One of the richest men living on the outskirts of Leon, Nicaragua is the owner of a Western Union. Conflicts of the 1980s sent a million natives fleeing from the country. In spite of the peaceful climate in Nicaragua today, those who retreated to the United States and other countries in the 80s, have not returned. But they do wire money from other parts of the world to those they left behind.
Like so many countries in Central America, political unrest and the resulting governments in Nicaragua have stalled its development in many areas. While they have not experienced a war in nearly 35 years, their recovery remains slow and landmarks show the scars of their conflicts.
Corinto, one of the largest harbors in the nation, neighbors Leon and boasts its own container terminal. Any day of the week you will find trailer trucks waiting along the highway to enter the port to drop off or pick up goods. You might expect Leon, only a short drive from the harbor, to be more fully developed, yet life there, by U.S. standards remains in another era. A vivid dichotomy lies in the spirit of the hard-working people who proudly talk of their growing prosperity, while horses, donkeys, pushcarts and bicycles are still an important means of transportation so many citizens.
A drive up the Pan American Highway away from Corinto’s busy port, offers a view into a life where beans and rice are the main staples, where there is no minimum wage, and where teacher’s low salaries are supplemented by the government with rice and soap.
In the communities and farmlands between the harbor and Leon proper, campesinos, impoverished rural communities, abound. Landscaping in front of homes consists of dirt and livestock, as well as laundry hanging to dry wherever space allows.
The possibility of increased tourism in Nicaragua holds great hope for this region, and its residents push to bring in visitors. The lure of a colorful and wildly interesting history might be inviting enough to make Nicaragua a worthwhile destination in the eyes of many tourists.
What To See in Leon
Years of fighting for independence has clearly left its mark on Nicaragua. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have also contributed to the strife throughout the nation. And so it seems improbable that a Baroque style architectural landmark from the 18th century could survive in the main square. Considering it was constructed with turtle eggs, sand and rock, makes it even harder to believe.
Although in disrepair on the outside, the adobe Basilica Cathedral is the largest of its kind in Central America and a landmark not to be missed.
It houses the tomb of world-renowned poet, Ruben Dario, as well as the remains of 27 other people including bishops, priests and musicians.
Arches, massive paintings of the apostles, and a black Christ
lead to the altar and the great dome above. A climb up a narrow shaky staircase leads to a roof with bell towers, a collection of domes on two different levels,
and an unobstructed 360 degree view of Leon’s churches and surrounding volcanoes. Tunnels beneath the cathedral connect to the other churches which are visible from this height.
People watching at one of the cafes in the main square like El Sesteo, is a popular activity. There you can enjoy one of the locally grown coffees for which the region is known. As you enjoy the brew, try to imagine the street fighting in the square by Sandinistas in the late 70s and 80s. From this vantage point you’ll find inspiration in the profusion of public wall murals, many that tell stories of revolutionary events and heroes.
Long gone is the street fighting, replaced by commerce, mostly children relentlessly hawking handmade items outside tourist stops in the rain.
If you’re looking for adventure in and around Leon, try a volcanic trek with a guide or a boarding trip in which you climb an active volcano and ride down on the ash. Transportation takes you to the base after which you climb the volcano, sometimes a 45-minute hike. After a small practice run, you are sent down the volcano at speeds sometimes reaching 89 km an hour. Get a feel for volcano boarding in Leon on YouTube.
Leon has long been the nation’s intellectual center, with the university and six of its schools residing in the city, the main building being one of the most striking. More than 6,000 students attend and work towards degrees in tourism, law, and international relations.
The Museum of Myths & Legends is a unique experience and one to long be remembered. Leonese from days gone by are brought back through handmade, full size figures made from papier-mache. Located in a former prison, the museum was built in 1921. Follow from one room to another to take in the colorful presentation representing various aspects of Leonese folklore.
Throughout Leon there is no shortage of museums where you can view works of art by famous European masters, entomology, gold and silver artifacts, and extensive cultural history.
El Fortin, the last holdout of the National Guard offers spectacular city views. But along with a visit to the Fortress, comes the possibility of criminal activity for visitors arriving in small numbers. Venture into this area of Leon with caution.
For a relief from the heat in Leon, head for the ocean, which is about a 15 minute taxi drive away. The old charm of Poneloya beach a short distance from Leon, draws tourists to the Pacific even though the surf with its strong currents claims lives every year. In this fishing village, one street rims the ocean with summer cottages on the other side. A good collection of seafood restaurants can be found here but few hotels.
A short drive from Corinto, picturesque Chinandega sits in the shadow of one of the many volcanoes for which Nicaragua is known, San Cristobal. With its impressive cone shape, San Cristobal is the highest volcano in the country. Visiting the crater, hot springs, kayaking in the mangrove forest, or just lounging on the tame beaches, are just some of the activities available in Chinandega.
Leon and surrounding areas boast a rich and diverse geography, one of rolling farmlands and palm lined beaches. This interesting combination looks a little like a melding of Ireland and Hawaii, and may be the true draw that continues to attract tourists.