About León Viejo
León Viejo was one of the earliest settlements built by Spanish colonialists in the Americas, and was Nicaragua’s first capital.
History of León Viejo
Founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, a leading figure in the development of Nicaragua: he was executed two years later by his deputy in the central plaza of the city he built. Cordoba’s body was later discovered in the crypt during 20th century excavations.
Despite the famed cruelty of León Viejo’s rulers, the city developed into an important centre of trade and commerce. Whilst an important city, being the capital of the province, Leon Viejo was never a large one and consisted mostly of fairly basic buildings. In 1545, at its peak, it had only around two hundred Spanish inhabitants.
In 1550, a crime shook León Viejo and, according to beliefs at the time, made it the subject of a curse. This event was the murder of Antonio Valdivieso, a Franciscan monk thought to have played a central role in bringing Christianity to the country. From then on, Leon Viejo fell into decline and suffered high inflation.
In 1578, the eruption of the nearby Momotombo volcano drove away many of its citizens (at its peak it had around 15,000 inhabitants), followed in 1610 by a major earthquake which destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure, and the remaining inhabitants decided to relocate the city in a referendum.
The remains of the old city were gradually lost, covered in ash, lava, volcanic sediment and lake sediment. They were only recovered in 1967, following years of searching.
León Viejo today
Today, León Viejo is in ruins, although much of its foundations and cellars are still intact, owing in great part to the fact that it was never allowed to develop. Visitors can see its old convent, cathedral and governor’s mansion as well as its royal foundry.
There is also a statue of a indigenous man which tells the story of those who had lived in León Viejo prior to the arrival of the conquistadors. They suffered terribly under the Spanish, being subject to atrocities, as shown in the statue, where the man is being attacked by dogs.
The ruins of León Viejo are a UNESCO World Heritage site: they provide a remarkable insight into early Spanish colonial architecture and town planning, and León Viejo is the only city which did not have later alterations made, making it unique and insightful.
Despite León Viejo’s importance, most of what has been uncovered is of archaeological significance rather than overtly aesthetic. You’ll need a hefty dose of imagination to make the ruins come to life – your entrance fee entitles you to a Spanish guided tour which is well worth listening to if you can, otherwise hiring a guide can be sensible, although there is detailed English signage.
The ruins also offer spectacular views of Lake Momotombo and the nearby volcano. Some like to combine a visit with a dip in Laguna de Asososca
Getting to León Viejo
The ruins are located just outside Puerto Momotombo, on the shores of the lake. Most visitors get the bus from the city of León to the town of La Paz, and then change for Puerto Momotombo. Tour operators in León also run day trips which are a safer bet if you’re not a Spanish speaker.
The buses from La Paz to Momotombo aren’t that frequent, so it’s worth checking times before you set out: note the last bus back leaves at 3pm. You could also hire a car: head east from La Paz along NIC-22 for about 10km, turn off to Puerto Momotombo and follow signs to the ruins. The roads are of varying quality so a 4×4 or a healthy dose of steely determination are definitely useful!