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 and poetry.

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. 

Further reading
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.