We were late getting out of town that morning; it was almost 6:30 when the gleaming tourist bus, rented for the day, loaded up the twenty-five expats who were headed to Leon as part of the Granada Travel Club’s latest excursion. The late start put us into the thick of morning traffic, bumper-to-bumper with cars, motorcycles and crowded city buses as we passed through Managua on our way north; we didn’t clear the city until around 8:30.
After that the road was open with light traffic as we motored through small villages and towns past fields that were dusty, brown and wilting under a brilliant sun in a blue sky with cotton-ball cumulus clouds. We’d last seen this area in September when it was verdant; the dry season was now baking the land. About halfway through the drive we skirted the shores of Lake Managua; looking at the sparkling deep blue waters with gentle waves lapping the beach, you’d never guess that it was so severely polluted with sewage that swimming and fishing are inadvisable in most places. In the distance, we watched the classic cone-shaped volcano, Momotombo, which was venting puffs of steam into the morning sky.
We parked in the center of the City of Leon, near the cathedral and by a large mural across from the Palacio Municipal. We were met by our guide for the tour, Julio, and as he shepherded us through the symbolism of the mural he also interjected his own personal history.
Stoically, Julio related how he and three of his friends were picked up by the authorities of the Somoza regime one September afternoon in 1969 returning from baseball practice. He was fourteen at the time, accused of aiding the Sandinista rebels and without any rights or legal recourse. He endured imprisonment, interrogation and torture and survived periods of time confined in a coffin until his release in early December of that year. On Christmas day he left his home and went to the mountains to help with the coming revolution. His was not a unique story; a boy turned Sandinista revolutionary. The Nicaraguan Civil War and the subsequent Iran-Contra Affair have touched and scarred a generation of Nicaraguans on both sides of the conflict.
Finishing with the mural we walked across the street and entered La Catedral de Leon, a designated UNESCO World Heritage site, and the largest cathedral in Latin America. During our tour we learned that the esteemed poet of Nicaragua, Ruben Dario, was buried in the church and next we made our way to his childhood home, three blocks away. Julio told more stories of Nicaragua’s native son as we walked slowly around the 19th century Spanish colonial structure beautifully furnished with antiques and a collection of books and art typical of the period.
Our last stop in Leon, and the main reason many of us had come to Leon for the day, was the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz Gurdian, an extensive private collection of artwork from Latin America as well as pieces by Picasso and Chagall. Like the home of Ruben Dario, this house also was of Spanish Colonial architecture, cool and with a hushed atmosphere, built around several gardens and fountains. The setting and the artwork were, indeed, amazing treasures and made us very happy that we had spent the day visiting Leon.
By Anita and Richard, March, 2014