Teatro Municipal José de la Cruz Mena is the cultural heart of the city. Since its inauguration in 1885, it hosted many important concerts as well opera and theatre events of touring groups from Europe and South America during the early 20th century. Even young Rubén Darío did his first poetry reading here. Later the theatre fell into disrepair and was badly burned in 1956, leaving nothing behind but its façade. It has been beautifully restored and reopened after more than 40 years of neglect. Modern equipment was installed, improving the sound, lights and air conditioning, and it became the second most important theatre in Nicaragua, after the Teatro Nacionál Rubén Darío in Managua. The theatre stands out in the city’s architecture, distinguishable between the colonial houses in its vicinity because of its impressive façade. It combines the influences of colonial baroque and neoclassical style. Different cultural events are organized with the aim of promoting the art of dance, theatre, cinema, literature and any other form of cultural expression that brings together people of all ages. It was declared National Cultural Patrimony in 2007.
The theatre is named after León’s greatest classical composer José de la Cruz Mena. There’s a sad story behind. Maestro Mena suffered from leprosy and for that reason, at the premier of his award-winning composition titled Ruinas, he was not allowed to enter the theatre to hear its debut performance. He sat outside on the front steps of the theatre, crying with joy as he listened to the orchestra play his composition inside the elegant theatre. Soon after he died at the age of 33.
It is open to the public for half-hour theatre tours, Mon-Fri 8m-12:30am and 2-5pm.
From barrio Laborío the street known as Calle la Españolita, one of the first streets built in León, takes you to Ruinas de la Ermita de San Sebastián (Ruins of San Sebastian Church). It is located across the street from what was once a prison that the National Guard used to torture opponents. Ermita de San Sebastián was built in 1742 on a site long used by the indigenous people for worship of their own gods. It was built as a chapel of the Catedral, and was one of the first religious buildings of León. The church was rebuilt in the late 18th century by Colonel Joaquín Arrechavala. It was almost completely destroyed in 1979 when Somoza’s government forces bombed the city.
Nowadays, the Ruinas de la Ermita de San Sebastián consists of the shattered remains of the outer walls, and surprisingly, the intact bell tower. The ruins can be accessed at any time.
No trip to León would be complete without a visit to the city's most prominent building, Basílica de la Asunción. Situated at the central plaza, this impressive building is Central America's biggest cathedral. Construciton of the building started in 1747 and went on for over hundred years. Three architectural styles grace its magnificent proportions – colonial, neoclassical and baroque. From the outside it appears as just another large church, but the towering marble columns of the interior are enough to leave a visitor breathless. The place is beautifully maintained, and the walls are decorated with exquisite frescoes.
León's Cathedral features three main levels, each of them represents something different. Seven small cellars have been constructed below the building. They have been used to store and hide treasures. One of the cellars also provided access to a system of tunnels that connected several churches. This architectural jewel is also a final resting place of Rubén Darío, the most famous Nicaraguan poet. His tomb can be found just to the right of the altar, guarded by a weeping stone lion. Other tombs to look out for int the cathedral include a lesser known poet Alfonso Cortés and independence fighter Miguel de Larreynaga. At the cathedral's centre is a beautiful, Spanish-style courtyard known as the Patio de Principes.
You can pay a small fee to ascend to the rooftop of the building. From there, you will have a superb view of the city, several León's churches and the surrounding volcanoes. The roof itself is impressive. The cathedral has 34 domes, many church bells (the heaviest is believed to weigh over three tonnes) and four huge statues on its roof. The cathedral's domed roof also holds the bell La Libertad that announced to the world the independence of Cental America from the Spanish empire.
After having a great lunch at CocinArte we took a stroll around El Laborío, a neighbourhood where the restaurant is located. It is one of the oldest in the city, dating from the 17th century. Its first inhabitants were Naboria Indians (naborias means free Indian). They were dedicated mainly to arts and crafts, and thus maintaining the city's economy.
