If you have only one day to spend in Nicaragua, León is a great choice. León is the 3rd largest city in Nicaragua and is considered the historical and cultural capital. According to our guide, Pedro Mejia, it has the largest art gallery in Latin America with over 2,000 works on display. It had been the private collection of some rich person and was donated to the cultural patrimony of the country. We would be visiting that museum later.
León is located on the western, or Pacific, side of Nicaragua, which is the developed side. The east –Atlantic/Caribbean side is the location of two autonomous regions, each about the size of Israel, with few people and little development.
León is both the intellectual and revolutionary capital of Nicaragua. In 1854, there was a civil war between the liberals (Democrats) of León and the conservatives (Legitimists) in Granada – a friendly rivalry has existed between them since.
The current socialist government provides both citizens and visitors free health care and free education through college. Dental care is not free, but it is inexpensive, and people must pay for eyeglasses.
Nicaragua today is the second poorest country in the Americas (Haiti is the poorest). Because of this, according to Pedro, there is little crime stemming from drug cartel activity. The cartels are not interested in Nicaragua because the people there are too poor to buy drugs! Pedro himself is an immigrant; he is originally from Peru but lived many years in Canada. He met his wife, a Guatemalan, in Canada, and they chose to emigrate to Nicaragua because it was cheap and safe. They own a restaurant in León, where they struggle to make a profit.
Tourism, however, is growing in Nicaragua, and Pedro makes extra money by working as a tour guide. He told us he was going to take his wife to the movies that night with the extra money he earned that day. They were planning to see the new Beauty and the Beast movie and even buy popcorn!
As we entered the outskirts of León, out the window, I could see the more obvious poverty as we passed dirt roads lined with houses little better than shacks and working class neighborhoods with faded colors and windows covered with paper. However, it was also apparent that people did their best to keep their neighborhoods attractive with rose bushes growing through the cracks in the sidewalk, modest bright sidewalk family-run cafés, and residents diligently sweeping the front of their homes.
Downtown León was characterized by brightly painted store fronts, hotels and homes lining streets filled with cars. Pedro remarked at the number of cars clogging streets that he was surprised because few people could afford these luxury items. He used to have a car, he said, but it got wrecked and now he rides a bicycle.
Our first stop was at the central square, teeming with people, especially school kids on their midday break. In the middle of the square was a fountain flanked in lions. The square had several important government buildings, two schools, a church and a restaurant called El Sesteo, which we used to go to the restrooms, since Pedro knew the owner.
The restaurant had some interesting décor, including painted masks, a wall of illustrations under the heading “Nuestras Leyendas,” and a blackboard imprinted with a poem by Ruben Darío, the most famous Nicaraguan poet. Over the bar were four portraits of poets, including Darío.
From there, we went to the main church, the Basilica Catedral de la Asunción, built in 1747. Its façade was totally white with six bells above the entrance, each in its own chamber. Inside was a famous sculpture of the “black Jesus” hanging on the cross in a white columned shrine. The altarpiece was gold with a royal blue interior, which offered a striking contrast.
Some famous people (including Darío) were buried in this cathedral, many of them also poets. Pedro pointed out Darío’s tomb, the “tomb of the weeping lion,” under which the poet’s body is buried.
I liked the aesthetic of the cathedral’s décor with bas reliefs in black and white as well as the domed ceiling and arches.
The Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdian with its many rooms surrounding a lush courtyard was our next stop. This is supposedly the largest collection of paintings in Latin America. We weren’t allowed to take pictures of the paintings, but we could take pictures of the various courtyards, which were really pretty.
My husband is so disobedient! He took photos of a few of the artworks:
Our final sightseeing stop was the poet Ruben Darío’s house which we were given time to view. I noticed that the informational signs were all in Spanish only, so I imagined that was why many on our tour finished looking around very quickly.
Finally, we had lunch at a convent that has been converted into a hotel, aptly named Hotel El Convento. There are many religious artworks on display and during the buffet, we were entertained with traditional music and dancing.