Sunday, May 16, 2010

April 15th and 16th

We battle our way through the chaos of Managua's congested streets heading West....

Unusually, there are two major routes between the new capital and Leon, the old one. We had intended to take the new road as the old one climbs directly over a 600 meter hill that the other route circumnavigates. Either there is a complete lack of signs or we just missed them, distracted as we were by cars coming from all directions, dodging the hand carts and ox driven wains. So we take the old road.... and climb.

It's a dull brown barren landscape reminiscent of the semi desert highlands of Mexico and we stop frequently to cool off in the blistering heat. Briefly the air freshens as we top 2000 feet before dropping back to the plains at sea level.

The land is given over to sugar once more and heat hazed, arrow straight tarmac speeds the crop to market like some giant mechanised hedgehog....

40 kilometres out from Leon the road starts to degrade and then becomes interspersed with dirt sections where the blacktop disappears completely. It slows us down considerably and passing trucks now raise great plumes of dust which forms a kind of paste as it clings to sweaty faces....

Leon, a city formed in 1524, was originally sited further east at the foot of the Momotombo Volcano. It had to be moved to it's current location after being destroyed in 1610 when said volcano first erupted, and then finished the job off with a massive earthquake. Leon then enjoyed 247 years as the nations capital before internecine squabbling caused it to lose that honour to the then fishing village at Managua. As a consequence the modern day city is a much smaller, more accessible place with some stunning colonial relics. The beautiful Iglesia de la Recoleccion....

The cathedral in the central plaza is the largest in all of Central America and took over 100 years to build. Blueprints for it's design had to be ratified by Spanish authorities and the town's leadership were not convinced a plan on such a grand scale would pass scrutiny.
So they lied.
By submitting a more modest proposal, they could receive Spain's blessing - and then just get on with this colossal structure behind their backs....

Many of the fine buildings are now pock marked and fading, their crumbling facades reflecting Leon's recent change of status. Where they have been restored, however, it is easy to see just how beautiful this place must have been in it's heyday. The municipal theatre....

Leon has always taken it's politics seriously. During the revolution almost the entire population rebelled against the Somoza dictatorship and fought with the Sandinistas to topple the government and the US funded Contras. Buildings throughout the city display giant murals commemorating these troubled times as people fought for their liberty....

A grim reminder of the struggle is the 'Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs' where pictures of over 300 victims are on display. It is run by the mothers of these former Sandinista veterans who are willing to talk about their memories and experiences. It is chilling to note the number of women amongst those remembered who fought alongside the men and also the young age of all faces staring back at you.

It's not all about the struggles of the past though and Leon is also home to art galleries such as the 'Fundacion Ortiz'.

Now a visit to an art gallery can go one of two ways, especially when it's so-called 'contemporary art'. Contemporary art is just that where people haven't had enough time to decide what is rubbish yet so they can throw it away. It is something of a surprise then, when Fundacion Ortiz turns out to be pretty amazing! Set in two incredibly fine old colonial houses complete with open courtyards and gardens, it's a fantastic collection of paintings and sculpture from all around the Latin world....

After the sprawling immensity of Managua, Leon is a much more accessible city. It's small enough to walk around and safe enough that doing so is unlikely to ruin your day. It's firmly on the gringo trail and white faces intermingle with the locals, but at it's heart it still retains an authentic feel with a bustling market at the centre and unexplored back-streets to lose yourself in. We're both pretty glad we extended our time in Nicaragua and made a detour to come here.

Retracing our steps (or tyre tracks) back to Managua, we take the new road. It's a decision taken by the majority and we now swap the rock and dirt surface of the old for a massive increase in traffic. Brief gaps in the cloud cover allow brief glimpses of the behemoth that was responsible for Leon's retreat to a safe distance. Vulcan Momotombo rises perfect and conical from an otherwise unblemished strip of flat-land. From a standing start at sea level it thrusts abruptly 1280 metres (4200 ft) into the clouds on the edge of Lake Managua....

It makes a fairly spectacular backdrop as we skirt the lake back to Managua....


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