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Trip Report Two Weeks in Nicaragua: Part 3- Leon and Granada

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Our American friend who lives and works in Managua took us on day trips to Leon and Granada during our visit in December/January.
The drive to Leon was close to 2 hours with some of the roads being good and others being not so good. Our first stop was at Viejo Leon (Old Leon), the site of the original town of Leon. The town, which was founded in 1524, was evacuated in 1610 after a volcanic eruption and earthquake encouraged the inhabitants to leave.. Excavations on the site were begun in 1999 and it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. Visits to the site are by guided tour only and your admission price includes the tour guide. (A tip at the end of the tour is nice.) There was nobody else at Viejo Leon on the day of our visit, so we ended up having a private tour. We had a guide that spoke English, but I would not expect this to be the norm. There are interpretive signs in both Spanish and English at various points along the tour route. We got a good feel for what the town must have looked like in the 1500's and our guide gave us some excellent historical information. (BTW, the town was founded by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and his decapitated body was located during the excavations buried next to the remains of his murderer.) I would definitely include a visit to Viejo Leon in any visit to Leon.
After our tour at Viejo Leon, we drove about 30 minutes to Leon and ate lunch at the popular Restarante El Sesteo located on a corner across from the cathedral. The restaurant has a large menu and we found the prices and the food to be very good. (We paid about $6.00 per person for lunch including a beer.) After lunch, we walked over to the Museo de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian and toured this open-air art museum (located in 2 buildings) in about an hour. The interior of the main building is lovely with a courtyard and beautiful chandeliers in some of the rooms. It is well worth a stop. After the museum, we walked back to the cathedral, the largest in Central America, which had been closed earlier, and walked around inside. The interior is impressive and is the resting place of famed Nicaraguan poet, Ruben Dario. Tours of some of the underground chambers and rooftop tours are supposedly available, but we did not find any place in the cathedral to buy tickets for these tours. We then walked one block north of the cathedral to see the famed mural of the history of Nicaragua. I enjoyed figuring out the symbolism from the history of Nicaragua that I had read before our trip. Finally, our day ended by driving to the center of the Subtiava section of town which is the place where the evacuees from "old" Leon created the "new" Leon. We had hoped to visit the church is the plaza there, but it was closed. Since we did not want to be driving on the roads much after dark, we had to leave Leon by 3pm. Based on what I read in my Moon travel guide to Nicaragua, we probably could have seen the rest of what there is to see in Leon in just another day. There are tour companies that can arrange volcano boarding tours (riding down Cerro Negro volcano on a wooden sled), hiking, ziplining, etc. but these also require more time in Leon.
A few days later, we did a day trip to Granada which is only about 45 minutes from Managua along a good road. We arrived about 11am so that we could have Sunday breakfast at the well-known Kathy's Waffle House across the street from the Museo del Convento de San Francisco. After breakfast, we went to museum and toured the exhibits in about 40 minutes. The "star" exhibit of the museum is the display of pre-Columbian statutes recovered from the island of Zapateras in Lake Nicaragua. Some of these statues are already in poor condition due to erosion, but at least now they are protected from the elements. While this was an impressive display, I probably enjoyed the modern Nicaraguan art better.
From here, we walked to the central plaza and the cathderal along the colonial streets. While Leon and Granada are both colonial towns, Granada seems better preserved and much more of a tourist destination. There was a busy market going on in the central plaza and we had a quick walk around before entering the cathedral. It was not as impressive as the cathedral in Leon, of course, but it had some nice religious art inside. We walked a bit around the pedestrian area, admiring more of the colonial architecture. We ended the day by driving through the park along the shore of Lake Nicaragua. Since it was the Sunday after New Years Day, the park was absolutely jam-packed with families picnicking and swimming in the lake (which did not look appealing to me due to the trash along the shore). There are places where you can rent boats or take boat tours in the park. I think we could have enjoyed an extra day in Granada, but our friend had to return to work on Monday, so we drove back to Managua that afternoon.
I would say that a thorough visit to Leon and Granada would require two days each. If you want to do some of the activities outside of these towns, e.g. trips to volcanoes, hiking, markets, etc, allow an extra day or two. Also, based on observations by my friend who has visited each town several times, do not expect the museums, cathedrals, or other visitor sites to be open on any regular schedule. (E.g., she had been to Granada at least 3 times before our visit and she said this was the first time that the cathedral had been open while she was there.)