"Ancient City, Home of the Sandinista Movement" Top 5 Page for this destination León by atufft

León Travel Guide: 79 reviews and 510 photos

Leon's Tortured Beginnings

Leon and Granada are two of the oldest European founded cities in the New World, Leon having been first established 20 miles from the current location by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524. Thus, Cordoba was the founder of Nicaragua, just as Vasco Nuñez de Balboa was for Panama. Córdoba was by all accounts a reasonable leader because the archeological record from Leon Viejo, found only recently in 1967, shows a productive integration of Spanish and Indigenous living within the city walls. It appears, for example that the Indians taught the Spanish how to make and use obsidian tools. Spanish historical archives find both Córdoba and Balboa to be commanders free of atrocities against the indigenous population, a virtual anomaly at the time. However, their attitude may have been a response to their cruel boss, Pedrarias Davila, a conquistador consumed by appetite for gold, and one paranoid about losing his crown awarded command. Davila contrasted with his two subordinates for his remarkable cruelty to both the indigenous population and his own men. Davila had both Balboa and Córdoba decapitated for treason. Historical record reports that Davila had Córdoba's head posted on a stake in the town plaza, and his body buried near the church altar. Archeological record confirmed this with the discovery of Córdoba's decapitated bones, and not far away, were the bones of Davila, who died of natural causes just four years later.

The transition from peaceful coexistence to cruel enslavement of the indigenous Nicaragua Indians continued under the rule of Davila's grandson over Leon. In 1549, Davila murdered Leon's bishop for having advised the Spanish crown to stop Indian enslavement (Leon Viejo dig may have also found the bones of the Bishop). Then, enslavement and deportation of Nicaragua's indigenous population to gold mines in Peru became so complete that not until the 20th century did Nicaragua recover to its pre-conquest population level. The archeological record suggests therefore, that by 1610, when earthquakes and volcanic eruptions brought chaos to the city, Leon was forced to move itself to the present location. What was left behind were nine sets of humans remains, one of the largest found in any colonial dig. The abandonment was so complete and the ruins so well preserved, archeologists have been very productive very recently, mostly since political stability of the 1990's

Birth of Nicaragua's Literary Movement

Perhaps because of the close proximity to the cruelty of man and mother nature, Leon has a strong religious base. There are more churches per capita in Leon than anywhere else in Nicaragua--for a total of 13. We visited only a few congregated in central Leon. There is also a tradition of benevolent orphanages which may have contributed to education and literary tradition that began during the late 19th century.

Ambassador and writer Ruben Dario help start a tradition literature world famous within the Spanish language. Statues and portraits of the author and other Nicaraguan authors can be found throughout the city, and indeed, throughout Nicaragua. His colonial style home in central Leon now serves as a museum. But, the literary tradition also gave birth to a tradition of universities in Leon, Nicaragua's second largest city. During the school year, students make up a significant part of the population, arriving from all corners of the country.

Tortured Beginnings of the Sandinista Movement

Leon has a mural and memorial of a student protest and massacre, and the Somoza regime tortured political prisoners in what is now a folk museum, both of these within a block or so of the main cathedral. So, it was among the students and poets that Nicaragua emerged from centuries of repression by cruel dictators. This is a good place to pause and learn about the socialist Sandinista government that rules the nation now.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:Authentic Non-Touristy Ancient Central American City
  • Cons:Endangered by Diesel Smoke and Pollution
  • In a nutshell:Leon is a must visit city in Nicaragua for it's history
  • Last visit to León: Jan 2013
  • Intro Updated Jan 24, 2013
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