovely young tour guide, Brenda, and she got us up to speed on some interesting facts about the region. Leon has 16 churches and… Not far away… 11 volcanoes, 3 of which are still active!
The cathedral and the other churches we visited were incredible examples of historical architecture and of course, the devout nature of the residents of Leon.
Welcomed by Sandinistas
After lunch our next stop was the Museo Historico del la Revolucion.
Just walking into the still emotionally charged building was a chilling experience. You could literally feel the anger, pride, rage, and grief after many years. We paid the 100 Cordoba entry fee (each) and we were greeted in the lobby by Juan – a VERY passionate Sandinista veteran. He was friendly but the very first question he asked me, looking straight into my eyes was… “de qué nacionalidad es usted?” “Somos Canadienses.” I replied. He appeared relieved. “No Americano… bueno.” He came closer and spoke quietly, “Americanos son malos.” We got the message. It made us feel somewhat on edge because we have LOTS of good friends that are American. But, we understood where the comment came from.
For almost an hour, we listened intently to the story of how the Sandinista movement started and how they rose up and fought against the Somoza dictatorship. Neither of us have ever heard anyone talk about a subject the way Juan did. He was extremely animated – quite often drawing his index finger across his throat to signal ‘death’. His emotional and hot-blooded descriptions of executions, women or children dying and his amigos being slain were born from images he’ll clearly never forget. And yes, Juan fought and was injured in the war – he rolled up his pant leg and showed us his leg that he nearly lost.
In the end, we had heartfelt empathy for Juan and the Nicaraguan people who to some degree, still struggle finding the path to a non-corrupt democracy. Depending on who you talk to and where they live, support for current President Daniel Ortega can be 50-50.
Legends and Traditions
Our last stop of the day was south of the cathedral at the Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones. (Musuem of Legends and Traditions). Across the street from the museum is the historic site of a bombed out church – maintained in it’s war-like setting.
The museum’s main building was a prison and it felt like it. After hearing Juan’s story, visiting a prison where torture and arduous incarceration took place added another dimension of human conflict to the city’s tour.
Inside the museum, there were various displays of exactly that – legends and traditions. One legend had to do with “La Gigantona”. It represents a Spanish woman for her height or upper class social status in colonial time. In addition she makes a mockery of Spanish women or the Spanish race.
Another was of “The Black Woman Camilla”. She was a native of the Atlantic Coast and she had moved to Leon. She was known for practicing Black Magic. With time she went mad and was hallucinating on the streets wearing the black dress she always wore as she was a widow. One of her goals was to kidnap children and sacrifice them. The iguana on her chest was a good luck charm to protect her on the streets…
We made a real effort to absorb all the stories and the images we were presented. After everything we had seen and heard today, it became sensory overload.
Let’s go have dinner, a glass of wine and try to de-program from the day.
OK… so on a lighter note… Leon definitely has a character that finds its way to your soul. The people here are very friendly and the children happy to smile and wave at us. And, after a couple of days here, we feel very proud to be Canadian.
Some final photos from the last couple of days…