I find the road leaving Selva Negra to Matagalpa and then onto Managua much different in sunlight than my previous experience in rain. It’s easier to avoid the potholes and I’m quickly buzzing through Managua making my way to Leon – one of the oldest cities in all of Central America. Along the way I find the oddest collection of goods for sale in hobbled together shacks, roadside stands or simply standing outposts. A series of 3 or 4 young boys jut sticks out into my lane. On each stick are 3 or 4 colorful birds clinging for their life. I regret not stopping and questioning these kids, but I’m eager to make it to León and León Viejo before dusk. Other sellers stack mattresses, bed frames textiles and a mishmash of functional goods. No sign of traditional or indigenous handicrafts here. Though the occasional stand of colorful fruit and vegetables breaks the otherwise drab roadsides as I approach the outskirts of Managua.
The motorcycle is running great and a recently changed packing scheme seems better to me — or maybe because it’s just new and I’m ready for a change. It’s now been more than two weeks since I had a riding partner, though I’ve been in touch with Jeremiah and Sacha. Seems the Costa Rica roads riddled with potholes have taken its toll on both of their machines. Jeremiah is in Southern Costa Rica with two bent rims on his 2005 Dakar. He’s scrambling to get them replaced or repaired, apparently one is extremely bad. And in Northern Costa Rica Sacha hit a pothole that blew at his rear shock and possibly broke his swing arm. He’s looking to get to the BMW dealer in San Jose to take inventory. I hope they are successful and continue their own journeys soon.
As for me, I don’t look forward to those messy roads in Costa Rica which I remember from my trip their earlier this year. But for now, fingers crossed and a good running bike I’m eager to learn more about Nicaragua, its people, history and culture. The city of Leon sits North of Managua and is less than 15 miles from the Pacific coast (good surfing) in northern Nicaragua. While it has always been close to water, it didn’t originate in its current location. Founded by Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba in 1524 who founded the city of Granada at the Northern end of Lago de Nicaragua. Leon Viejo sits precariously at the foot of Volcán Momotombo, one of 15 active volcanoes in Nicaragua and its steepest. Both Leon and Granada are perhaps the sites of the first Spanish settlements in Central America.
Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, Leon Viejo is located about 15 miles off the main Managua-Leon road. The new road leading toward the ruins is typical of many in Central America where pavement or asphalt are non existent. Made of thousands of interlocking brick-like blocks. I follow the road and the fairly good signs until my bike is sitting in mud at the north end of Lake Managua. The turn I missed wasn’t marked because kids apparently obliterated the sign. The woman in the small store mumbled somethings at me and walked away when I asked where to turn. My guide later told me that the people in the villages surrounding the volcano and the ruins are not ready and unaware of how tourism may help their feeble economy. Later I discover that I’m the only visitor to Leon Viejo today. And yesterday they saw one visitor as well — another gentlemen from North America.
Leon Viejo was eventually abandoned and move to its present site where until 1857 it served as the capital of Nicaragua. And according to my guide city leaders gradually moved the city on its own volition and not because of a volcanic eruption or earthquake. And over the years the bricks and stones from León Viejo were progressively moved my other settlers and people in local village for building materials. Today, not much of León Viejo remains.
Compared to ruins I’ve seen elsewhere on this trip to take in León Viejo takes a bit of imagination. My english speaking guide fills in the blanks as we walk through the sites of the homes, businesses and La Merced church where just recently archaeologists uncovered the headless body of Nicaraguan’s founder Fransisco Fermandez de Cordoba who was buried next to his archenemy who had him executed, Pedrarias Davila. My guide tells me the people buried Davila next to Fernandez so that he might have a chance at revenge in the afterlife.
Interestingly, not much is known about pre-colonial Nicaragua. There are no large scale ruins of pre-historic cities as are found in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Though there is evidence of indigenous peoples and cultures, particularly along the Pacific coast and in the mountains toward Matagalpa. But no cities or temples have been found anywhere.
Wit the sun setting I venture off and ride into the new old city of León. The town is aggressively working on repaving the streets so with dirt and dust dancing in the beam of my headlight it takes 3 tries to find a hotel. The lovely lady at reception of Los Balcones is sympathetic to my travelers budget and meets my price too low to print here. But a word on the property: fantastic. It’s a completely restored colonial hotel that still retains original wood plant floors and shutters. Surrounding a lovely courtyard once inside and off the dusty street I feel as if I’m in the late 1800’s Central America. Tastefully decorated with period pieces replicas, only the hot water, television and air-conditioning give clue to the current era. If you get to León, do yourself a favor and take in the atmosphere and spend a night here.
Photos: (1) Road to León Viejo (old León) always cattle, many little villages and note the road composition; (2) Doc sitting proudly at the foot of Vulcan Momotombo and Lago de Managua; (3) The remains of old La Merced Church in León Viejo; (4) View from hilltop overlooking León Viejo, the lake and great volcano. It looks almost fake, doesn’t it? And apparently it changes colors much like a chameleon.. Today it’s brick red and green. But I swear it looks like a painting.