“Santiago de los Caballeros de Leon”
Our first day excursion while in Nicaragua and after visiting its capital city Managua the previous day. The historical and colonial city of Leon, named after the city of the same name in northwestern Spain. It has the largest collection of colonial architecture in the country, yet only for its size being the second largest city in the country. For instance, once you visit Granada you will see that appears to be more colonial structures there than in Leon. Nevertheless, both cities are the masterpieces in Nicaragua, and both as impressive with their own character.
For churches and cathedrals Leon has no rival. It has the largest number of any city in Nicaragua, and majority of any other city across Central America excluding Guatemala. But the current location of Leon is not that of the first original settlement founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba 30 kilometres to the northeast. The archaeological remains of Viejo Leon as it is known the original settlement are an UNESCO World Heritage Site for being the only Spanish colonial settlement that was never expanded, changed nor developed since its creation. After only 86 years since it was built, the nearby Momotombo volcano and earthquakes destroyed it. A rebuilt would have been not optimal for the proximity to the volcano and possible repeated catastrophe, hence the decision for building the new city farther to the west on a much secured location.
As you might know by now, Managua like any other Central American country lies in the Ring of Fire, with many active volcanoes and frequent earthquakes. And as I briefly described in the travel guide for Managua, the most recent and catastrophic earthquake flattened Managua in 1972. Thankfully the decision for the new emplacement of Leon has secured it through the centuries coming to our days almost intact and with more than 75% of its original colonial architecture.
A day is good enough for visiting both Leon and the ruins of Leon Viejo, but indeed requires of good time management bearing in mind the archaeological site of Leon Viejo closes at 17.00pm for which you will need to make your way here before then. The only way for this to work in time is going to Leon early in the morning, no later than 10.00am, and then negotiate a taxi from Leon to Leon Viejo, ask him to wait for you, and then drop you off at the main road where the buses heading to Managua pass by and where you will be able to get on the first one that comes. From this point you are actually half way between Leon and Managua so do not commit the mistake of heading back to Leon if your final destination for the day is being back in Managua. A better description on transports is explained in the sections below.
When looking for a place to eat this is not difficult in Leon. Being one of the major tourist spots in the country you can find restaurants and nice places everywhere in the central streets. We discovered, however, a nice fast food Nicaraguan chain, Tip Top, that saved us a lot of time than having to search for decent places on a rather very limited time schedule we were having. It was so good that we had dinner there every day we were in Managua as it was next door to our hotel. Try their grilled chicken salad, it could not be any fresher than that and the menu costs 160 Cordobas. But of course, if time is not your limitation, then go for a more traditional place with nice Nicaraguan cuisine.
For more information about Leon check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. The currency of Nicaragua is the Cordoba. Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Leon:
- Central Park Area As for any Spanish colonial city, the Central Square or Park is the core of the city from where all the roads where built following a strict grid pattern.
-Cathedral of the Assumption Is the largest cathedral in Central America, built between 1747 and 1814 in Baroque style. Due to its anti-seismic solid construction it has survived intact earthquakes and volcanic eruptions from nearby Cerro Nerro Volcano. Do not miss the beautiful tomb of modernist poet Ruben Dario buried inside, nor the chance to climb to the rooftop for great views. It has been recently included to the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
-Convent and Church of San Francisco Built in 1639 is one of the oldest in the country still standing. Inside the church you can find the best examples of plateresque altars, while the courtyard is the highlight. The finest example of Leonese colonial style in the city where beautiful porticoes around a fountain and walkways are flanked by lemon trees.
-City Hall Considered one of the city’s art-deco masterpieces, built in 1935 was damaged by Somoza’s National Guard during the Revolution of 1979 lead by the FSLN but completely restored afterwards.
-Jose de la Cruz Mena Theatre Another great example of colonial architecture from 1884. It was the first theatre built in Nicaragua. Located one block to the west of the Cathedral.
-Church of La Merced The current building dates from the 18th century, built atop an older convent. Next to it is the baroque style Paraninfo which is the administrative building the National Autonomic University of Nicaragua. Located one block to the north of the Cathedral.
- Streets Around Most of them retaining almost intact the colourful colonial structures. The main street is Calle Central running completely from west to east crossing the old town and where most of the sights are.
- El Calvario Church The finest colonial baroque church in Leon, built in the 18th century is one of the landmarks located at the east end of Calle Central (Main Street).
