Ruins of León Viejo
The Ruins of León Viejo comprise an archaeological site that holds one of the oldest Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas (1524).
It has been uniquely preserved because it didn't develop further after it had been hit by a volcanic eruption in 1578 and an earthquake in 1610. The ruins have become a valuable source of information about life in the early stages of the Spanish colonial period. It had a simple cathedral, church and convent, and an exact square layout with a plaza located in its center.
Community Perspective: Well-maintained and worth a detour, as long as you keep in mind that the remains are just the rough layouts of the exterior walls/room. You can get here on public transport from the city of Leon as well, see the description by Els.
Map of Ruins of León ViejoLoad map
I had a full day tour from Managua to visit two Nicaraguan World Heritage Sites, the two Leon. After breakfast, a driver picked me up from the hotel to Leon Viejo with a brief stop to see the mighty volcano of Momotombo. The ruins were in the small village that my guide from Leon whom I met at the junction before the village entrance said, “a perfect place to admire Nicaraguan way of life”. He took me to see the small museum which I learnt that Leon Viejo is actually built by native Americans before the arrival of Spanish and after befriended with and enslaved the locals, the newcomer built the western styled town and lived together with natives, so Leon Viejo was quite very unique in the history of colonial city foundation.
If the story of city foundation was quite unique, the ending of the city was far stranger. According to my guide, the city lord had an argument with the priest and killed him. Later the Momotombo erupted which caused locals to believe that god hated this city because of killing priest was the great sin, so with bad omens, they decided to abandon the city and move to present day Leon. They also dismantled the city for construction material, that why noting much left to see at Leon Viejo. My guide took me the see the whole ruins, the atmosphere was peaceful as I was the only tourist. Most of the ruins I saw were just building foundation covered by concrete and noting interesting. The statue of native with attacking dog was a reminder of brutality of Spanish together with church’s ruins and the view of Momotombo from the old fort were the best sites.
Since I visited on early morning, the cool breeze from the lake really made the sightseeing enjoyable. Combining Leon Viejo with Leon Cathedral in the same day from Managua was also highly recommended as these two sites provided the complete early story of the city of Leon. The highway from the capital was also very good, probably the best I experienced in Central America, except dirt roads inside the Leon Viejo village. All in all, a fine World Heritage Site to make a good detour in surprising Nicaragua.
I think Nicaragua inscribed the wrong places and instead should focus on all the awesome natural sites around the country. Both Leóns are kinda lame. On the other hand without an inscription nobody would visit and no funding for keeping it maintained. There were after a 3 coaches parked outside the entrance gate when I drove up, blasting their aircon the entire time parked there and the site was "overrun" by elderly American tourists. So much in fact that no guide was available for taking me which is supposed to be mandatory (or maybe just a service you get for the $5 entrance fee). This trip is shaping up to be a DIY tour more than ever.
So while the groups heading for the restaurant across the gate (with guides hmmm) I was free to explore the remains of old Leon, abandoned after an earthquake from the magnificent Momotombo nearby (should be a WHS like Fujisan but isn't even tentative). That was many hundred years ago. A possible look of the town can be seen by a nearby model. I'm guessing it's a typical old town layout. I think I counted 3 churches alone. As you get to these places in the area you will get used to one thing: they are just walls now, barely a foot high sometimes. They aren't even original if I'm not mistaken. Replaced with new mortar to give it a look that something once stood here. The better ones even get a roof cover. The plaques nearby don't actually explain more than the name of the building. I can't see how a guide would give more info than that aside from padding it with general info of what would have gone down in that kind of building. Any info on the old town is lost to us now.
There is also a "museum" with some info panels, only in Spanish mind you, but it's pretty laughable.
I actually knew what to expect from pictures so if "foundations of buildings gone long ago" isn't your kind of thing them you are probably ticking this off for the sake of completion. It's not far from the main roads but the sandy "roads" in Puerto Momotombo aren't fun to drive. I once almost got stuck in the sand too.
León Viejo is said to be one of the earliest cities in Spanish America. Panama Viejo, which I visited last week, makes the same claim. I have been looking for a list in which order these Spanish overseas cities were founded, but could only find this one. It doesn't even include León Viejo; if I fit it in, with 1524 it would come on a shared 11th place among the Spanish colonial cities. The difference between this and many other cities on that list is that it has not developed since the 16th century when it was abandoned.
Anyway, León Viejo was of great importance to Nicaragua as it was its first colonial capital. The Spanish settled on the shore of what then was called the Lake of Leon. In its heyday, some 200 Spanish families lived here. A serious town was constructed for them, although there weren't many inhabitants: everything seems to have been supersized. There were no less than three convents, and the town hall spanned a full block. In the surrounding area lived thousands of native Americans, who were dominated and put to work by the Spanish.
The entrance fee to what is now an archaeological site comes with a guide. I was the first visitor of the day and the only person on-site during my visit. We started at the two exhibition rooms near the entrance. One is about the Spanish town, the other focuses on the indigenous culture. The point is made that early Nicaraguans already were in contact with the Ancient Peruvians, as Peruvian pottery was found at this site. Another reminder of the plight of the indigenous people is the statue of an Indian attacked by dogs that now adorns the center of the plaza.
Some 16 ruined buildings have been partially restored. Or maybe we should say "partially uncovered, and then put under protected cover again". Actually, only the La Merced Convent has a recognizable shape. The road is also restored. I was actually more amazed by the trees, the fruits, the squirrels and the view of Momotombo Volcano than by the ruins. The site looks well-maintained, maybe surprisingly so for a poor country that Nicaragua is (the 2nd or 3rd poorest in the western hemisphere after Haïti and possibly Honduras). This is also a pleasant change after seeing the difficulties that Panama has with conservation.
