My Nicaragua Love Affair Part 2 – Leon

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Continued from previous post, which you can read here.

My next stop is León, Nicaragua’s second largest city after the capital Managua. The city welcomes me with spotless blue skies and oppressive heat.

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I spend three nights in a breathtakingly beautiful hotel, El Convento. It has been rebuilt on the grounds of the old San Francisco convent using the same Spanish-colonial style and with a proliferation of religious decor to preserve the original ambience.

_DSC7286 copy_DSC7230-2 copyThe hotel is spacious and airy with a pretty courtyard providing a much needed refuge from the stifling heat and the scorching sun. Unusually for Nicaraguan hotels, there is a bathtub in my room (but as you might expect: there is no hot water!)

_DSC7282León itself is a dizzying feast for the eyes overflowing with fine examples of Spanish colonial architecture._DSC7433 copyThe beating heart of the city is the grand Cathedral of the Assumption, the largest cathedral in Central America and a UNESCO Heritage Site which took more than 100 years to complete staring during the Age of Enlightenment in 1747.

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It shines with its white-washed walls brilliant under the bright sun.

_DSC7371 copyInside the Cathedral is the tomb of Rubén Darío, the most famous Nicaraguan poet. He is the Shakespeare of Central America and the “Father of Literary Modernism”, whose works have had a lasting influence on Spanish literature of 20th century. Inside his tomb is marked by a regal stone lion.

_DSC7238-2 copyUnexpectedly, a torrential rain starts an hour after I arrive in Leon bringing a welcome hint of coolness to the air, and I make my way to Nicaragua’s largest art museum, Centro de Arte Fundación Ortíz – Gurdián, across the road from El Convento. This spacious gallery houses a private collection of one of Nicaragua’s richest man (who also happens to own the hotel that I am staying in). The collection is impressive, encompassing the Old Masters and contemporary art, both from  Europe and the Americas. 

The collection seems to be endless, spanning several interlinked buildings. Some of the old masters’ paintings make me chuckle – they are badly executed and are rather terrible, and yet I applaud the effort the owners went to in order to procure them. I am, however, impressed by the Latin American masters’ pictures – Diego Rivera, Rufino Tamayo, Fernando Botero, Roberto Matta and more – that define the collection._DSC7264-2_DSC7292 copy_DSC7303-2 copyAfterwards, I stroll to the main plaza sprawling at the base of the Cathedral of the Assumption to get my favourite local meal of marinated pork and boiled yuka, vigorón, at El Sesteo. Situated right in front of the cathedral, this landmark cafe is perfect for people watching! Satisfied, I roam the streets until twilight falls.

_DSC7214-2 copyThe next morning, I wake up at dawn to go on a hike in the environs of Leon. Leon is surrounded by magnificent volcanoes, so this city is the perfect base if like me you love hiking. _DSC7210 copy I choose to climb El Hoyo Volcano within El Hoyo volcanic complex. Its last eruption took place in 1954 and it can be easily recognized by the huge hole situated on one of its slopes. The hike is not particularly strenuous, taking me less than two hours to reach the top._DSC7218-2 copy _DSC7128 copy_DSC7176-2 copy _DSC7194 copyThe views from above are spectacular – El Hoyo’s closest neighbour is the imposing ash-black Cerro Negro, but I can also see volcanic chain receding into the distance with lapis lazuli waters of Lake Managua below me.

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In the afternoon, I am taken on a private tour of Leon.

_DSC7334 copy _DSC7321 copy_DSC7322-2 copy We climb to the roof of the Cathedral of Assumption accessible by a discreet staircase at the back. Before we go out onto the roof, we are asked to take off our sandals, as the soles of our shoes could spoil the pristinely white surface. The perfectly smooth and white rooftop feels incredibly pleasant and warm under my bare feet. The whiteness of the roof is incredible at reflecting rays of sun – apparently its absolutely baking around midday so everyone is advised to avoid exploring it then. I wander about, look over the bannisters, feeling a little childish I jump and twirl about._DSC7072_DSC7403 copy

 We carry on our tour, stopping for a refreshing drink every thirty minutes – Leon’s relentless heat seems to seep our every last bit of water from me. I like their fruit smoothies made with cubes of ice, diluting the sweetness and making the drink cold enough to cool you down.
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We make our way to the local market. I fall in love with a piñata – papier-mâché container to be filled with candy and later, sadly, smashed up –  in the shape of a large pink pony. Isn’t it just awesome?! I buy it for two bucks, then carry it around with me beaming for the next hour or so (I must admit I was getting some funny looks from the locals!).
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My guide shows me a sad and subdued man in a wheelchair, who is braiding bracelets in the corner of the main plaza. Apparently, he wanted to follow his “American dream”.  He tried to get into the States on the roof of a train. Somehow he fell off, and lost his legs as a result. A lost American dream that will break anyone’s heart.
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Afterwards, we go for dinner at the fanciest steak house in the city – Al Carbon. As soon as we get there, there is a blackout and the restaurant is submerged into the pitch-black of the night for a minute or so. These blackouts keep happening every 15 minutes, because apparently there is some problem with the generator. We order delicious churrasco – slices of the most tender local beef. As always, I order a side of plantain tostatados. We complement it with a bottle of fancy chilean cabernet sauvignon – this is the first place in Nicaragua where I encounter decent wine. The beef is absolutely divine and literally melts in my mouth. As we sip on our wine, we talk about Nicaragua, its past and present, how its people are finding their way after the revolutions, their hopes and dreams.

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The next day, I go volcano surfing, an activity unique to Nicaragua. According to CNN, this should be a number two in your bucket list of 50 fun but terrifying experiences before you die! Hopefully its not going to end after this one! You can read all about my adrenaline-filled experience here.

To be continued… 🙂_DSC7423 copy :


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