- Church of Saint Phillip Originally built in 1685 and expanded in 1859 to the current form was built primarily for backs and mulattoes. Two blocks west of the Cathedral, in Calle Central..
- Church of Subtiava Completed in 1710 is the second most important Catholic building after the Cathedral. To the west of the city in Calle Central.
- Assumption Chapel Dating from 1679 and used as an Episcopal Palace was later occupied by the Mothers of the Assumption until our days. In 1935 it was subject to alterations and modifications hence the current blend of early colonial baroque and neo-Gothic styles.
- Church of San Nicolás Tolentino del Laborío Built in 1618 upon orders of King Philip III of Spain.
- Church of the Recollection Built in the 1780s is considered the finest example of Mexican baroque architecture in the city.
- Leon Viejo The original city of Leon, founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, and completely abandoned after several earthquakes and volcano eruptions destroyed most of it on behalf of the new Leon built 30 kilometres to the west. The site is listed an UNESCO World Heritage Site for being the only original Spanish colonial city in the New World that never changed or expanded ever since its creation. Entrance fee 140 Cordobas.
- Motomombo Volcano Literally next door to Leon Viejo is the one to blame for the destruction of the city as such. You can clearly see it from the former castle of Leon Viejo ruins. The viewing point offers the best view of the lake and nature nearby.
- Cerro Negro Volcano Is one of the youngest volcanoes in the world, and also quite an active one, threatening the city where in occasions had to be evacuated.
Being one of the key tourist spots in the country, it is very easy to reach specially if coming from the capital city Managua. Leon also sits very near the Pacific coast hence a lot of tourists come from all directions.
Coming from Managua is the option I can describe as being the one I did. With extremely frequent buses and microbuses departing every time they get full from the UCA (Universidad Centro Americana) which is near the Tiscapa Lagoon. Simply arrive there and get on the first bus you see heading to Leon. You won’t need to actually even look for the buses as you will hear the drivers screaming out loud the destinations. It costs 54 Cordobas and takes approximately little 1 hour and a half. Once in Leon, the arrival point is either along the way or last stop the Market. From the market you are a bit far from the centre of the city and the cathedral, but you can take (I strongly recommend) a micro bus from there to the cathedral, it only costs 5 Cordobas.
When heading back to Managua, do the same journey opposite way and get the bus from the Market stop, unless you are planning to also visit the ruins of Leon Viejo as we did. If so, negotiate a taxi driver in Leon and tell you intend to visit the archaeological park of Leon Viejo and then being drop in La Paz at the intersection with the Panamericana where the buses to Managua stop. We had to ask 3 drivers as the others were asking way too much money. Our deal was 25 US$ for all this which was totally fair for both sides.
From La Paz to Managua you can get on the first bus that comes, or wait until you see a nicer one, but make sure you take one before 19.00pm. It costs 30 Cordobas.
Within the city of Leon there is absolutely no need for taking any extra public transportation other than before mentioned, from the Market station to the Cathedral area. Distances are short and it is best on foot.
Since we did not stay over in Leon as our base was in Managua, I describe here below about our accommodation in the capital.
Managua came as being the most expensive city to get a hotel in our entire Central America tour. The fact that there are not too many large properties aggravates the chances of finding a good deal. Of course there are plenty of small family run hotels, B&B and hostels, which is what we are not really looking in our holidays, unless strictly necessary.
A good and reasonable point to start your search is by checking some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers.
While originally we booked a small hotel because of high fares of international brands, we managed to change it at only 3 days before arriving in Managua as we found a superb deal at Hilton booked through their official website only. To save you from having to go through property after property reading comments and trying to make up your mind, definitely aim to seek for Hotel Los Pinos or Mansion Teodolinda. They both have the best reviews, competitive prices and nice properties. The later one was meant to have been our hotel before we changed it for the Hilton.
Hilton Princess Managua, in kilometer 4.5 Carretera a Masaya, to the south of the city, is only 5 minutes away on foot from Metrocentro shopping centre. It was great in all senses, since the moment we arrived and until we checked-out. Everyone was really professional in all departments. The room was nice and fresh, very clean and spacious. Good breakfast with dishes rotating daily, and a beautiful pool. Also as a great plus is the location along the road to Masaya and Granada for what you can get on a bus to both cities from the door of the hotel!. Shops, restaurants, cinema and supermarkets were all just 5 minutes away at the shopping centre.