León, Nicaragua: Travel/Tourist Information Guide
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León is the second largest city in Nicaragua and one of the oldest cities in the country. It is also the capital and largest city of León department. The city is located along Río Chiquito, which is 90 km (56 mi) northwest of Managua, and 18 km (11.18 mi) east of the Pacific Ocean coast.
The first city which was named León was founded by the Spanish Conquistador, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba in 1524, and located 32 km (20 mi) east of the present city of León. Due to a series of earthquakes in 1610, it was abandoned. In 1960, ruins of the old city were excavated and the area was renamed León Viejo, or “Old León”. León Viejo was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The Spanish named the current site of León City as León Santiago de los Caballeros, after the city of León in mainland Spain. Throughout the colonial era, León served as Nicaragua’s capital even until the country withdrew from the United Provinces of Central America in 1839. For years afterwards, the country’s capital shifted between León and its rival city of Granada. A compromise was made in 1858 when Managua was permanently established as the capital of Nicaragua.
León has been a long-time rival of the city of Granada in terms of popularity, historic Spanish colonial churches, architecture, and real estate. The city’s population is estimated to be over 201, 100, and increases rapidly during university season, with many students coming from all over Nicaragua to study in the many universities located in the area. León is the intellectual and political center of Nicaragua. The National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN), was founded in León in 1813, making it the second oldest university in Central America. The city is also the agricultural, commercial, and industrial hub of Nicaragua, and has been known for exporting cattle, peanut, plantain, sorghum, and sugar cane.
Tourists visit León for its abundance of old Spanish colonial architecture and its centers of intellectual learning. Although Granada has the best preserved colonial architecture, León has the most beautiful colonial architecture in the whole country. It also has the most number of colonial churches and cathedrals in the country. But in comparison to Granada, León has fewer tourists, though it is more popular among tour groups and backpackers. León is still primarily a university town.
León is a relatively safe and comfortable city. That being said, there are still areas where it’s not safe to walk alone at night. It’s common for groups of street children and beggar to flock around popular tourist spots. Some follow people around, and some may even get verbally aggressive. Before getting into a taxi, make sure to negotiate the price first, clarify if the price is per person or per group, and insist that payment is in the local currency, which is cordobas, and not dollars. Some taxi drivers take advantage of unknowing tourists by increasing the fare, charging a ridiculously high amount, and making tourists pay in US Dollars instead of cordobas.