Nicaragua's old capital, León proves the most distinctive destination of many excursions during a recent Panama Canal Cruise.
In the center of this venerable city stands World Heritage León Cathedral. Blending a unique baroque flair and neo-classical grandeur, a haloed Virgin Mary stands gloriously atop. And just below, sculpted pairs of husky Atlanteans support the heavy beams between its central gable and bell towers. Interestingly, these supermen refer subtly to the 17th century's vision of Atlantis and its link to the New World. The façade's twelve ornamental columns conjure the eras of Rome and Greece.
Two golden lions flank this Cathedral's portals, four more surround its plaza fountain. "The topmost statue represents Maximo Jerez, an early Nicaraguan president and liberal thinker," explains guide Miguel. Stony arms folded, Maximo ponders; an audience of pigeons squat at his feet and one perches rudely on his head.
Strolling onward, Miguel tells us how cathedral architecture was adapted to this area's perilous terrain. Studying the low profile and thick walls, we can understand how it's survived earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and warfare.
Inside, Christ's twelve apostles adorn soaring columns. Miguel mentions that during cathedral construction, prominent citizens bought tombs below the marble floor. Nine wealthy notables, ten bishops, five priests and three poets are entombed here. Ruben Dario's tomb rests just below Saint Paul. There, a marble lion weeps for Nicaragua's world-renowned poet, journalist and diplomat.
"Dario's childhood home is now a city museum," Miguel notes. "Nicely restored, it displays Dario's personal belongings, first editions of his work and photographs showing his literary triumphs in Paris, Madrid, Buenos Aires and Chile."
Dario exemplifies this city's intellectuals. I had read about their prince of Spanish letters, adeptly fusing romanticism and politics. His poetry famously praised U.S. idealism and criticized its capitalistic aggression.
The cathedral also displays several masterpieces of Spanish colonial art. Among them, the statue of the black Christ still retaining scars of a pirate's sword. Such religious booty was occasionally shuffled through or hidden in the seven tunnels link other city churches.
Our tour also offers a remarkable panoramic view of León. Entering through a cathedral's side-door, our group ascends a long narrow spiral stairway upward to the rooftop. To explore the newly whitewashed expanse, we must remove our shoes…and wear sunglasses in order to avoid a blinding reflection. The gigantic snow-white statuary and thirty-four domes remain bedazzling.
Among the many bells, we examine La Libertad, which announced Central America's independence to the world. "Great vista, eh?" Miguel proudly grins. "Perfect too for cannons! Artillery was placed here to defend Leon from conservative forces in 1824 and later against dictator Somoza's soldiers during our 1979 revolt."
Just below stands Central America's second oldest University graduating thinkers for centuries. These scholars likely formed the liberal factions who continually challenged the status quo. In the distance brood eight volcanoes.
Exiting the Cathedral, we stroll around the large plaza. At one corner a large mural shows the struggles of early settlers. Another depicts Sandinistas fighting Somoza's army and the later Contras, counter-revolutionaries. Nearby, a sculpted sawdust portrait of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez straddles the sidewalk. And beside this artwork stands a pink-faced clown in bib overalls, who tells us, "Chavez long supported Nicaragua. This celebrates his friendship."
In this once turbulent third-world country, the plaza looks very peaceful. There are no armed police, no beggars and no desperate vendors. Motorists are rare; instead, plainly dressed folk whisper past on old bicycles. Sitting on shaded benches beneath large trees, young couples hold hands.
Under colorful umbrellas near a bandstand, people sell local products. Looking over their collections of handicrafts, we buy carved wooden bowls as well as bags of dark roasted coffee and icy coca-colas.
Back aboard the bus, Miguel speaks frankly about Nicaragua's recent politics. "After ousting Somoza, the Sandanista leader Daniel Ortega improved education, redistributed land and, many think, messed up the economy. So Ortega lost three elections, before being reelected. Now he's considered a practical president enacting good policies." Having shared his country's outlook, Miguel points out his home…and invites us amigos for dinner. We laugh!
Outside the city, Miguel extols the wealth of the surrounding landscape: pastures filled with white Brahman cattle, acres of cotton, sorghum grain, beans, corn and sugar cane. "These cleared dirt fields conceal treasures: peanuts," Miguel explains. "And those distant volcanoes represent Nicaragua's potential. That one, Momotombo already supplies energy at a nearby geothermal plant."
Long stimulating and liberalizing thought, today León gives visitors like us a glimpse at the soul of Central America.
IF YOU GO:
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1. Leon Cathedral Rooftop covers almost an acre.
4.Leon Plaza Activity involves its bustling open market.
5.Ruben Dario Tomb is a centerpiece of the Cathedral.
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