Nicaragua has long been associated with revolutions, dictators and corruption, but in recent years, things have changed for the better and tourists are visiting in greater numbers, drawn by the incredible range of things on offer and the country’s very reasonable prices.
From hiking volcanoes and lush green forests, to surfing
on the beaches of the Pacific Ocean or visiting the ancient hieroglyphics on Lake
Nicaragua’s Isla de Ometepe, the country’s treasures are replacing older, darker
associations, like the thousands that were killed, tortured or disappeared
during the 40 year reign of the Somoza dictatorship, which ended in 1979. Coffee
farms, exotic birds and plants, art and literature, and colonial cities like
Granada and Leon, are now accessible in this more peaceful time.
Leon, a slightly crumbling but endearing city, has cobbled
streets, old churches, a famous cathedral and several volcanoes close by. It
also remains a city of strong political views and was a well known base for those
who fought against the dictatorship in the latter part of the 1970s. The
evidence of the heavy street violence during those years can still be seen by the bullet holes that remain
in many of the buildings on the main plaza. But the city has turned a corner
and there is a wonderful slice of Nicaraguan life to experience.
On any given evening, around sunset, the locals sit on
wooden rocking chairs by their doorways swapping news with the neighbours and watching
people pass by, a peaceful scene that reminds us how life has returned to normal
after decades of unrest.
The city is easy to negotiate, essentially branching
out from the main plaza. The cathedral on the plaza, the largest one in Central
America, is the burial place of Nicaragua’s famous literary son, Rubén Darío, author of Azul, a work of prose
During the heat of the day the cathedral is a
peaceful, airy and relatively cool respite where you will find locals of all
ages offering prayers and candles to the holy statues. Visit the church store
across the street, a wonderful old-fashioned place with rosary beads, candles, holy
medals and pictures for sale that is popular with local Catholics.
A few blocks west of the plaza on Calle Central, is
the house where Rubén Darío grew
up. It is now a small museum and fans of his work can see his notebooks and
personal items along with photos and memorabilia of his travels to Europe.
A block away is the Fundacion Ortiz (at 3a Av SO) that
houses, in two colonial buildings, a large collection of Nicaraguan art. Intricately
designed pre-Columbian pottery sits alongside modern canvases, installations,
photography and sculpture from today’s Nicaraguan artists. The layout is
spacious and tranquil and the collection gives a comprehensive overview of the country’s
developing artistic side.
Spending time in Leon means experiencing and, in some
cases, meeting with people who were involved in the revolutionary war of the 1970s
that overthrew the dictatorship of Somoza and the civil war that followed in the
‘80s when the US-backed Contra rebels sought to unbalance the new government.
It is estimated that more than 50,000 people were killed in the revolution and
the loss of life continued as the new political system fragmented.
The former city jail of Leon, built in 1921, was notorious
for torture during the four decades of dictatorship by the Somoza family; many
prisoners were never heard of again once they passed through the gates. It now
houses a small museum dedicated to telling the stories of Nicaraguan folklore
and traditions, but the tragic history is close at hand. On my tour, the guide
indicated we were standing above mass graves. I walked the crumbling parapets
of the exterior wall, a route that prison guards would have done daily, and from
there saw a number of hand painted murals on exteriors walls, reminders from the
locals of the sacrifice they endured to oust Somoza. After looking out over the beautiful city from
the jail’s parapets, I saw local kids play soccer in a bombed out church across
the street. The next generation has seemed to have left the ghosts behind.
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.