10 Reasons to Visit the Ruins of León Viejo in Nicaragua
León Viejo was the discovery of Luis Cuadra Cea back in 1931, on April 22nd.
“I discovered the ruins of the cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption of León Viejo (…) destroying the popular legend that considered them submerged under the waters of Managua Lake…”—Luis Cuadra Cea.
This World Heritage Site is located in Nicaragua—home to the oldest archeological sites in Central America. The ruins of León Viejo were Nicaragua’s first capital and has quite a lot to offer.
Join me as I explore 10 reasons to visit the ruins of León Viejo in Nicaragua.
How Do You Get There?
The Ruins of León Viejo are located in Nicaragua, a country with an abundance of history to offer.
From Augusto C. Sandino international airport in Managua, you may rent a car or take a cab you’ll definitely need to go through Managua. When driving through there, you’ll get more than a glance of Managua Lake (or Xolotlán Lake)—the second biggest lake in Central America and in Nicaragua.
Through Nuevo León highway you’ll leave the department of Managua and cross the border to the department of León, where you’ll drive further and finally arrive into the northwest coast of the Managua Lake where the ruins of León Viejo lay.
This trip should take you 1 hour and 26 minutes on average, covering the 48 miles (77.7 km) between the airport and the ruins.
Francisco Hernández de Córdoba—a Spanish conqueror and captain under the orders of Pedrarias Dávila—established the city of León (currently the ruins of León Viejo) on June 15th 1524. Two years later, in 1526, Pedreiras Dávila decapitated Hernández de Córdoba and the Spanish conqueror couldn’t see the city he established rise and fall.
The fall of León (Viejo) started on February 26th 1550, when Hernando de Contreras—Pedraria Dávila’s grandson, killed Fray Antonio de Valdivieso—the city ‘s bishop. Because of such a crime, León’s inhabitants started believing that a curse would fall on them. “God in his justice has seen us, for we have killed the bishop” (Dios en su justicia así nos ha visto por haber matado al señor obispo) was the message that the inhabitants held in their hands.
44 years later, whether they were products of nature or a real curse or punishment, inhabitants started abandoning the city. The Momotombo volcano—23 miles (38 km) away from the city, started a series of eruptions, which also led to earthquakes and very hot weather, which started devastating the city. Additionally, the city wasn’t clean and the water was contaminated.
By 1603 only ten families were living in León, but 7 years later another earthquake finally convinced them of leaving and moving away to Granada. Sometime later, Momotombo covered the ruins in ashes and the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua – UNAN) (re)discovered the place on April 26th, 1967. They began digging in 1999.
10 Reasons Why To Visit León Viejo in Nicaragua
Whether you may have heard stories about León Viejo or not, after reading this list of reasons why you should visit, you’ll be ready to create your own!
Here are 10 reasons to visit the ruins of León Viejo in Nicaragua.
1. Nicaragua’s Cultural Heritage and a World Heritage Site
The department of León has 13 pieces of Nicaragua’s Cultural Heritage, one of which is the Ruins of León Viejo. León is one the few cities in Latin America, if not the only one, to keep its original trace.
Additionally, Nicaragua is home to 2 of the 17 UNESCO world heritage sites in Central America. They are the Cathedral of León, and the Ruins of León Viejo.
In the year 2000, UNESCO decided to declare the Ruins of León Viejo as a world heritage site because they “bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared,” and are “an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates a significant stage in human history.”
Once you visit these ruins you will see how they illustrate a significant stage in human history—even if the (old) city of León could never actually grow or develop.
2. León Viejo Is 4 Centuries Old!
What’s better than a trip to the past? Maybe a trip to the future, but we can’t do those quite yet. When visiting the ruins of León Viejo you’ll definitely time travel. You’ll wander around the land that holds the structures of what used to be 200 houses for 200 Spanish families and 15,000 indigenous people.
You’ll also see a statue (El monumento a la resistencia indígena) remembering 18 indigenous people who died because Pedrarias Dávila unleashed war dogs on them, and many other different stories that happened only between 1524 and 1610 before the city was completely abandoned.
3. Xolotlán Lake
The weather in Momotombo harbor is tropical. During the day the temperatures do not fall under 86°F (30°C) in any month. March and April are the hottest months, registering temperatures of 95°F (85°C) during the day, while October is the coolest month with 86°F (30°C).
What’s better to fight with the heat than taking a nice swim in a 405-square-mile (1049-square-kilometer) pool at Xolotlán lake? But even if swimming is not your thing you can always rent a jetski for USD 15 and reach 50 mph (80 km/h) after you’ve explored the ruins of León Viejo and enjoy the refreshing waters of the second biggest lake in Nicaragua and in Central America.
4. You Can Travel on a Budget
The entrance fee to Ruins of León Viejo is 5 USD for foreigners, and you can visit the park from Monday to Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. All across Nicaragua, you may have marvelous prices like this.
If you’re thinking about making the trip on your own, without a private tour, and traveling with no luxuries you shouldn’t spend more than 120 USD, taking into account breakfast, snacks, coffee, water, fuel, and traveling.
