War and now peace in Nicaragua
It is also worth a visit to the FSLN Museum on the main square, run by the Sandinista National Liberation Front. It was the revolutionary Sandinistas that marched on the capital of Managua and chased the president at the time, Anastasio Somaza, out of the country. Housed in an old mansion that has long past its glory days, the museum is not sophisticated, but the stories of the uprising against Somoza and the civil war are vividly told through photos and newspaper articles pinned on the walls.
That recent bloody history began in the early ‘60s when Carlos Fonseca formed the Sandinistas to protest against the brutal dictatorship of Somoza who, in turn, unleashed his Guardia Nacional force against them. Fonseca and other popular revolutionary leaders were killed or assassinated throughout the ‘70s, but the struggle continued and the Sandinistas eventually took over power in July 1979. The array of rebel forces and their opinions on how the country should be run were split. The US became increasingly worried about the growing influence of Russia and Cuba among the new government and stepped in to financially back the Contra rebels, essentially former members of the Guardia Nacional. Fighting broke out across the country between the revolutionaries and the Contras, while economic embargoes crippled any chances the new government had of getting a fresh start for the country.
My guide at the FSLN Museum was visibly moved with tears in his eyes and goose bumps on his arms as he recounted street battles that were fought a block from where we stood and recalled fallen comrades. While taking in the city view, at sunset, from the museum’s roof, with several volcanoes on the horizon, I found it difficult to conjure up his image of deadly fighting in the streets below.
One of those volcanoes, Cerro Negro, is close to Leon and popular as a day trip. If you go with one of the several local operators offering guided tours you can happily spend a day hiking up at sunrise and sandboarding down after lunch. You will be back in time to pick up a fresh mojito at the Big Foot hostel’s happy hour.
Also lifting the mood are Leon’s many great cafes, serving Nicaraguan coffee, fresh juices and baked goods. Cocinadelarte (Costado Norte opposite Iglesia El Laborio; 505-315-4099), with a courtyard full of flowers and jazz on the speakers, has a great staff and serves food sourced from local produce. Mediterraneo (2a Ave NO, opposite the Lazybones hostel) has a huge garden out back with trees, plants and birds. The staff are happy to let you spend a lazy afternoon there, reading a book, practicing your Spanish or just enjoying the surroundings with wine and cheese. If you are after more traditional fare, look for local women wearing traditional aprons, selling fresh bread, cakes and fruit on the street, at the bus station and even on the bus. In the evening, vendors set up fritangas, a type of Nicaragua barbeque, in the plaza.
Nicaragua has a strong literary tradition, with Rubén Darío leading the way. Salman Rushdie visited in the 1980s in support of local writers during the civil war and his account, The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, is worth a read to get a flavour for that time. Nicaraguan born Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin gives a vivid account of her years as an underground revolutionary, mother and poet. Leon has many bookstalls and if you need English books, check out the offices of the local volcano tour operators or one of the many hostels in town where you can buy or swap used books.