León Viejo

León is the oldest city in Nicaragua, but it has not continuously occupied the same location. In 1610 it moved to its current location from what is known as León Viejo or León-Imabite (Imabite being the Spanish pronunciation of the indigenous city that it was founded next to). Around 40 years ago León Viejo was discovered by archaeologists, and it is now one of Nicaragua’s two UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the other being the Cathedral in the currently León). León Viejo is located on the shores of Lake Managua, right next to the recently active Momotombo volcano, in the present day municipality of La Paz Centro.


I’ve heard mixed reviews of the tour of León Viejo, but my love of history and my site-mate’s desire to visit compelled me to go last Sunday. It did not disappoint! The tour guide was great, the excavations are clear to see and you get a feel for how the city used to be laid out. The colonial history is also interesting and in quintessential Spanish form, absolutely barbaric. Of course, the Indians were enslaved. Rebels were executed in the central square in a myriad of different fashions. The most infamous is when 18 of them were massacred by dogs.

Not only were the Spanish killing the locals. They were killing each other too. The stories they told sound like they are right out of Game of Thrones. I suppose that it is the other way around, and the stories in Game of Thrones are ripped from the annals of history.

Back in the early 1500’s the two strongmen of Spanish Central America were Cortés, up in Mexico, and Pedrarias Dávila, in Panama. Cortés’ domain extended south into Honduras, and Dávila’s went north through all of Nicaragua and into Honduras. Dávila wanted to exploit Nicaragua (most probably for gold) so he sent his lieutenant, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, north to establish cities. On that expedition he founded León and Granada, and soon afterwards gold starting pouring out of the north of Nicaragua into León.

Córdoba wanted more of the wealth for himself, so he decided to try to break off from Dávila down in Panama. Córdoba thought that Cortés would support him, because Cortés and Dávila were squabbling over Honduras. Unfortunately for Córdoba, Cortés balked, and Dávila’s more trustworthy lieutenant and son-in-law, Hernando de Soto (yes, the European discoverer of the Mississippi River, among other feats, noble and ignoble), suppressed the rebellion. Dávila then had Córdoba put to death as a traitor. Means of execution: decapitation. Dávila did not even wait for the official death warrant to arrive from Spain. Most ironically, Dávila and Córdoba were interred side by side in the Church of La Merced in León Viejo. Their remains were discovered in 2000. Dávila also had Vasco Núñez de Balboa beheaded for treason down in Panama prior to Córdoba’s insurrection. Balboa is known for having been the first European to discover the Pacific Ocean.

The site itself is small, but you get a nice feel for why every structure is where it is. The primacy of gold and the struggle between church and state are visible even in the layout of this most primitive Spanish settlement.

Something interesting that I learned is that León Viejo was not abandoned because of a volcanic explosion. Flooding was a larger problem, and the threat of volcanic explosions and earthquakes were secondary. However, by 1610 there were a number of social problems at León-Imabite and many people thought that the city was cursed due to the politically-driven murder of a bishop. All of these factors together (surely they must have attributed the various natural disasters to the curse) caused the city to relocate to its and my current location in 1610.

Not far from the highway leading to Puerto Momotombo (the modern day town at the León Viejo site) is an old volcanic crater lake called Asososca Lagoon. It was an extremely hot day, so we were eager to trudge through the dirt, sand, and dust to get to the lagoon. The waters were brilliantly turquoise and very refreshing. I’m extremely glad that I got to take this trip with Hailee (incidentally, she refuses to read my blog). I remember when Lauren, my old site mate showed me how to get to Asososca.


León Viejo is on the Occidente Bucket List, so it is worth taking another glance at my progress:

As for Isla Juan Venado, I am no longer interesting in going. It is mainly a mangrove sanctuary, and the fish processing cooperative that I work with has a mangrove estuary that they have taken me into numerous times.

I am torn about San Cristobal. On one hand it would feel cool to summit the tallest volcano in the country, but I have heard that the hike is arduous and borderline miserable. I’m not sure if I want to subject myself to that. I have a friend that wants to take me, but I have put off his offer long enough that I no longer have enough time to make it up San Cristobal anyway.

The Wetlands of Chinandega I never made much effort to see, which is a bit disappointing. However, at the moment they might be quite dry due to the drought. The Nicaraguan Facebookosphere is awash in photos of iconic wetlands and waterfalls of Nicaragua completely dried up.

That just leaves the Botanical Gardens, but I have heard that it is not taken care of well and not worth the trip, so I doubt that I will make an effort to see it.

LogisticsStep one is getting to La Paz Centro. From the bus terminal in León, take a bus to La Paz Centro (hourly departures). The ride is less than an hour and costs C$ 18. From Managua, there are also frequent departures from Mercado Israel bus terminal. Those take at least an hour to arrive. From the small bus terminal in La Paz Centro take another bus to Puerto Momotombo. There are a few departures throughout the day and unfortunately I do not know the times. There are no departures on Sundays (there may be one or two, but they leave earlier in the morning). From La Paz Centro you can also take a mototaxi, which could be up to C$ 50 per passenger.

The ruins of León Viejo are in the small lakeside town of Puerto Momotombo. Entrance for a foreigner is $5. Nicaraguans only pay C$ 50. These prices include a tour guide and entrance to the two small but well maintained museums. I found the tour guide to be excellent and very well informed about colonial history. They are open on Sundays.

To get to Laguna de Asososca, you have to go to the empalme for Puerto Momotombo. This is where the turnoff on the highway is for the town of Puerto Momotombo. On the other side of the road there is a dirt trail. Walk down it. Eventually you will come to a split in the path. There is what looks like a football goalpost at the split. Turn left.


Continue down the river of sand and you will get to a small farm. The family charges $2 entrance to the laguna. Continue on the path up and over the hill and down to the laguna. There is also an overlook if you continue heading upwards rather than down to the laguna. To reach the water it is a total of a 45 minute walk from the highway. Bring water and sunblock.

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