You can find hotels that charge between 10 USD and 120 USD a night if you feel like spending a little bit more money and travel more comfortably. Or even take a tour that includes a guide that can explain everything to you, and who picks you up and takes you back to your hotel for 60 USD. But if you don’t feel like going all the way to the department of León by yourself you can take a private guided tour from Managua for 96 USD.
FUN FACT! The local currency in Nicaragua is the Córdoba. Nicaraguans named it like this in honor of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, the founder of (old) León. 1 córdoba is the equivalent to 0.028 USD.
The Site of Ruins of León Viejo does not only offer the ruins themselves and the statue that remembers the indigenous life. It also offers two museums. One of them has the name of Archeological Museum Imabite (Museo arqueológico Imabite).
In the Archeological Museum Imabite, you can find pre-colonial pieces of art, which probably belonged to the indigenous tribes. Colonial pieces could have belonged to either indigenous or Spaniards and, additionally, some pieces of the Nicaraguan Railway Museum (El museo del ferrocarril de Nicaragua).
You can also discover a room that holds a model of what archeologists believe could have been the city of León.
6. You Can Visit Modern León
A one-hour car ride will take you from the past to the present. Only 33 mi (55 km) separates the Ruins of León Viejo from the colonial and beautiful city of León in Nicaragua. The 12 highway (La carretera 12) connects the two locations.
León is a city famous for its places and its university, which Nicaraguans established in 1812. In León you can find many historical buildings.
The churches you can find in León are: Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption of León (La Basílica de la Catedral de la Asunción de León), Church of Sutiava (La iglesia de Sutiava), Church of San Francisco (La iglesia de San Francisco), Church of la Recolección (La iglesia de la Recolección), Church of la Merced (La iglesia de la Merced), Ruins of the Church of San Sebastián (Las ruinas de la iglesia de San Sebastián), Chapel of la Asunción (La capilla de la Asunción).
Apart from churches, you can find other architectural attractions like the city hall (el ayuntamiento), the Esfinge hotel (el hotel esfinge), Esquivel house (la casa Esquivel), El Colegio de San Ramón, and Prison 21 (La cárcel 21).
7. Check Out the San Jacinto Boilers
Los hervideros de San Jacinto (The San Jacinto Boilers) are a set of boiling mud pots that are behind a small town in León called San Jacinto, close to the ruins of León Viejo—27 miles (44.5 km) away.
The mud pots or mud pools are possibly connected to the Telica volcano. They are heyser-like, multicolor structures that sometimes spit mud and stones into the air, while you see a permanent flow of steam in the air coming out of them. You can walk across the fumarolic field with your guide or local kids who offer their guidance. It is recommended to do this activity with the company of someone else because it’s hard to tell where it’s safe to walk and where it isn’t.
You can enjoy this unique activity close to the ruins of León Viejo by paying 2 USD to enter the park and some more to either the local kids or tipping your own guide.
8. Swim in a Volcanic Lagoon
40 minutes or 16 miles (27 km) from the ruins of León Viejo you will find another astonishing place, the Asososca lagoon (La laguna de Asososca), which Nicaraguans also like to call the Tiger’s lagoon (La laguna del tigre).
This is a volcanic lagoon set 1.3 miles (2.2 km) away from the Xototlán lake (you’ll need to drive around 40 minutes because of the structure of the highways and geographical particularities in Nicaragua). This 0.46 sq mi (1.2 sq km) lagoon lets you swim on its warm waters and experience a unique adventure. Around the lake you can see alligators, deer and snakes. This is a great experience for adventurous travelers.
9. Taste the León Cuisine
Besides being the home to the ruins of León Viejo and the current city of León, the department of León is home to several great Nicaraguan dishes that you should try when visiting the ruins of León Viejo.
You can start with a traditional fritanga, prepared with steak, gallo pinto (a Nicaraguan-Costa Rican dish made with rice and beans), fried cheese, crunchy slices of green plantain, chorizo, potato cakes, and a cabbage-vinegar salad.
You can also try rice with dry fish, enchiladas from León, nacatamales, quesillo, Leonese tacos or pork with yuca (cassava root).
Desserts in León are also great. You can try atol, squash with honey, cajeta, milk soup (sopa de leche), or even cosa de horno (which literally means “oven thing”).
10. Volcano Boarding
The best way to finish an awesome tour through the ruins of León Viejo is going volcano boarding!
There are some companies that offer to take you to the youngest volcano in Central America, Cerro Negro volcano, with an altitude of 2,388 feet (728 m).
The most extreme part of the adventure is that this is an active volcano, but Nicaraguans monitor the activity regularly.
You can sandboard down the volcano in three minutes and also get a shared or a private tour—costs are 50 USD per person for the private one, and 30 USD per person for the shared one.
Visit the Ruins of León Viejo Already Speaking Spanish
The ruins of León Viejo are an amazing and magical place that you should not miss when you visit Nicaragua. And the best way to get acquainted with the culture and history of a Latin American country is by speaking Spanish.
Sign up for a free class with a school that has more than 10 years of experience in teaching Spanish to more than 24,000 active members monthly!
Besides making your trips more efficient, speaking Spanish will expand your horizons and job opportunities!
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