welcoming the new year in león, nicaragua

Friday, December 30, 2022: After our breakfast in Hotel San José in Matagalpa, we showered, packed and were on our way to León. I was disappointed because it seemed Mike had lost the Nicaragua guidebook and the nice map of Nicaragua I’d brought. There was a city walk in the guidebook for León, and now it seemed we wouldn’t be able to take that walk. We looked in all the suitcases and bags and in the car, but it was nowhere to be found.

As we drove, we passed acres of coffee beans drying along the road. People tending the beans were wrapped up in so much clothing that not an inch of their skin was exposed. Coffee production is obviously king around Matagalpa Department.

We also passed a large rice production area, cultivated and irrigated for year-round farming.


Overall, we drove an easy 2 1/2 hours from Matagalpa to León. We checked into our hotel, Hotel La Posada Del Doctor. The room was tiny, one double bed pushed up against a wall (I hate beds pushed up against walls!), and two single beds with a tiny and quite derelict-looking bathroom. The outdoor open courtyard was nice, however, as was the shaded seating area around the edges with comfortable chairs and pool tables.

We promptly went out to walk around the city, sadly without that lost guidebook. It seemed our wanderings would be aimless, after all.

We headed first to León’s Cathedral, but as we were hungry we detoured around and behind it to the Mercado in search of lunch. My favorite thing was a Manuelita, a kind of crepe. I also had fried cheese and a plantain. While at lunch in the market, a guy started yelling at Adam, who told him, “Despacio (“slowly, slowly”).” The guy had been staring at us, Adam said. The woman who sold us our food told us the man was a regular there who suffered mental problems.


Alex, Adam and me at the Mercado

After lunch we went to the Catedral de León, also known as the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary. It is a significantly important and historic landmark in León. The Cathedral was awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO.

The Cathedral’s construction lasted between 1747 and 1814, and it was consecrated by Pope Pius IX in 1860. It has maintained the status of being the largest cathedral in Central America and one of the best known in the Americas due to its distinct architecture and special cultural importance.

Catedral de León, officially the Basilica de la Asunción, is a pantheon of Nicaraguan culture. The tomb of Rubén Darío, Leon’s favorite son, is on one side of the altar, guarded by a sorrowful lion and the inscription: “Nicaragua is created of vigor and glory, Nicaragua is made for freedom.”

We also walked around inside and sat down for a moment of silence and to absorb the spiritual atmosphere. Of course, we admired another huge nativity scene.

We bought tickets to climb up the tower and walk around the rooftop. We didn’t have great views because of the heavy white concrete railing, but the domes on top were artistic and pleasingly arranged. The roof was a dazzling white; with the white domes and the blue sky, it brought back memories of Santorini, Greece. We did manage to enjoy some views of the flat plain around León and the cone-shaped volcanoes rising up in the distance.

In front of the Cathedral was a large Christmas tree and saddled fake horses all lined up. Mike walked through a bunch of pigeons to see if they’d scatter, but they just ignored him. We found more brilliantly-hued nativity scenes.

After walking around the top of the cathedral, Alex, who was sadly still sick, returned to the hotel to rest and Adam walked around on his own to check out nearby gyms.

We went to the Museo Histórico de la Revolución, which has seen better days. An eerie emptiness abounded: offices were bare, staircases were covered in dust and debris, walls were shedding hunks of paint amidst pigeon droppings. Tiny marks in the wall were bullet holes from intense fighting that once took place.

The guide explained about Nicaragua’s complicated past and who the major players were, especially Augusto César Sandino (May 18, 1895 – February 21, 1934), the Nicaraguan revolutionary and leader of a rebellion between 1927 and 1933 against the United States’ occupation of Nicaragua. Despite being referred to as a “bandit” by the U.S. government, his exploits made him a hero throughout much of Latin America, where he became a symbol of resistance to American Imperialism.

We also learned of Carlos Fonseca and others who fought for years to upend Anastasio Somoza Debayle’s dynasty. We got an overview of the Nicaraguan revolutionaries who stood up against the Somoza dictatorship. The museum traces the history from the devastating earthquake of 1972 to the Sandinista overthrow.

The Somoza family ruled for over 4 decades (1936-1979), with increasing dissatisfaction felt by Nicaragua’s citizens. The key turning point was in 1972 when a huge earthquake killed thousands and left huge populations homeless. Somoza’s National Guard embezzled much of the aid money, inciting citizens to fury and a slow-burning rebellion.

