Leon, Nicaragua has a reputation for liberalism, intellectualism and independence. There are three major universities and several smaller ones, the largest cathedral in Central America and a World Heritage Site, a dozen or more ornate churches (think baroque and neoclassical) and an art gallery hosting the largest collection of Central American artists anywhere.
It’s not advertised, but if you ask, for $2 you will be allowed to tour the roof unsupervised. The views of the area as well as the cathedral domes make it well worth the time!
A great city for walking, I spent a couple days just visiting churches and museums. I spent a few hours in the very impressive Ortiz-Guardian Museum. It is housed in three buildings and features works of Diego Rivera and many Central American artists. There are even some original Picasso sketches. The Museo de Ruben Dario (Nicaragua’s most famous poet and favorite son–his tomb is immediately to the left of the main cathedral alter) is also worthy of time spent.
Horrific violence is also a key factor in Leon’s history. In 1956, the very cruel U.S. backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza Garcia was assassinated here by a local poet. When the revolution came, the ruling family never forgot and the bullet marks and bomb scars from the ensuing carnage are still in evidence. Many murals depict this past. When children protested the new Somoza regime in 1959, singing freedom, soldiers opened fire on them killing four and wounding many more. This is a section of a mural depicting this massacre:
Adjacent to the Parque Centro and the Cathedral is a very long mural covering two buildings which depicts Nicarguan history from the Spanish conquest to the most recent revolution.
As I was pondering this mural, a woman approached me and introduced herself as Maria. She spoke slowly and deliberately in Spanish. I was able to mostly follow her as she interpreted the mural for me and then stated how her husband had been shot to death at this spot. Wiping my eyes, I apologized for the role my government had played in all this violence, but she would have none of it. There was no blame in the retelling of her history; only the genuine desire to educate and remember the past. The experience affected me profoundly and deeply.
So this is also Leon. It’s the gritty version of its more polished rival, conservative Granada. It’s a place where people are real and unapologetic, yet friendly. It is a town of good restaurants, music and nightlife. It is a town of Bohemian gathering places and expresso bars. It is a town where you can get good street food well past midnight for a couple of dollars. It is Leon.