It took a 6am start, a couple of cramped buses and about 3 USD for La Miri and I to get from Granada to Leon and it was sure to be an action-packed day. The glaring sun greeted us as we arrived at the bus terminal (a dusty car park) and fended off a few tuc-tuc drivers before taking a car-taxi in to town. Car being the operative word, as taxi in Nicaragua can easily mean tuc-tuc, bicycle or probably even horse-drawn carriage.
We got to the hostel a guy we met in Granada had recommended, Tortuga Booluda (8 USD per night) and rather than bed down for a rest, we booked ourselves on a volcano-boarding trip for 2pm that afternoon, and then set off for a wander around town. There are certainly less tourists in Leon than Granada and my first impression was that the locals were a little nicer, something an old lady shopkeeper in Granada had admitted during her hour-long soliloquy the previous day when selling me a packet of biscuits.
The main square was rather quiet except for a few Gigantonas let loose. Basically, men put on a massive doll costume that makes them about 10ft high, and accompanied by little kids wearing cabezones, big heads, and some mesmerising beats of a drum, to celebrate the first week in December, and it all culminates in some mad street party on the 7th where neighbours give out tonnes of food and drink in the streets.
Having negotiated this obstacle, we made our way to an extremely white cathedral built by the Spanish many moons ago. Of course, much like Granada, Leon claims to be the first city founded in the Americas, but no one really knows the truth. Anyway, to go up to the top of the cathedral, you need to pay 3 USD and remove your shoes so as not to dirty that perfectly white stone on the roof. There are a series of domes built into the structure, and the whiteness and powerful sun combined to have something of a blinding effect. From the cathedral, you also get a panoramic view of the city and on this day we could see plumes of smoke coming out of Momotombo , as it had erupted just days before, and literally hours after I’d left the viewpoint of it in Managua. A local student on work experience gave us a guided tour of the place for free, and had us fill out a form declaring our impressions of the city. Guides are very common in Central America, both the official and unofficial sort, and as time goes on, one grows dubious towards what purpose they serve, especially on hikes, but this guy proved to be quite adept at describing his hometown, and soon after we’d get probably one of the best guided museum tours there is.
This would happen in the Museo de la Historia de la Revolucion, difficult to find, and on the surface, just a crumbling building in the square just behind the grand cathedral. We paid our entrance fee of somewhere between 1 and 2 USD at the front desk, which was just an old fella sat behind a worse-for-wear-looking table, and were then introduced to Marcelo, a short guy who made me immediately think about Che Guevara.
He was to give us the tour of the museum. To be frank, the museum consists of a couple of murals in honour of the revolution and socialism, as well as photos, newspaper cut-outs and posters. However, the tour itself was absolutely one of the highlights of my Central America trip, just for the way Marcelo recounted the history of the revolution from a guerrilla perspective. Indeed he was/is a member of the Sandinista Revolutionary Army, along with all those who help maintain the museum, and was even one of the four envoys sent to Paraguay to assassinate the exiled ex-dictator Somoza.
He told the story with such a passion, and in such a dramatic way that you felt you were there. There was even an anger and resentment to the way he spoke, but also a compassion and sadness which kept us captivated. He himself was in the photos that backed up his narrative, as were many friends and family members that he lost during the conflict of the 1970s and 1980s. He didn’t hold back in his scathing criticism of US involvement in the civil war and there was quite a shocking moment when he told how the revolutionaries mercilessly killed thousands of soldiers from a US-led mission.
We saw photos of how Leon was desecrated during the conflict, and bullet holes riddled the museum, which in fact used to be a cartel of the government before the guerrilla movement seized control of it. He took us to what the government had used as a cell; a space the size of a wardrobe where a dozen men were locked away until they dehydrated. Marcelo told how upon seizing the building, they were met on the second floor by the stench of rotting flesh, and when they opened the door to this tiny room, they found their ex-comrades, who must have been dead for days already.
