On our first full day exploring Leon, I woke up around 7AM because of the lack of curtains in our hotel room and the noise, and did not feel rested due to a fitful night of head congestion. Brendan slept for a few more hours as I did yoga, showered, and tidied up the bomb that went off in my luggage from the night before. Around 930AM we headed to breakfast, which was complimentary with the room, and quite delicious. I ordered the granola, yogurt, honey (from the nearby volcano area) and fruit, and Brendan ordered the Nica breakfast (gallo, which is beans and rice, eggs, plantains, and a lovely side of fruit). We also were able to snag some coffee, which was just what the doctor ordered.
After breakfast we organized a city tour at 1PM, but before then we took a stroll to the main square to take in sights at our own pace. There was market going on in the plaza but it was still a fairly calm environment.
After walking to the plaza, we continued along Main Street (Real) to the colorful 18th cathedral on the other side of the city. On our way, we saw many Catholic school children in neat dress.
At the end of this road, we were rewarded with a beautiful view of El Calvario church.
After brief walk, we went back to the hotel to relax for an hour before our scheduled tour at 1PM. 1PM came and went and the guide didn’t show – the front desk manager explained that it could take 15 minutes (Nica time). We were in no hurry. Around 130PM a guide showed up who spoke Spanish and French only, no English. Ha! We explained in broken Spanish to the guide that that wouldn’t work, and we needed an English guide for exploring Leon. He understood, and made a few calls. While we continued to wait, the front desk manager profusely apologized and offered us some free local beers, which we enjoyed as we continued to wait. Pretty expected and we didn’t mind at all since we were on Nica time.
Eventually, an English speaking guide named Santiago showed up at 2PM and he was worth the wait. You can check him out on nicaholigays.com and nicaholidays.com. He started out by retracing our steps from our morning walk more or less, but filling in the narrative and the details that we clearly missed along the way.
The first stop was a visit to the University of Leon – this is where Silvia was studying law. It had a beautiful courtyard with sculptures of famous Nicas.
Our second stop was the square of Augosto Sandino, the founder of the liberal movement to oust foreign influence and especially the US military from Nicaragua from 1927-1933. He is largely viewed as a hero by the Nicas. This mural below portrays Sandino.
Interestingly, the Sandanista movement bears a similar name to Sandino and was inspired by Sandino, but tried to accomplish a very different thing. The Sandanistas goal was to overthrow the entrenched dictatorship of the ruling Samoza family as well as the foreign influence (such as the Americans) and give the power pack to the people and return to a true democracy. This occured in the 1960s and 70s, and did eventually lead to an overthrow in 1979, the same year the Shah of Iran fell. The aftermath of this period also marked yet another war by proxy in the midst of the cold war, where the Americans/CIA backed the Samozas (the elite ruling family) living in exile to retake power through the anti-Sandanista Contra movement, gathering strength in Honduras. The Russians of course empowered the Sandanistas.
The Sandanistas were therefore far more right wing than Sandino. And even though they tried to give power back to the people, they were a centralized regime that practiced censorship and limited many freedoms, while at the same time improving the quality of life of the average Nicaraguan.
Through the mural behind this square, we learned about the history of Nicaragua starting with the indigenous people, who were splinter group of the Aztecs. And then followed the mural through modern times where we continued our discussions of Sandino, the Sandanistas, the Contras, and in to modern day.
We also learned about Ruben Dario, an acclaimed and beloved Nicaraguan poet who lived in the late 19th century. There would be many a square and statue in memorial of him as we continued exploring Leon.
After exploring Leon’s history through art, we went to the fruit market and sampled 2 fruits neither of us had every tried before but that neither of can remember the names of either. But here are some pictures:
We also checked out the baby parrots being sold in the market by some old ladies.
The sights and sounds of the market were just enough to get Leon under our skin. Then, we continued exploring Leon from above by touring the rooftops of the largest cathedral in Central America, the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of León. It was built in the 18th century, and due it’s fluid architectural design (with a basement that could shift with the movement of the earth), it survived earthquakes and volcano eruptions over the past 250 years.
The rooftop was spectacular, despite the ridiculous slowness of getting tickets from an old lady on the market-facing side of the cathedral’s lower level. Also despite the ridiculousness of having to take our shoes off to preserve the whiteness of the cathedral as a newly minted UNESCO site.
From the rooftop, we were able to see the range of volcanoes and mountains, as well as the expense of the city from south to north. It was also incredibly windy so I had trouble concentrated because I was in the midst of a 15 minutes coughing and sneezing attack, but I picked up a few tidbits in between. We learned that the distant church Our Lady of Guadalupe was facing a different direction than the rest of the churches in the city – North – towards Mexico city. We also saw how green the city was from the rooftops even though there seemed to be very few trees from the streets. This was due the courtyard concept in the city homes, where families kept their gardens, not dissimilar to what we had just seen in the riads in Morocco.
We also learned that the bells were not to be rung (because some stupid tourist obviously rang them in the past). And, Santiago pointed out a large contraption near the bells which he described as “the thing that makes noise at celebrations, but at a larger scale” – to which Brendan clarified, “Yeah, we call those noisemakers.” “Oh,” Santiago said. Yes, illuminating.