The guide then took us up on the rusted corrugated iron roof – the metal sheets were held down by rocks – for views over León. The roof had gaping holes and crudely-drawn yellow arrows pointing where we should walk. The museum, housed in a former Somoza government building, was a central location during the Sandinista revolution.  Abandoned and in decay since 1979, former Sandinista revolutionary fighters worked to turn it into a museum.

We clambered across, fearful of one of the metal sheets collapsing. Luckily, we found an amazing view of León’s churches and the landscape beyond that in the not-too-distant past had been so ravaged by war.

The building was very derelict and our guide worried for its future. She mentioned the Chinese wanted to buy it but for what purpose, she didn’t know.

Leaving the Museum of the Revolution, we found some street art that was revolutionary-themed.

We also walked by an unknown church and the Iglesia La Recolección. The 1786 Iglesia de la Recolección is considered the city’s most beautiful church, a Mexican-style Baroque confection of swirling columns and bas-relief medallions that portray the life of Christ. The lavishly decorated facade is dyed a deep yellow accented with cream and peeling paint.

Because we’d had such a big lunch, all we had for dinner were little nibbles.  The guys drank beers as they played pool on the borders of the courtyard.


pool tables were under the eaves along the edges

Steps: 8,670; Miles: 3.68.

Las Peñitas

Saturday, December 31, 2022:  NEW YEAR’S EVE: After out typical Nicaraguan breakfast (scrambled eggs, plantains, red beans and rice, toast and cheese), we drove out to Las Peñitas, a wide sandy Pacific beach fronted by a cluster of surfer hostels and boutique hotels. Smallish regular waves make for decent surfing, especially for beginners.

We cruised up and down looking for the most welcoming spot to spend the morning. We stopped at Playa Roca Hotel and were told we could park there as long as we bought something in the restaurant. We sat on an L-shaped wooden bench around a coffee table under a thatched roof. It was hot as it had been since we’d arrived in León, but we had on our bathing suits and were ready to beach it. Rough rocks formed a kind of headland on the left side of the crescent beach where waves were battering the rocks. Alex did his typical handstand atop one of the rocks. The guys went bodysurfing and got tossed about quite a bit. I went in myself and was promptly knocked over by a wave and had trouble regaining my footing.

Some of the other thatch roofed restaurants and hotels along the beach were gussied up with waving green palm trees. We saw hand-drawn signs for surfing classes and rooms for rent: “Rento habitacion.” American music played over a loudspeaker and crashing waves added an offbeat rhythm to the tunes.

After a while, I ate a shrimp taco, rice and beans and a Victoria Frost, while “You’re my angel” serenaded me. The guy who worked at the bar was super friendly.

Next to Las Peñitas, following the same stretch of beach is Poneloya. The two villages are similar but Las Peñitas is a bit more geared toward backpackers and other foreign visitors.


Bienvenidos Poneloya – Las Peñitas


Back in León, the four of us went to the street to find a rickshaw. A guy with a single bench seat insisted he could carry all four of us, but we knew it was impossible no matter what configuration we tried. Luckily we found another rickshaw and split up and took both to the museums.

Museo Rubén Darío

We headed first to the Museo Rubén Darío, with its pretty green courtyard. León is the home of the country’s most famous poet, Rubén Darío.

Félix Rubén García Sarmiento (January 18, 1867 – Febraury 6, 1916), known as Rubén Darío, was a Nicaraguan poet who initiated the Spanish-language literary movement known as modernismo (modernism) that flourished at the end of the 19th century. Darío had a great and lasting influence on 20th century Spanish-language literature and journalism.

This was the poet’s home and national museum. It was in the house where he lived the first 14 years of his life. He started writing poetry here at age 12. His first poem is on display here as are various personal effects. Everyday items provide a window into well-to-do Nicaraguan life in the late 1800s. Some highlights were handwritten manuscripts of Darío’s famous works, his Bible, the bed where he died “an agonizing death” and the fancy clothes he wore as the ambassador to Spain, and a library with curlicued wooden bookcases. His work was featured in Mundial magazines, a Peruvian weekly magazine that marked the birth of modern journalism in Peru, both for its graphic design and its content, when it appeared in Lima on April 28, 1920. It ran through 576 issues to 4 September 1931.

The house itself was very cool but all the information was in Spanish so we didn’t learn much about the poet from the museum. We had never read any of his poetry so Adam pulled up one of his poems online and read aloud the translated version of a verse.

Nicaragua is famous for its many poets, many of whom inspired the Revolution.

