Leon: we were told Leon is the hottest town in Nicaragua and we arrived during the hottest week. Apparently the wet season rains generally commence in the first week of May.
Travelling to Leon from Granada was relatively simple. In Granada, which is my most favourite Nicaraguan city so far because it is so beautiful, we walked to a street next to the city square where buses and minivans departed to various locations. We immediately hopped into a minivan at 7.50am heading to Managua – Nicaragua’s capital city. We arrived in Managua at one of the bus terminals at 9am and within minutes were on board another minivan. A couple of hours later we arrived at the Leon bus terminal – all madness and chaos with gridlocked buses, taxis, minivans and bicycle rickshaws in the street(s) attempting to enter the terminal. This was the first time during our entire time in Central America that we saw a man handing out leaflets advertising a hostel.
Above: map of Nicaragua detailing Granada, Managua and Leon.
So many people attempting to gain our attention! John was retrieving the bags from the rear of the minivan, and we both had men attempting to negotiate a ride into town with each of us. People report on TripAdviser and other sites that you are ‘swamped’ at the bus terminal – that is the case, but I need to comment that hassling here in Central America is a rare occurrence. And being overcharged is also not a common problem, even with the serious down turn in tourist numbers in Nicaragua. One young man stayed very close to me, and I yelled to John that I had not agreed to anything. We asked the price into town. He responded with US$2 per person – we thought that may have been a little expensive not knowing the true value of fares, and he immediately agreed to US$1 per person. Little did we realise he had a bicycle rickshaw, also known in other parts of the world as as bike taxis, pedicabs, cyclos, tricycle taxis, and trishaws, just to mention a few names. It was hot. We felt guilty sitting in his rickshaw, feeling like privileged white English out of the times of the Raj in India. That said, these rickshaws are a very common form of transport, and we accepted he would have appreciated the income. The journey was longer than we expected, so we of course paid him US$4.
Our accommodation in Leon was Via Via Hostel. We were truly amazed when we arrived – the front of the building is a traditional Nicaraguan pub. It was only 11.30am and the front bar had a groovy vibe with music playing – not too loud – a busy pool table and lots of locals drinking beer. We were greeted by the Flemish owner Leven who bought the business approximately a year ago. The wide walled old building has very high ceilings and a courtyard. Behind the front bar and courtyard are rooms and dorms well away from all the noise. (Thank heavens!) We immediately commenced talking politics with Leven – he was happy to discuss any subject with us, but said politics and religion were subjects he would not discuss with local patrons. He said many regular patrons were Sandinistas – Ortega supporters. We also noticed a strong cohort of young backpackers – in fact, the most we have seen anywhere in Nicaragua. They were all part of the ‘volcano boarding’ crowd. A video was on constant rotation showing the delights of volcano boarding. You climb to the top of the volcano with your surf board wearing a yellow suit for safety purposes, and slide all the way down. I have no idea how long this adventure takes, but we, being the greeny-sucks we are, thought this was almost sacrilegious. Leven said when he bought the business it was after the April 2018 demonstrations that led to the huge downturn in tourist numbers. At that time the volcano boarding business was located down the street, and the operator could no longer afford the shop rental. Leven offered him a ‘space’ in the pub where he could operate his business – he said it was the best business decision he ever made. Young backpackers visit the pub to organise a tour, buy drinks and food, and even stay in the hostel – a win-win for both of them. Another interesting issue mentioned by Leven: electricity prices are more expensive in Nicaragua than Belgium.
Above: front bar of Via Via Hostel. This photo was taken at a not so busy time.
Above: verandah in the accommodation section at the rear of Via Via Hostel.
It was stinking hot – even by local standards. To escape the heat we decided a visit to the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian (art gallery) would be good – we imagined wonderful air conditioning to preserve the artworks. Not the case – no air conditioning. The artworks were housed in two seperate buildings located across the street from each other. The Lonely Planet states it is ‘the finest museum of contemporary art in all of Central America’. Unfortunately no photos were allowed. There was a temporary Frida Kahlo exhibition – we were excited about that. Numerous works by prominent Central American artists and American artists dating from the seventies and beyond – Warhol, Hockney, and many artists of that era. Chagal, Miro, Picasso…and many earlier artists including Rubens and other such masters. We were the only visitors at the time – what a treat – although we noted two other couples had visited that day. A gallery all to yourself. The security guards walked ahead of us turning on the lights. The art works were located in what once were rooms with an internal courtyard. Interesting layers of metal beams overlaying each other were the roof to the courtyard. It would have been extremely interesting to see these structures when it was raining, with any moisture falling directly onto the courtyard ground. Some courtyards had water features and interesting pebble arrangements.