Back on the ground and with shoes back on our feet, we only had a few final stops. Inside the cathedral, we saw the tombs of some famous Leonians, including Ruben Dario. We also went on a hunt for the Catholic eyes (the Free Mason symbol and the icon on the $1 bill). We could only find 3 but legend had it that there were actually 7. Santiago has only ever found 3 as well. He basically told us where to look because we were just not finding them.
The final thing to note for me in this cathedral were the reliefs, which were almost comic book looking and quite modern. I really enjoyed them.
We took a pass on the underground tour of the tunnels as Santiago mentioned there was really nothing to see there, unlike in Paris where it was quite cool and macabre.
We retraced our steps back in to the plaza where we got to again view the statue surrounded by lions. We learned that the statue was not facing the church because it was of a famous secular intellectual named Maximus who lobbied for and won the separation of church and state in Nicaragua. This is when we started to learn that Santiago, like us, was a secular thinker and that he did not practice religion even though he was born Catholic.
On our way to our final stop to have some tea and coffee at the fanciest hotel in the city, we passed by a square commemorating famous poets of Leon and Nicaragua again saw our man Ruben Dario. Santiago also bought us our 3rd new fruit of the day, a tart and bitter fruit not too unlike a lime in taste (but not in texture) with a huge seed in the middle. The street vendor we bought in from added salt and chili oil for an authentic local flavor. We ate them over drinks in the hotel courtyard while enjoying the lush hidden garden and lavish décor. It reminded me of the National Palace Hotel in Havana, Cuba.
For the next hour or so, we stopped talking about ancient Leon and talked instead of modern times, exploring Leon through the eyes of our guide Santiago. He shared with us several of his business ventures in gay tourism and some wild tales of the having to set the expectation of foreign travelers straight (no pun intended) in this still fairly conservative city. The funniest story he shared was around the offering on his website of Spanish lessons. One potential client contacted him mentioning an interest in Spanish lessons. When Santiago probed further, there were a few more requirements: “I want my Spanish teacher to be a boy and to be attractive.” Santiago explained that several of his business partners were very qualified Spanish teachers but were female. The client replied, “Well actually I am just feeling a little lonely and want someone to talk to.” To which Santiago retorted, “So, you don’t actually want Spanish lessons?” The client responded with a hard no. “Then why did you contact me for Spanish lessons!” Santiago explained. He was sarcastic as fuck and we appreciated that.
We also talked about the future of Nicaragua. Santiago had traveled around the world a bit, having lived in Germany and Austria through an exchange program with Leon’s sister cities while he was studying tourism at university. He clearly saw the gap in the service industry between the developed world and Nicaragua, noting that people in Nicaragua were still generally lazy and did not do a great job in customer service, and that this clearly needed to change to embrace a potential tourism economic revolution. The example he cited was the waiter at the hotel who was serving us drinks. Santiago comes in 3-4 times a week with clients and always orders the same thing and always asks to see the menu on behalf of his guests. The same waiter serves him every time, probably 100 times in the past year, but never remembers the pattern, pretends that he has never seen Santiago before, asks him whether he would like to see the menu, and what he would like to order – rather than pre-empting it with the predictable and familiar “Nice to see you again Santiago. I’ll get your guests a menu right away and begin preparing your ice tea.” Case in point – we asked for a plate 3 times for our fruit seeds and the waiter never brought it. And, he brought Brendan’s drink out 10 minutes later than the rest of our drinks. Here’s a picture of all of us.
Santiago also noted that, while the country was stable and relatively prosperous now, Nicaragua was in the midst of yet another dictatorship of a powerful family. If history was a predictor of the future, this could take a turn for the worst, lead to a coup and to violence, and possibly set Nicaragua back again. It could also mean that the assets of the wealthy and the expats could be seized at the drop of a hat, like what happened with Castro in Cuba. But, for now, things were still Bueno.
Santiago walked us back to the hotel and we parted ways, having thoroughly enjoyed our 3 hours with him.
After the tour we showered (second shower) and rested a bit (blogged etc.) before heading to dinner at 745PM for exploring Nicaragua by night. We chose, based on Santiago’s recommendation a Polish Sri Lankan fusion restaurant called Imbral that was only a few blocks from our hotel. The place had a very nice interior although, which was now an established trend in Leon.
The manager, seemingly a Dutch man, was very friendly and took our appetizer and drink order – vegetable and meat perogies and vegetarian samosas. The service was slow but the food was very good.
We decided to then share an entree – the lentil meal. As the meal came 30 minutes later, a band set up to play with an extensive (45 minute) warm-up. We could tell during the warm-up that the band wasn’t very good (any band that needs that long of a warm up in a bar in Nicaragua probably doesn’t know what they are doing). True to form, they were terrible, and way too loud. The first song was a song about Colorado, titled “Colorado,” sung by a chelle (gringo in Nica speak) who was not very good. It had extremely basic and unoriginal lyrics that repeated over and over about wanting to go back home. He should go back home – it was that bad. After a pretty bland and uninspired chocolate cake with a teaspoon of ice cream, we headed back to the hotel to crash, in preparation for a long next day at the wedding.