A Day in León
Our Founder is currently travelling in Nicaragua and in true Jonny style, has already hit the volcanic ground running (or sliding…)
To be very honest, I arrived in Nicaragua having done very little research.
Invited to a cousin's wedding in Mexico, I figured this little-visited Central American gem that I’d always heard great things about, deserved a bit more attention, but other than asking Richard, our senior Latin America expert, to recommend an itinerary – Richard happens to be married to a Nicaraguan lady and lives here for part of the year – I had done nothing, not even read a guidebook.
So with the nuptials taken care of at a spectacular three-day fiesta just outside Mexico City, I flew south, landed in Managua and headed straight to the former capital, León. And first up on our agenda, so my wonderful guide Juan Carlos told me, was to climb Cerre Negro, an active volcano an hour outside the town, and they slide down it in a small wooden tray.
Now I don’t mind telling you, I am normally up for anything on my travels. True, I generally prefer authentic experiences that the locals might do – such as horse riding or river rafting – but sometimes corny tourist experiences can be fun. But climbing an active volcano, only to slide down it on my bum?… I wasn’t convinced.
Leaving the busy streets of León, past the brightly painted adobe houses, the road soon ran through rich farmland – casava, peanuts, sugar cane and maize – before branching off onto a track of black volcanic dust. Passing bullock carts bringing freshly cut eucalyptus down from the volcano’s slopes, we made our way to the base of the conical massif where we alighted and began our climb to the crater’s edge.
Although hot and extremely humid the climb was not particularly arduous. The rocky terrain was as dry and hard as the surface of the moon, but still, there were signs of life. A rock wren hopped from rock to rock looking for insects, a skunk darted along the path before us with the same intent, and black vultures and turkey buzzards circled overhead. The views from the top were sublime. Looking west we could clearly see the sparkling waters of the Pacific Ocean. To the south rose two more volcanoes – San Cristobal, at 1750m the highest in Nicaragua, and Telika Rojo which was smoking angrily – and to the north more volcanos and a distant mountain range. There are 25 volcanos in Nicaragua. The Cerre Negro, the one on which we stood, last erupted in 2000. They say another one is due.
And then we were given our trays and told to slide back down.
As unconvinced as I was, the thought of walking back down didn’t fill me with glee either so once I’d donned the Guantanamo-style jumpsuit, helmet and goggles, and given the most rudimentary lesson in how to control the four-foot-by-one-foot ‘sledge’, off I went. And in fact, it was a lot of fun. Catching speeds above 50kph, controlling direction and velocity with my feet, I sped down the mountain leaving a trail of dust in my wake. It took an hour to walk to the top; it took barely two minutes to speed back down.
Back in León, after a shower and some lunch, we took a fascinating sightseeing tour around this vibrant town. As the former capital, León is home to the third largest cathedral in all the Americas, slightly smaller than similar epic constructions in Mexico City and Lima. We visited its cavernous interior and climbed up onto its roof. In front of the cathedral, around the main square, are monuments to those who died during the struggles of the seventies and eighties. Juan Carlos explained about the heroes of the Sandinista movement, the involvement of the CIA and the current political regime.
We visit the house and museum of Rubén Dario, Nicaragua’s most famous poet and writer who, among other things, is credited with modernising the Spanish language. And we visited the fine art gallery, a quite extraordinary collection of paintings and sculptures, ranging from 15th century religious iconography to Rubens and Rembrandt oils, Henry Moores, and Picasso and Warhol originals. Covering more than a block, on two sides of the street, a true art lover would need at least a day to do the collection justice.
But to be honest, I like to travel somewhat blind, without too many preconceptions fed to me through guidebooks, and let a new place surprise me. So far, Nicaragua has done just that.