The whole experience was moving, and it was unfortunate to discover that the current president Ortega, who was actually a revolutionary himself in a different city, plans to turn the museum into a hotel, because of its proximity to the cathedral, central location and the excellent views you have from the rooftop. Indeed, we all gave a generous tip to Marcelo, and La Miri bought a documentary CD in which other members of the guerrilla movement tell their stories. The only problem there may be for tourists who don’t understand Spanish is that there are no tours offered in English, unless you happen to hire a translator independently. Though the Dutch guy we were with had limited Spanish, but still gauged the essence of it all because of the way Marcelo presented it.
Walking out of there, we could actually sigh with relief, such was the intensity of the experience. We managed to find a restaurant where we got a full meal and drink for just 2 USD, even if it was the classic meat, rice and beans combo. Time had caught up with us, and we had to rush to the hostel in order to meet our transport for the volcano boarding, the agency of which was ironically across the road from where we’d just eaten. We kind of arrived late, and they must have been early, but they weren’t too fussed about our tardiness.
The excursion with transport included costs 30 USD and you can go in the morning too, though the afternoon one means you can catch sunset from atop the volcano too. After stopping off at the local market to buy bandanas to cover our mouths and refreshments for the hike, we took about an hour to get to the starting point, after spending an age going down a bumpy dirt track. The volcano you hike, Cerro Negro, is apparently the youngest in Central America, having been ‘born’ about a hundred years ago. It’s completely black because it’s pure ash, and contrasts beautifully with the green that surrounds it.
The walk itself is a tough one, especially as you have to carry your own board and backpack with your jumpsuit. The first half an hour or so was rather steep and testing, but then the walk levelled out after a while. Before descending the volcano, we went to check out some smoke holes near the crater where the ground was hot to touch and upon which you could probably fry an egg. It goes without saying that the views were spectacular, what with the sun dipping over the horizon.
In terms of the boarding down the side of the volcano, the equipment we had was tantamount to a snow sleigh and the clothes we were provided with had the function of protecting us should we dismount the board. The guide told us to keep our feet lightly on the ground so as not to lose control, which I later realised takes a lot of speed out of the descent, as does a little hesitation. By the time I’d opted to go down with my feet off the ground completely, I was too close to the bottom, though I did go at a fair speed before the board got wedged in the ash after I’d lost control of it a bit. Next time, if ever there is one, I’d go down more recklessly so as to pick up more speed. That’s what the guide did anyway after we’d all gone, and he zoomed down the mountainside and fell off as he was almost at the bottom.
The early start to the day and the action-packed itinerary had made me quite tired, so I crashed out for a couple of hours in a hammock before going out in hunt of food with La Miri. Sadly, all I could find was a rather poor hamburger, though we did have a few beers whilst listening to some live music in a nice bar. A shady character did approach us in the street and we thought he might get aggressive, but luckily the situation passed and we got back unharmed, apart from a Gigantona stalking us for a while.
I was straight to bed that night, as I’d be heading to Tegucigalpa the following morning with as early a start as possible so as to get to infamously dangerous Honduran capital before sundown the next day.
The day in Leon was arguably one of the best on my trip, as I’d managed to combine history, culture, architecture, nature and adrenaline all in one hit, and I certainly felt privileged to have heard the story of the Nicaraguan revolution from one of its protagonists.
It was also to be the end of my stay in Nicaragua, which had lived up to its burgeoning reputation in more ways than one. Undeniably superb natural tourism, and being as yet not so beaten a tourist trail, it retains something of its essence. Without doubt, Nicaragua has lots of issues with underdevelopment and poverty, meaning that people face a daily struggle to survive, hence why I began to grow to understand that tourists are often deceived/ripped off not so much because of who they are, but because of who the Nicaraguans are. People in the most part were very amiable, and I certainly made some good friends and learned lots from them.
Taxi drivers excepted, of course!