There are over sixteen churches to visit in Leon, and accordingly there was a push by the Leon tourist board to have Leon officially declared ‘The City of Churches’ reports the Lonely Planet Ebook ‘Central America on a Shoestring’ (9th Edition, September 2016). I’m not sure if that has been achieved. In order to beat the heat, we set off early one morning to do a ‘church crawl’. Just around the corner from our hostel was a medical clinic. Twenty people were lined up waiting for the clinic to open at 7.30am. Further along the same street I counted thirty people in a queue with children – all waiting for the childrens’ medical clinic to open. Probably the most impressive church was the Leon Cathedral, also known as Basilica de la Asuncion. It is the largest church in Central America, dating back to 1610 with a number of reincarnations along the way. We did the rooftop tour – an absolute ‘must’ if you visit Leon. Standing on one section of the roof with 180 degree views we counted six other churches.
Above: Leon Cathedral stairwell.
Above: Leon Cathedral.
Above: Leon Cathedral rooftop.
Above: another rooftop photo.
Here are a few photos of some other impressive churches:
Above: the red and muted yellows of Inglesia El Calvario.
Above: the yellow ochre exterior of Inglesia La Recoleccion.
One of the more unusual and quirky museums we have visited anywhere was the Museum of Myths and Traditions. Originally built in 1921 as a jail for common prisoners, during the last year of President Somoza’s rule in 1956, the jail was used to torture political prisoners. It was simply known for a long time as Jail 21. On 23 July 1959 there was a student massacre and some students were imprisoned there. The war in Nicaragua commenced in 1978. The National Guard was strengthened and Leon was bombed. Many prisoners were tortured in Jail 21 during this war. The city was liberated on June 20th 1979. There are a few simple line drawings depicting different torture methods on the exterior of the building.
Above: art work on the walls of Jail 21.
The individual cells were dedicated to life size paper mache figures depicting various Nicaraguan folk myths. Many of these myths were associated with women who had been mistreated or abused and then took revenge upon men. Four examples are: The Woman in High Heels; The Bride of Tola; The Flying Woman; and Grab your Tit. I will not discuss all the myths, but have chosen to detail the initially the latter myth, using the exact words in the signage:
A woman was raped and lost her baby; she went mad because she could not find her son. She produce (sic) a lot of milk and her breasts got bigger giving her lots of pain and that’s why every child she can find will tell them ‘Grab your Tit, Grab your Tit.
I think the sign should have read Grab my Tit…
Above: paper mache figure Grab your Tit.
The Flying Woman:
The myth of the Flying Woman was born for many people believing that evil spirits or women who deal with Satan can transform into barn owls or black and brown butterflies. Some people guarantee they are the messages of witches. This is believed in many places in Nicaragua and that’s why if a black or brown butterfly gets into your house people take it away fearing that something bad occurs in the house. When barn owls sing, many people curse it for being (a) Jinx.
Above: the Flying Woman.
Above: the Nahua Oxcart is associated with the mistreatment of indigenous peoples by the Spanish. The cart is heard only at night, and supposedly announces death.
On our last morning we visited the botanical gardens situated approximately five kilometres out of town – to go birdwatching. The bird watching was slow going….We caught a taxi to arrive at 8am when the gates opened. The gardens were a loose structure with a few plantings, a vegetable garden, a butterfly garden and a children’s playground, but most of these gardens were seriously overgrown with weeds. A large section of the garden was untouched forest. Two different rivers boarded the botanical gardens – one unpolluted, the other a mass of plastic rubbish. We saw some extremely large odd shaped seed pods called ‘elephant ears’.
Above: elephant ear seed pods from the Tradescantia zebrina Heynh. ex Bosse tree.
Above: a Rufous-naped Wren in the Leon botanical gardens. These wrens have similar calls and behaviours to Australian babblers.
Our next destination is the Miraflor protected area north-east of Leon.