The capital of Nicaragua until 1857, LEÓN, 90km northwest of Managua, is now a provincial city, albeit an energetic, architecturally arresting one. A significant element in the city’s healthy buzz is the presence of the National University (the country’s premier academic institution) and its large student population, swelled by the ranks of young people studying at León’s various other colleges. León’s colonial architecture is arguably as impressive as Granada’s; there’s also an impressive range of tours, an entertaining backpacker scene and the best art gallery in the country.
Yet for all its buzz, León has a violent history. The original León was founded by Hernández de Córdoba in 1524 at the foot of Volcán Momotombo, where its ruins – now known as León Viejo – still lie. The city was moved northwest to its present-day location after León Viejo’s destruction by an earthquake and volcanic eruption in 1609. In 1956, the first President Somoza was gunned down in León by the martyr-poet Rigoberto López Pérez. During the Revolution in the 1970s, the town’s streets were the scene of several decisive battles between the Sandinistas and Somoza’s forces, and many key figures in the Revolution either came from León or had their political start here. Although many years have passed since then, and most of the Sandinista graffiti has been painted over, the city continues to wear its FSLN heart on its sleeve: the street signs read “León: ciudad heroica – primera capital de la revolución”, and a few fine examples of the city’s famous murals remain.
León’s heart is the Parque Central, which is shadowed by the largest cathedral in Central America. Calle Central Rubén Darío runs along the Parque’s northern edge, cutting the city in two from east to west, while Avenida Central runs between the Parque and Cathedral north to south. Splendidly and unusually, León has street signs, though people will usually still give you directions in relation to a landmark.