90. Leon, Nicaragua - Colonial City Charms

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September 24, 2007

Leon’s Centro de Arte Fundación Ortiz Gurdián is the quintessential Latin American art gallery where the building is as sensual as the art on the walls.

Set in two roughly restored colonial buildings on Calle Ruben Dario, a few blocks past Parque Central, it is filled with the deep rich colours and textures that I love about Latin American art and architecture.

Envision open air courtyards- many with fountains, plants and a patch of grass - that let in the natural sunlight; mismatched tiled floors that have sagged slightly with time; and exposed, weathered wooden doors and chunky beams.

The colourful cross-section of contemporary paintings on the wall was absorbing too. I found "My Secret Lover" by Panamanian painter, Olga Sinclair, and the works of two Nicaraguans - Armando Morales and Rodrigo Penalba - to be the most riveting.

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Because of the corrupts cops, rolling blackouts and generally austere conditions we had come up against on the way south, we had been conceiving Nicaragua as a country to now get through, rather than enjoy.

But there was something so stately, so culturally rich about Leon (with the highlight being the art gallery) that we immediately became attached to it, and ended up staying for four nights.

For one thing, even though many of its colonial buildings are beat up from the civil war that plagued the country in the late 70s and 80s, the city has a ton of visual appeal.

Buildings with red-tiled roofs. Alluring courtyards reveled through open doors. A ring of mountains framing the city in this just visible distance, giving it context.

For another, Leon is home to the national university and the historical base of the Sandinista movement, and likely because of this it had a certain "je ne sais quoi", a certain pulse, that we found lacking in Granada.

There is no doubt that we were also wearing rose-coloured glasses when we arrived in Leon, as we had driven from San Juan del Sur without any further hassles from the police, even though we passed through two checkpoints.

We had been happy as well to finally escape the torrential downpours that seem to characterize Panama, Costa Rica and southern Nicaragua at this time of year.

The hotel we checked into - I owed Adrienne after my poor hotel choice in San Juan del Sur – also went a long ways to setting the right tone for us. (We didn't even explore possible camping options).

Hotel Real on 3A Calle Noreste had all the bells and whistles, including a complimentary gallo pinto breakfast, A/C, free internet, a 24-hour guard to watch the van, and a generator (or some other means) to overcome the power shortages.

And as we clinked our plastic wine glasses each night on the rooftop patio, watching the sun set behind the steeple of Iglesia de la Recoleccion church, life on the road felt pretty good.

Key Facts & Figures:

-Hotel Real Leon: $35/night