León

León has a colonial charm unmatched elsewhere in Nicaragua, except perhaps by Granada. It is typified by narrow streets, red-tile roofs, low adobe houses and time-worn buildings. Founded by Hernández de Córdoba in 1524 at León Viejo, 32 km from its present site, it was moved here after the devastating earthquake of 1609. The existing city was founded in 1610. In recent years, economic factors have taken precedence over the cleaning up of old buildings, but the work continues slowly.

As the capital, León was the dominant force in Nicaragua until Managua took control in 1852. Today, it is still thought of as the 'intellectual' capital, with a university (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua, UNAN) founded in 1804, religious colleges, the largest cathedral in Central America, and several colonial churches. It is said that Managua became the capital, although at the time it was no more than an indigenous settlement, because it was halfway between violently Liberal León and equally violently Conservative Granada.

Ins and outs

Getting there

Regular buses to León run from Managua and Chinandega, with frequent routes from Estelí and Matagalpa. International buses will drop you off, if asked, at the entrance to town. The bus terminal is at the northeastern end of town, a 20-minute walk, or short taxi ride from the centre.

Getting around

Most attractions are within a few blocks of the centre so choosing a fairly central hotel will make it an easy city to explore on foot. Local buses will take you to the terminal and a network of
colectivos
work as cheap taxis.

Tourist information

INTUR
, www.leonon line.net
, has maps for sale, reference books and friendly staff.

Sights

Legend has it that the plans for the
Basílica de la Asunción
(the
cathedral
)
, were switched with those of Lima (Peru) by mistake. However, the enormous size of the building, designed by Guatemalan architects, may be explained by the need to withstand the area's heavy seismic activity. Construction was begun in 1746 and was not completed for 113 years. Its famous shrine - 145 cm high, covered by white topazes from India given by Felipe II of Spain - is, sadly, kept in a safe in the vestry, to which the bishop holds the key. The cathedral also houses a very fine ivory Christ, the consecrated Altar of Sacrifices and the Choir of Córdoba, the great Christ of Esquipulas (in bronze with a cross of very fine silver) and statues of the 12 Apostles. At the foot of one of these statues is the tomb of Rubén Darío, the 19th-century Nicaraguan poet, and one of the greatest in Latin America, guarded by a sorrowful lion. All the entrances to the cathedral are guarded by lions said to come alive after midnight to patrol the old church. The old Plaza de Armas, in front of the cathedral, is now
Parque Jerez
, but is usually referred to as
Parque Central
; it contains a statue of General Jerez, a mid-19th- century Liberal leader.

León has the finest
colonial churches
in Nicaragua, more than 12 in all, and they are the city's most significant attraction.
La Recolección
, with a beautiful baroque Mexican façade, built in 1786, has a neoclassical interior with mahogany woodwork.
La Merced
, which was built in 1615 and burned by pirates in 1685, is notable for its seven different altars. It is one of the oldest churches in León and has fine woodwork inside and a restored exterior.
San Felipe
was built at the end of the 16th century for the religious services of the black and mulatto population of the city. It was rebuilt in the 18th century in a manner true to its original form, a mixture of baroque and neoclassical.
El Calvario
, constructed
during the same period, is notable for its neoclassical façade attributed to the growing French influence in Spain at the time. The
Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco
, founded in 1639, is the oldest convent with a church in León. It still has two plateresque altars from Spain and its original pillars. In 1830, after the expulsion of the Franciscans from
Nicaragua, it was used by various civic organizations and is now a gallery. The
Iglesia de San Nicolás de Laborío
, was founded in 1618 for the local indigenous population, and is the most modest of the León churches, constructed of wood and tiles over adobe walls with an unostentatious façade and a simple altar, 10 m tall. The celebration for San Nicolás is 10 September. The
Iglesia de Nuestra Señora Pilar de Zaragoza
was built from 1884-1934 and has two unusual octagonal turrets and an arched doorway with tower above. There is a pleasant walk south across the bridge, past the church of
Guadalupe
, to the cemetery.

The house of poet Rubén Darío, the famous 'Four Corners' in Calle Rubén Darío, is now the
Museo-Archivo Rubén Darío
.
It has an interesting collection of personal possessions, photographs, portraits and a library with a wide range of books of
poetry in Spanish, English and French. Darío
died in 1916 in another house in the northwest sector (marked with a plaque). Alfonso Cortés - another of Nicaragua's finest poets who wrote a famous poem while chained to the bars in front of Rubén's old bed - went insane while living in Darío's house in 1927 and spent the rest of his years in a Managuan asylum until his death in 1969, leaving behind the
museo-archivo
.

Two blocks west of La Merced church is the
Centro Popular de la Cultura
which has frequent exhibitions and events, and is the only place in León to see live folk concerts (schedule on the front door). The
Museo de Leyendas y Tradiciones
, has handcrafted life- size models depicting the rich legends of León. The
Museo Ortiz Guardián
, is a colonial home and art museum.
Museo Archivo Alfonso Cortés
, has dusty displays of the great poet's manuscripts.
CIMAC
, cimac@ibw.com.ni,
 which used to be a garbage plant, has been transformed into a centre for urban environmental initiatives, with a self-guided trail and further information available at site.

Sutiava

The western end of the city is the oldest, and here is the oldest of all the churches, the parish church of
San Juan Bautista
in Sutiava (1530). Las Casas, the Apostle of the Indies, preached here several times. It has a fine façade, the best colonial altar in the country and an interesting representation of
El Sol
(the sun), carved in wood on the ceiling. The church has been beautifully reconstructed. Just south of the church on the dirt plaza is a
museum
, housing many colonial relics.

On the main street north of the church is a small
Museo de la Comunidad Indígena Sutiava
or
Museo Adiac
, with an anthropological and historical museum. The ruins of the nearby parish churches of Vera Cruz and Santiago are both crumbling and unapproachable. Also in the suburb of Sutiava is the
Casa de Cultura
with several interesting murals adorning the walls.
Inside there are a few cafés, information about prominent Nicaraguan cultural figures and the offer of a free history and cultural lesson on Thursdays in basic Spanish.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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