Just across the street from the restaurant, facing a small park, we found Iglesia de San Nicolás de Laborío. Felipe III ordered its consturction in 1618. The church was built by the missionaries who arrived with the conquistadors from Spain. It formed the central part of the working-class neighbourhood that provided work to León's wealthy class in the 17th century. Iglesia El Laborío is a graceful, rural-feeling church, the second oldest in León. The architecture is colonial baroque. Nowadays, the church is in a rather bad condition and in need of renovation.
Iglesia de San Juan overlooks a park of the same name (Parque San Juan) and it's a mottled grey construction, not exactly what you would call prety. The church is strangely asymmetrical and very apparently in need of some restoration. But it does have a certain stoic charm to it. Built between 1625 and 1650 and rebuilt in the 1739, the architecture of Iglesia de San Juan is modernist neoclassical. The exterior, reconstructed by Monseñor Santiago Abarca in the 1850s, hides a lovely white interior with glass cases of saints and delicate ceiling murals. This was actually his last construction.
The church is on the edge of Leon's relatively safe downtown, while the park and the nearby bus station area can be a little dodgy. This neighbourhood of León will give you a good feel for what the city was like in the 1700s: church, park, small houses of adobe using traditional taquezal technique (wood frame construction with mud filling), and the nearby market.
One of the best looking churches in León, if not in Nicaragua, Iglesia El Calvario is located about four blocks east from Parque Central, at the end of the Calle Central Rubén Darío. It is set at the top of wide steps on a small hill overlooking one of León’s narrow streets. The exact date of its construction is not known, but it was somewhere in the first half of the 18th century. The church was reconstructed at the beginning of the 20th century, conserving its original appearance, and then beautifully renovated in the late 1990s.
Iglesia El Calvario was built by the illustrious Mayorga family. Despite its neoclassical style some baroque elements were added in the decoration. The façade of the building is extraordinary. It is painted yellow, with brightly coloured biblical scenes that resemble comic strip panels, and has red brick bell towers. The ornamentation in the front reflects the increasing French influence in Spain at the time.
The interior is quite nice as well. There are two famous statues known as El Buen y El Mal Ladrón (The Good and the Bad Thief).
Casa de Cultura, housed in a quaint, colonial building with an imposing wooden balcony, is a place filled with activities regarding culture and education. It is characterized by murals, decorative tiles and spacious patios, and there is a collection of artworks (historic and modern sculptures and paintings) of local and international artists. Many come to see the painting of Ronald Reagan on the shoulders of a Nicaraguan woman with her wrists slit and Henry Kissinger as a jester looks on. Large paintings and murals depict mythical Nicaraguan characters.
The center is also a good place to find out about all kinds of cultural classes and activities. It hosts a range of performances and special events, and you can take Spanish classes, as well as dance, music, art and other classes. There is also a small library open to public, offering journals and periodicals dating back to 1975.
It is open Mon-Fri 8am-noon and 2-7:30pm, Sat and Sun until 6pm. Admission is free but there are varying fees for classes.
Occupying two facing buildings, Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Guardián is probably the finest contemporary art museum in Central America. This private collection, owned by the Ortiz Guardián Foundation, has a wide selection of art on display, from pre-Columbian ceramics to European religious paintings and modern art. The restored colonial buildings have lovely patios, and besides, one of them has some historical value as it was the seat of parliament in 1849. Located just opposite of Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, the Centro de Arte is easy to find.
The first building shows pieces of art in a time path, beginning with artistic objects from the 16th century and ending with contemporary art. When you enter, you'll find photographs of former politicians and historically important people on the walls. The more you explore, the more unexpected artistic treasures you will find. The second building is mostly dedicated to contemporary art. Rubens, Picasso, Chagall and other big names make an appearance, but it's the work by Latin American masters, such as Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Fernando Botero, Roberto Matta and others, that define the collection. There are also works from artists who participated in national art bienales, including pieces from Austrian, Ecuadorian and Peruvian school. The Centro de Arte gives interesting insight into the fascinating world of art, from famous western artists to lesser known local artists, and it's a must-see for anyone interested in art.
