León, Nicaragua – skip the volcano boarding, take in the UNESCO cathedral instead 2

Most travellers come to León, Nicaragua expecting to go volcano boarding – an activity that involves sliding down the side of a volcano on a sled. It looked like a lot of fun and I was looking forward to trying out this unique experience when I arrived in León. But in the end, I was so put off by the poseur backpacker crowd the industry attracts, I decided to give it a miss.

Luckily there is more to the city than just this one high-adrenalin activity.

El Calvario church, León, Nicaragua

El Calvario church in the foreground, a suite of volcanos on the horizon, in León, Nicaragua. Photo credit: Benjamin White

The founding of León

The city was founded in 1524; Granada, its arch-rival, was founded the same year.

Both cities owe their creation to conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, a man widely regarded as the founding figure of Nicaragua. Córdoba has the honour of having the national currency of Nicaragua named after him.

He also met his grisly demise in the central plaza of León.

Cathedral of León, Nicaragua

Cathedral of León. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Córdoba vs de Ávila

The early 1500s was a tumultuous era for Central America; mostly it was conquistadors fighting the indigenous population, but there were also conquistadors fighting the Spanish, and conquistadors fighting conquistadors.

León, Nicaragua

Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 1519 Pedro Arias de Ávila, a Spanish colonial administrator of great influence, executed Vasco Núñez de Balboa, governor of Panama, (read more about this in my post on Panama City), for siding with the wrong crowd. Pedro Arias de Ávila then took the role of governor of Panama for himself.

In 1526, two years after founding the two great cities of Nicaragua, Córdoba was accused of treason (he also sided with the wrong crowd) and he was executed via beheading in Plaza Mayor. His accuser, the same Pedro Arias de Ávila, went on to award himself the role of governor of León; he lived in the city till his death, at age 91, in 1531.

León, Nicaragua

Photo credit: Benjamin White

León Viejo

The first city of León was built on the foothills of Volcán Momotombo – in retrospect this does not seem the most sensible of places to begin a new city. Sure enough, the site had to be abandoned in 1610 due to persistent volcanic activity.

The old city was left to fend for itself, and slowly became entombed in ash (the ruins, 30 kilometres from the new city, are now a UNESCO World Heritage site).

The rooftop of the Cathedral of León, Nicaragua

The rooftop of the Cathedral of León. Photo credit: Benjamin White

In 1838, Nicaragua became an independent republic, with León its capital. But its age-old rival Granada wasn’t pleased with that state of affairs.

In 1852 a compromise was reached between the two political camps, and a new capital, Managua, was created midway between the cities.

Cathedral of León, Nicaragua

Cathedral of León. Photo credit: Benjamin White

Cathedral of León

The cathedral (also known as Catedral de la Asuncíon de María de León), was built between 1747 and 1814. It’s the largest cathedral in Central America.

The architecture is a blend of Baroque and Neo-classicism, and its walls are so thick it isn’t troubled by the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions that plague the region.

Inside Cathedral of León, Nicaragua

Inside the Cathedral of León. Photo credit: Benjamin White

There are 34 domes on the roof – tourists are given access to the roof, and it’s well worth the climb for the views of the city and surrounding volcanos – which light the main chamber with a soft warm glow.

Read more on the cathedral in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.

Practical information and how to reach León:

There are regular buses running to the city from Managua. Trip time is approximately two hours. More transport info here.

More on Nicaragua:

Granada – sacked by Captain Morgan, ravaged by William Walker  

Ometepe – watch lenticular clouds form over Volcán Concepción

More on Central America:

Costa Rica:

Cahuita NP – toucans, agoutis, capuchins, howlers, and idyllic beaches 

Tenorio Volcano NP – how blue is Río Celeste in the wet season?

El Salvador:

Joya de Ceren – preserved beneath metres of ash, just like Pompeii

San Salvador – worth a visit?


Copán, cashed up Mayan outpost builds Hieroglyphic Stairway

Lago de Yojoa – dangerous? no! sleepy, serene, safe? yes!

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