An Authentic Slice of Nicaragua
The city of Leon in Nicaragua is the gritty counterpart to glamorous Granada in the south. Tourists aren’t foremost on its mind as they are in Granada. It therefore has, dare we say it, a more authentic vibe. Locals have time to stop for a chat, or point the hapless traveller in the right direction when they get lost in the profusion of nameless streets. The city doesn’t appear to be chasing the tourist’s dollar – it’s too busy getting on with the day-to-day business of living. In fact, that is what makes it so appealing.
In keeping with every other Central American town or city, the main plaza of Leon is picturesque and dominated by a cathedral. The city’s large and frenetic market sells live iguanas, which locals snap up to take home to cook for dinner. Somewhat unexpectedly, Leon has a world-class art museum which proudly displays the work of the great Central American masters. Additionally, memories of the Nicaraguan revolution, in which Leon played a central role, are abundant in the form of colorful murals on street corners.
The Museum of Revolution
Opposite the cathedral, on the other side of the plaza, is a ramshackle, but formerly grand building. In its past life, it was the municipal palace, but is now home to The Leon Museum of Revolution. Covered in political graffiti, the museum is run by a group of ex-guerrillas, who sit on the front steps having a smoke and passing the time of day. Furthermore, they take it in turns to give guided tours and enlighten the uninitiated on the facts surrounding the revolution.
Indeed, what makes these tours so unique is that the stories are told first hand. What is more, these are the guys who were in the thick of it. They were fighting for their rights and lives, in addition to the lives of their families, friends and the population of Nicaragua. It isn’t often that you can stroll into a museum and meet living history.
Our guide was introduced as Benito. We liked him immediately. Given that our Spanish and his English were equally limited, we managed to communicate surprisingly well. The exhibits were basic. A few portraits hung on the walls of some of the prominent revolutionary leaders alongside banners, framed photographs and newspaper cuttings.
Benito explained about the circumstances that made the revolution a necessity. He paused at a photograph of a group of guerrillas, young and armed for battle. Pointing to a gangly fresh-faced youth in the picture, he told us that it was him.
A Short History Lesson
The Somoza family ruled Nicaragua for several decades, subjecting the population to a brutal and oppressive regime. Their wealth grew, while the country suffered. Although they were tolerated, it was an earthquake in 1972, leaving 10,000 dead and 250,000 homeless that proved be the final straw.
The president used the millions of dollars of international aid for his own benefit. As a matter of fact, hardly any of it got through to the victims. This initiated the revolt that became the Nicaraguan revolution. The regime was overthrown in 1979, when the Sandinistas came to power.
The municipal palace had been command central during the war and was the scene of much fighting. Benito showed us bullet holes in the walls, evidence of the building’s violent past. Neglected and dusty, with paint peeling off the walls, it was possible to see glimpses of former colonial grandeur in the sweeping staircase. We climbed to the top floor and from there, we took a narrow stairway to the roof.
Clearly, health and safety standards weren’t in force at this unconventional museum. Benito told us to follow him across the flimsy corrugated tin roof, ensuring us that it was perfectly safe. ‘Just don’t tread here’ he advised, ‘and be careful over there’. The views from the roof were impressive. Beyond the plaza and the dazzling white cathedral, we could see volcanoes on the horizon.
A Powerful Experience
We found our visit to the museum a powerful and moving experience. Benito and his comrades were clearly passionate about sharing the history of Nicaragua’s violent past. The fact that they had played such an important role in overthrowing the ruthless regime, and were here to tell the tale, was incredible.
These guys, most of them in their fifties or sixties were now fighting another battle – this time a to stop the building being turned into a luxury hotel. It would be such a shame if that ever happened. The museum is crude and clearly requires some financial support, but it is unique and more about the ex-guerrillas than the dusty exhibits.
Our New Revolutionary Friends
We passed the museum regularly after our visit. Each time, Benito and the motley crew of ex-revolutionary heroes who were sitting on the steps, waved at us, giving us the thumbs up. We returned their greetings. We felt honoured to have crossed paths with the heroes who altered the course of history for the better in Nicaragua.