It is open Tues-Sat 10:30am-6:30pm and Sunday 9am-5pm. There is a small entrance but on Sunday it is free.
If you are interested in Nicaragua history, in particular its recent political history, then Museo de la Revolución is a good place to visit. It is housed in a huge ramshackle old building facing the main plaza, once the former palace of the Somoza dictatorship. The museum features many books, photos, newspaper cuttings, photocopies, paintings and other memorabilia relating to the revolution, and the town itself is scattered with murals, statues and other forms of homage to the local heroes. Museo de la Revolución is staffed with veterans of Nicaragua's numerous wars. One of them, Roberto, became my guide.
The tour took a good hour and I learned a lot about Nicaragua history. He explained who and what the pictures and newspaper cuttings on the walls were about, how prior to the Sandinista revolution the Somoza family had ruled the country for just over four decades and they had been doing very little to help improve the lives of the people. Roberto also explained about FSLN - Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front) activities and student protests in León, and told abut his own experience. He fought in the 1970s, was caught, sent in jail and tortured, then escaped and lived in the mountains for three years. Later he was sent to Cuba for training and returned to fight against the counter revolutionaries in the 1980s. Like many, he suffered a lot of post-traumatic stress. But thankfully, he is now finally leads a much more peaceful existance. For many it may sound like something out of a movie, but for the people of Nicaragua it was very much a reality only a few short decades ago. At the end of the tour Roberto took me up onto the tin roof of the building from which we had an awesome view over León and the surrounding volcanoes.
The museum is open from 8:30am to 5:30pm and there is a small entrance fee. It was a great tour so I gladly gave my guide a good tip.
Another church worth having a look is Iglesia de la Recolección. It is located at the so called Calle de los Bancos (Bank Street), a busy street housing several banks. Built in 1786 by Bishop Juan Félix de Villegas, Iglesia de la Recolección is considered the city’s most beautiful church and excellent example of the 18th century Latin American baroque style. The church was subject to an expensive restoration, courtesy of the Italian and Spanish governments.
The façade has a Mexican baroque style with swirling columns and medallions portraying the life of Christ, and it’s the only church in León constructed using carved stone. This lavishly decorated façade make the cover of many tourist brochures. An impressive yellow façade gives way to a richly decorated interior, with elegant carvings, expressive statues of the stations of the cross, elegant mahogany columns and ceiling adorned with harvest motifs. There are three naves and the altars are in neoclassical style.
The church is generally open early in the morning or after 4:30pm.
Founded in 1639 by Fray Pedro de Zuñiga, Iglesia de San Francisco, along with the nearby convent, is one of the oldest in the city. In 1830, after the expulsion of the Franciscans from Nicaragua, the convent was used by various civic organizations and is now a gallery. The church was rebuilt and modified several times, notably in the mid-1980s to repair damage done during the Sandinista revolution in 1979. A small, tree-lined courtyard next to the church is a pleasant place to escape from the heat and relax. The church is located on Calle Central Rubén Darío, two blocks west from Parque Central.
Rather plain on the outside, the interior is much more interesting. The church is a national heritage site with lots of gold and georgeous nave. It contains two of the most beautiful altars of colonial Nicaragua and two elaborate altarpieces for San Antonio and Our Lady of Mercy.
Located three blocks south from Parque Central, across the street from Ruinas de la Ermita de San Sebastián, Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas (Museum of Traditions and Legends) is one of the very fascinating attractions in Nicaragua and the most interesting museum in León, which should not be missed. The museum is housed inside what used to be a prison during the Somoza regime. The prison was built in 1921 (hence its name, La XXI) and served for this purpose almost 60 years. Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas owes its existence to a local woman, señora Carmen Toruña, who had the will to protect and to educate new generations about the stories, fables, folklore, tales and beliefs that have lived through the centuries.
