León is the longtime liberal stronghold of Nicaragua, and the nation’s second-largest city. Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, León, 11 miles from the Pacific Ocean, has for centuries battled with older Granada, on the western shores of Lake Nicaragua, for ruling supremacy. They took turns assuming the role of capital of Nicaragua for centuries, until neutral Managua, somewhere in between the two cities, took over the role permanently.
But the León of today is different than the Leon of the 16th century. Modern León, in fact, sits 20 miles east of León Viejo (Old León), destroyed by an earthquake less than 100 years after its founding, and subsequently buried under layers of volcanic ash by nearby Momotombo, the still-active volcano that sits across another lake, Lago de Managua, from the ruins.
The ruins are open to visitors every Tuesday-Sunday (closed holidays). Your guided tour takes you through two small museum galleries and to the ruins themself. The first notable site is the St. Mary of Graces Cathedral.
The far end of the complex includes the better-preserved ruins of another church, Our Lady of Mercy.
Close-up of the ongoing excavation work at the church, covered overhead from the elements.
Earthenware discovered at the site and displayed in the museum. Entry to the museum is included with your ticket.
Any guess what kind of fruit tree this is?
The much smaller ruins of Joya de Cerén, a Mayan city in El Salvador entombed by one of that country’s many volcanoes, is often referred to as the “Pompeii of Latin America.” Although León Viejo’s initial destruction was by a terremoto, I much prefer that moniker to describe the altogether more impressive León Viejo than its Salvadorean counterpart. Or maybe this is the “Herculaneum of Latin America?” 🙂
León Viejo is on level ground except for a single hill, which once housed a watchtower but now serves as a mirador (vista point) over Momotombo and Lake Managua. I am posing next to my friend José, who spends part of the year living in Nicaragua but who grew up in Venezuela. I interviewed José for this blog in 2014 about the deteriorating situation in VZ; you can read it here.
Close-up view of Momotombo.
We noticed a faint path leading away from the main route, and followed it (being alert for snakes) to this recent discovery. Archaeologists don’t yet know what this building was used for.
Although León Viejo is just 20 miles from the “replacement” city of León, it seems miles from anywhere. The dusty village that exists around the ruins today straddles a series of dirt roads in which chickens and stray dogs run amok.
I thought I would leave you with a single image of the cathedral that was built in 1747 in the center of modern León. Its whitewashed exterior glistens in the midday sun, and its interior features impressive religious art, as well as the tomb of poet Rubén Darío, who is credited with kick-starting the literary movement in Latin America. León Cathedral is the largest church in Central America, and is as worthy of a visit as the UNESCO-protected ruins of León Viejo themselves.
All pictures were taken with a Nikon DSLR camera. All images are the property of GringoPotpourri unless credited otherwise, and should be used with permission only.