I reached León Viejo by public transport from León. That's a fun thing to do if you have time. You can get there by local buses, with a change in the town of La Paz Centro. The bus driver will know where "Las Ruinas" are, you have to walk 200m from the final stop in the town of Puerto Momotombo. The site is also signposted all over town, it's impossible to miss. I had to wait almost an hour for the return bus and spent that sitting in the main street watching rural Nicaraguan life go by. Horsecarts are still a common mode of transport here. I also noticed a few wandering salesmen, going from door to door selling plastic stuff or fruits.
León Viejo is not a spectacular sight, and I gave it only a 6.5 out of 10. But it is surely worth a detour when you're visiting northern Nicaragua. Although they may not see that many visitors, the archaeological site and attached museum are kept in a good state.
Read more from Els Slots here.
Leon Viejo consists of the remains of a colonial town founded in 1524 which had largely declined by 1580 before being finally abandoned in 1609. It then became covered by volcanic ash and was “lost” until 1967 and excavations took place. Around 18 structures have been identified, together with a plaza and main street - reflecting just how small the intial colonial settlements and populations were. The remains are set in a wooded/grassed site in sight of the town’s ultimate nemesis – the volcano of Momotombo (photo). They consist of a series of low walls rarely rising above a metre or so high which are capped by modern cement to preserve them (together in some cases with more substantial steel framed structures). The buildings include a cathedral, a convent, a fort, houses of the governor and several merchants and a number of structures of unknown purposes. There are no paintings, carvings, pillars or statues as in many classical “Old World” archaeological sites – just the rough layouts of the exterior walls/rooms and, in the religious buildings, a few graves.
At first sight there is not a lot to see! Yet we found the place well worth the 12+ km detour off the Carretera Nueva from Managua to (New) Leon to the very rural village of Momotombo on the banks of Lake Managua (It could well be an “all day” job to get to and from by public transport from Managua or Leon). The site is surprisingly well set out and each structure has a sign with an informative description in Spanish and English, together with a site plan showing its location.
The requirement, mentioned by the previous reviewer and in the guide books to have a (Spanish speaking) guide, was not enforced when we were there in Dec 2005. We did however tag along for part of the visit with another small group who did have a guide and we had the Footprint Guide to Nicaragua which has almost 2 pages on the site. The book, the signs and the guide (in that sequence), together with one’s own imagination, help bring to life what could otherwise be a rather dull site.
Whilst there are many extant American “Colonial Cities” on the UNESCO list (see the “Themes” section on this site) in my view none of them preserves the essence of those very earliest days of the European conquest and most are now bustling towns full of “accretions” from the 18/19 and 20th centuries. At Leon Viejo you can sense the newness and remoteness of the frontier. We enjoyed Panama’s Portobelo for much the same reason.
The description on 1 house states that Hernando de Soto lived there as a “Corregidor” (Magistrate). At the time he had yet to join Pizzaro on the expedition to Peru and the execution of Atahuallpa in 1533. At the Cathedral in 1532 (?) the “Apostle of the Indians” Bartholome de las Casas preached against further conquest of the Indians and was run out of town! This was all VERY early in the Iberian conquest of the continent. The town’s brief history fully reflects the brutality and treachery of the Conquest. The original founder Cordoba was beheaded by the first governor Davila – who, ironically, was later buried next to him until both bodies were removed some 475 years later during the excavations (their remains still share a modern memorial on the site)!
Nicaragua’s population is significantly mestizo even if it doesn’t have the indigenous cultural reputation of eg Guatemala. A modern statue on the site of an Indian being attacked by a dog recalls one particularly brutal early event which occurred at Leon Viejo when the governor murdered 12 Indian hostages in 1528 using his killer dogs as the executioners. At other locations in Nicaragua you will also see things which reflect the sense of hurt and pride in the “indigeno” background shared in varying degrees by some 96% of the population. To miss Leon Viejo would be to miss a significant piece of the jig saw which makes up the “whole” picture of this touristically undervalued country.
I visited the ruins in July 2003. The site can be covered with a (mandatory guide, Spanish only) in about 45 minutes. It is located on the outskirts of the small town of Mamotambo, a 20 minute bus ride from La Paz Centro, which is accessible by frequent buses from Leon or Managua Ask to be let off at Las Ruinas and from there it's a ten minute walk down a dusty road to the ruins. Few facilities in the town or at the site. There had been fewer than ten visitors in the past three days according to the guest register. It is a very hot and humid location so bring water but it is well maintained. Especially interesting are the cathedral, a massive stone structure, given the overall size of the settlement and the governor's house, the layout of which is still the norm in nearby Leon. Plaster casts of the founders, one of whom killed the under, lie together under the cathedral vault. Monuments to the Spanish rulers and Indians who rose in revolt against them attest to the brutal, bloody history of the settlement. A final must is the climb to the top of the old fort for a stunning view of the nearby volcanoes and the lake.
Bureau - German member queried its "Universal Value". ICOMOS said it did! But concerns over Management plan etc
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Take a bus from Leon or Managua to the bus station of La Paz Centro, and change to the local bus to Puerto Momotombo. It stops within a few hundred metres from "Las Ruinas". The journey takes about 1 dollar & 2 hours each way from Leon.
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