The museum contains a quirky collection of life-size papier-mache figures that celebrate famous Nicaragua legends and characters. It has five rooms, four of which are filled with fables such as La Carreta Nagua, La Cegua, La Chancha Bruja (the Pig Witch), La Mocuana, La Llorona and La Gigantona (the Gaint Lady). Small placards explain the legends in Spanish and the museum. Paintings that adorn the walls of the prison do not share the stories about colourful legends, but the pain and agony that the prisoners suffered during their time here, and the various torture methods that were inflicted on them by the National Guard. The only living reminder to the prisoners is a big mango tree that shades the walls of the museum. It was planted by a prisoner and watered from the same well that was used for terrifying electric shocks. There are also some interesting political and historical murals painted on the outside.
Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas is both, heartbreaking and uplifting. A Spanish guided tour is available. The guide at the museum overflowed with fascinating stories and information about this imposing building that was once home to many. The museum is open Tue-Sat 8am-non and 2-5pm and Sunday 8am-noon, and the entrance fee was 7 cordobas (December 2010).
more pics in the travelogue
The old indigenous town of Subtiava is now a western suburb of León and you can get there by a 10-minute bus ride from the centre of the city. The barrio is centered on a beautiful Iglesia San Juan Bautista de Subtiava, better known as Catedral Subtiava, which is the oldest intact church in the city. Though most of the people come here for the bus connection, since all the buses to the beaches of Poneloya and Las Peñitas leave from El Mercadito Subtiava (Subtiava Market).
The market starts early in the morning when people from nearby villages bring baskets filled with fresh produce. This local market is definitely worth visiting, not only for delicious tropical fruits, but also to experience local life. Compared to Central Market of León, this one is rather small, but not less interesting. It is piled with colourful goods, from fruits, veggies, beans, rice, crabs and fish. This is the first place fresh seafood arives from Pacific coast. Here you can also get tamales (traditional Latin American dish made of corn-based dough filled with meat, cheese or vegetables, which is steamed or boiled in a leaf wrapper).
Best time to visit is in the morning when it's not too hot yet and the goods are still fresh. I was staying just a short walk from here so it was a very convenient place to supply with fresh tropical fruits, and besides, a good way to support local economy.
Unlike any other city in Central America, León is extremely proud of their artists, especially their poets. Rubén Darío has the main street, a park, cemetery and numerous buildings named after him as well as being buried in a tomb in León’s most prominent building, Basílica de la Asunción (Central America’s biggest cathedral). Though the most important is Museo Rubén Darío which can be found in the house where the poet lived. I was in León during Christmas time, and sadly, the museum was closed all those days, so I had no opportunity to visit it. But I passed by the shady and pleasant Parque Rubén Darío almost every day. Located one block west from Parque Central, the park is also known as Parque de los Poetas and pays tribute to four famous Nicaraguan poets, all sons of León. The park is dominated by a statue of the beloved Rubén Darío and also honors other Leónese poets, including Alfonso Cortés, Azarías H. Pallais and Salomon de la Selva. It's a popular spot to sit, chat and people-watch, but doesn’t offer too much else to the visitor.
The teacher who told me about the murals asked if I were interested in visiting El Fortín which was the last holdout of the Guardia Nacional in León. I had been thinking of going there so when she said that she knew a taxi driver who would take us there for 5 cordobas ($0,30) I agreed with her. If I hadn't read that a dirt road leads there I would have thought that they would take me some isolated place and rob me (I've got a vivid imagination you see). On the hill top there are some cells left. Some with tiny window up or no window at all. No heating, no toilet. It must have been terrible for those held there as prisoners. The walls are full of writings by the prisoners. What unhuman circumstances those poor people had.
From the hill you can see León down in the valley and all over its surroundings. It gives totally different feeling to the place.
When we arrived in León the teacher said that it would be 50 codobas. I told her that we agreed it would be 5 cordobas. My Spanish is not perfect but I am 100% sure that she said 5 cordobas earlier. 50 cordobas is not much money for me and I paid it, but it left me with a feeling of being cheated. The teacher wanted to take me to see other sights of León but I said that I had had enough and left.