Centro de Arte Fundación Oriz-Gurdián

We then went to the Centro de Arte Fundación Oriz-Gurdián, founded in 2000. The museum is made of four colonial houses replete with ornate interior courtyards. The sprawling one-story buildings occupy at least two full city blocks. Much of the museum roof is open to the sky. It showcases a vast collection: early pre-Columbian and Spanish colonial religious artifacts to modern and contemporary artworks.

The Art Center was born on December 5, 2000 with the inauguration of the Norberto Ramirez house. In November of 2002, Derbyshire House opened. In 2006, the house Delgadillo opened and in 2013, the House Deshon followed. The four houses with large corridors, lounges and gardens, built between the 18th and 19th centuries, are examples of the most authentic León architecture of those times. They belonged to illustrious families of the city. They were acquired and restored from the year 1999 by the Ortiz-Gurdián family with the desire that they would house in the interior the collection of universal art and be enjoyed by their Nicaraguan compatriots and international visitors.

The houses showcase art as follows:

  1. The House Norberto Ramirez: the collection “from occidental art to Nicaraguan art.”
  2. House Derbyshire: exhibition of Latin American painting.
  3. House Delgadillo: the collection of “Integración and Grupo Praxis.”
  4. House Deshon: contemporary art collection from the Ortiz-Gurdián Foundation.

I loved this museum. This was definitely my favorite place in León. I loved not only the South American and Nicaraguan art, but the buildings themselves, which were works of art themselves with their numerous courtyards, bubbling fountains and fish ponds. There was even a section on European art (not as interesting to me) and modern art, including a Marilyn Monroe series by Andy Warhol. I found the Latin American art most intriguing.

Strolling around town

As we strolled around town, we came upon a statue, “Los Motivos del Lobo” in front of Iglesia de San Francisco (Church of St. Francis). Its origins date to 1639. The statue shows the parable of St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio. St. Francis gained his reputation for having control over animals when he persuaded this man-eating wolf to convert to eating more conventional food and become a mascot for the town. Rubén Darío wrote: “Los Motivos del Lobo” (“The Motives of the Wolf”) which tells the story from the wolf’s perspective.

The 1639 Iglesia de San Francisco is one of the oldest churches in the city, a national heritage site with lots of gold, a gorgeous nave, and a rococo interior. Abandoned between 1830-1881, it was later refurbished with two elaborate altarpieces for San Antonio and Our Lady of Mercy.

On the street, Adam picked up a squishy Sopa de Leche, a milky flan or custard with brown sugar. Alex found he loved it.

After strolling around town a bit more, we returned to our hotel where Alex and Adam played pool for a while before we went to dinner at El Bodegón, a cozy and breezy courtyard restaurant with excellent food but not the greatest service. I welcomed in the New Year with a tarmindo mojito. I had Tostadas de Vegetales and Mike had Quesadillas de Lechón.

There was a large party (tour group) in the restaurant which caused us to have to wait a very long time for our food.

After dinner we wandered through the downtown, still freshly festooned and lit up for the holidays and watched entire families promenading in their finery.

I was too tired to welcome in the New Year, so I went to bed while the rest of the family sat outdoors and played pool and talked to a couple with young children who lived part time in León.

Steps: 4,241; Miles: 1.8 (My FitBit was not working properly, nor was it charging. I had to give up on step-counting after today).

Sunday, January 1, 2023: HAPPY NEW YEAR!

We had breakfast one last time in the hotel courtyard: this time pancakes and scrambled eggs for Mike and me, the traditional Nica breakfast for the boys. We left the hotel after checking out the relief map of Nicaragua and the rotund doctor.

We got packed up for our drive to Granada. As we packed the car, surprise, surprise, I found the Nicaragua guidebook and map under the seat in the trunk. A lot of good it did for the city walk I wanted to do in León.

On our way out of town, we drove by the Municipal Theater. It was the first theater in Nicaragua. Construction started in 1884 and the theater was inaugurated one year later. It was one of the cultural hot spots of Central America, visited by the rich who enjoyed piano concerts, opera, and other cultural presentations.

The facade of the building was remodeled in 1913 and years later the complete interior was remodeled. In 1956 a fire almost completely destroyed the building. The outer walls were the only parts left standing. Nowadays the theater provides a stage for cultural shows and presentations.


Municipal Theater

Finally, we drove by “El Calvario” Church, one of Nicaragua’s most beautiful churches. It was built in the early 17th century. The church has a neoclassical facade, which together with its bright colors makes it stand out among the surrounding buildings at the end of Calle Real. Its design has both Spanish and French elements. It is notable for its symmetry of design. In the year 2000, a fence was added to protect the church.


“El Calvario” Church

Here is a video of our time in León.

We left León and headed toward Granada.