After twenty minutes, our guide pulled up his faded blue polo-shirt to show us his shrapnel wound. Millimetres away from his spine, it gave a stark reminder that the sweet smiling middle-aged man with whom we were spending this sunny morning had seen and participated in things we'd only experienced through movies.
Pointing to a black and white newspaper cutting of some bell-bottomed teens with flowing locks and rifles, he points to the smallest of the group on the left hand side. "That's me - I was 14 and just starting." He then proceeds to go through the rest of the boys in the picture - "Died, died, died, died" - that's just row one.
We're in Leon, Nicaragua. This former capital cityl is steeped in revolutionary history and folklore, and played a pivotal role in the 20th century political upheavals in the country. And it is still hugely defined by it; you cannot turn around a corner without seeing a revolutionary statue, mural or testament. Graffiti here is not solely the tag mark of a frustrated teen, but rather a symbol that generations of fervent political independence and thought still lives in Leon.
a little bit of history
Leon has long been central to Nicaragua's left-wing political movements and has a strong affinity with the Sandinista movement. However, it was the assassination of President Somoza Garcia here in 1956 by a young poet which began the most tumultuous and violent time in the city's history.
As successive members of the Somoza family carried on the dictator's rule, they instituted an increasingly repressive movement against those who believed were responsible for his death, and anyone of the same political hue.
Decades of civil conflict ensued, with the deaths of thousands of men and women, both in the National Guard and within the ranks of the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion - a military movement founded in 1962 by a group of intellectuals and volunteers and led by Carlos Fonseca). This culminated in the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution with Leon - due to its centrality to the movement for decades - being the first city to be liberated.
museo de la revolución
Situated opposite the Cathedral is one of the most interesting museums we have ever visited. Not because it houses any great value or ancient artefacts, but because this ageing building is a living testament to the battles of the revolution. Within its walls, riddled with bullet holes and memories, you will hear history directly from those that shaped it. It is a place where Sandinistas will show you their wounds and explain what they endured and why.
Mostly pictorial with a plethora of fading black and white photos and vintage newspaper clippings, it shows the timeline and progression of the conflict from pre-Sandinista and Somoza Garcia's assassination to the rise of dictatorship, the revolution and the Contras. The building itself was part of this history, being taken over by the revolutionaries when it was the dictator's Palace of Communications.
Whilst those with no or minimal Spanish may be limited to reading the odd translation and enjoying the photography or murals, those with a better grasp of the language will be given a guided tour from a war vet, and with it a glimpse into 1970s Nicaragua. There is no fixed fee for this, but we donated an additional $2 which, from his response, seemed about fair.
Situated not too far from the cathedral is another museum - Galeria de Heroes y Martires, which is easily spotted by the murals outside it . This also provides visitors with an insight into Leon's past and the country's wars.
Price: $2 per person (plus tip for guide)
cathedral (real e insigne basilica catedral de leon)
How the largest Cathedral in Central America came to be built in the 1700s in a relatively small city in Nicaragua still remains a matter of historical debate. Some maintain that there was simply a mix-up with plans, and that this magnificent structure should in fact be in Lima (Peru). Others talk of the local clergy pulling a fast-one - submitting plans for a much more modest structure to the Spanish, and then building exactly what they wanted whilst the Spaniards weren't looking (over the course of 100 years!)
Whichever story you believe, once you have cast your own eyes over this vast architectural feat of baroque and neo-classical design, you will simply be glad it was built at all. The cathedral is at the epicentre of Leon and you'll probably pass it several times a day.
Price: Free to enter, $2 per person to visit the roof overlooking the entire city
patriotic and revolutionary street art
Following the fall of Anastasio Somozo in the days of the 'new Nicaragua', the arts proved to be an integral part of political expression. Seemingly overnight 'mural brigades' spread across the country - none more so than in Leon, where even after the democratic political defeat of the FSLN in the 1990's they remained untouched, when so many throughout Nicaragua were defaced.
Leon is a city that wears its heart, and its scars on its sleeve, and around every corner you will find larger-than-life murals depicting fallen heroes and revolutionary icons
Price: Free on the street, with some only available in the museums.
We've written a whole article on how awesome the experience of volcano boarding is when done with the creators of this extreme sport - Bigfoot Hostels. Orange is the new black, so put on your jumpsuit, build up some courage and throw yourself down Nicaragua's most active volcano.
There are also a number of other popular volcano trips around Leon, including overnight stays on Consiguina or seeing lava up close. Tour companies abound, but non-profit Quetzaltrekkers is a good option and highly recommended to us by several backpackers.
Slightly less magical than Daigon Alley but with more than a few weird potions (we're looking at you Bigfoot - still haven't forgotten the lava challenge!). Populated with hostels, bars, surf-clothing outfitters, laundries and tour operators, whether it's a party, a pizza or some clean pants and a bus ticket, everything a backpacker could want or need can be found here!
If you're in social mood, Bigfoot is probably your best bet but don't miss the live music in ViaVia every Friday night.
museum of myths and legends
We really enjoyed hearing some balls-out-on-the-table crazy stories at this curious museum. Set in a former prison - notorious for political prisoners and torture - the building lay abandoned from 1979. In the past few years, it has been rehabilitated into hosting juxtaposing exhibits of not only what occurred within these walls during its time as a gaol, but also focusing on Nicaraguan fairytales, myths and legends.
As it turns out, being a chap in Nicaragua provides more concerns than whether your moustache is correctly twirled or the price of a can of Toña, as most of these myths seemed to revolve around a spurned woman haunting or killing errant men. One such story involves a lady, considered too unattractive to marry, who died alone. Since her death, she is said to wander the streets at midnight, exposing herself to drunks and smothering them with her sizeable breasts (However, some might agree there are worse ways to go).
It's a nice way to spend an hour, and using the guide is highly recommended. Without him, you will simply wander around staring in bemusement, fear and/or wander at the bizarre mannequins used to represent the legends.
Price: $2 per person (plus tip for guide)
where to stay
If in search of a good time and large crowd, then Bigfoot Hostel is your best bet.
If you want something a little cheaper and sedate - but close enough to everything you want to see and visit - then check out Hostal Guardabarranco across the road.
like it? pin this!
how to get there/away
From/to the Honduran border: A comprehensive overview on how to reach Leon from the border using only local transport is here.
From/to Managua: You have several options, all leaving from the Mercado Terminal. There are mini-vans to UCA which are a quicker and a little more expensive than the old school bus option (but be aware that you may have to pay more if your backpack takes up a lot of space).
The school buses will go to either Terminal Oriente or Israel in Managua - the bus to Oriente being a little faster, taking 75 minutes rather than 105. Cost is around 45C per person.
If you plan on moving straight through to San Juan del Sur, then you will have to take a taxi from one of the above terminals to Terminal Huembes. From there, you'll find buses to Rivas where you can make the connect to San Juan.
budget maker or breaker?
Maker! The city is small enough to cover in a few days on foot with good quality and cheap museums. Most decent hostels have a kitchen (and there's a huge supermarket) and if you're willing to look around there are good eating out options in the market.