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Poets, police and pretty birds: Road to León

Updated: Nov 21, 2020

It was probably the closest I've been to heaven, physically speaking, and my first time on the roof of a church. León’s most well-known cathedral is not only massive in size, it bears a hefty name: Real e Insigne Basílica de la Asunción de la Bienaventurada Virgen María (Real and Renowned Basilica Cathedral of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary). Or León Cathedral for short.

roof of Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua

The pure white façade was almost blinding, but the exterior side walls looked battle-scarred in comparison, having not yet been restored. Understandable, given it has survived revolutions, tremors and volcanic eruptions in the course of its 200-year history.

While recounting the church’s history, our guide mentioned some of the historical figures buried in the crypts below and some tombs on the main floor. In addition to former bishops and politicians, these include some of Nicaragua’s most beloved musicians, philosophers and poets. That says something about the character of the nation.

The interior of the church was impressive, with light streaming from its stained glass windows 34 domes. But the real treat was walking on the rooftop. This brought us face to face with gigantic bells, thankfully silent at the time. And the views – wow. The city and countryside beyond, with volcanoes in every direction. Definitely a spiritual experience.

Nica poets laureate

The status attributed to Nicaragua’s poets was further underscored at the Restaurant el Sesteo just across from the cathedral. It was on Calle Ruben Dario, the street named after one of those very poets. Large portraits of Dario and three other beloved wordsmiths hung prominently above the bar. I have trouble recalling the name of a single Canadian poet (unless you count Leonard Cohen), yet the names of Nicaraguan poets are everywhere in León. Could it have been the poets who inspired the revolution, or perhaps the revolution that inspired the poets?

the bar at the Poets Club Cafe in Leon, Nicaragua

The food was fantastic – perhaps the chefs were inspired by Dario et al to create their own culinary poetry. I had a typical Nica meal with rice and beans (of course), shredded pork, plantain fries and finely shredded cabbage salad. Washed down with Toña beer, so cold it was almost frozen. Now that felt good in the 32 degree heat.

Notes from the road

The traffic was an eclectic mix of brightly painted “chicken buses”, open trucks, rusty cars and caponeras (Nicaraguan tuk tuks). Plus the occasional horse-drawn cart, and once even a lone unaccompanied, unbridled horse trotting down the highway like he knew exactly where he was going!

León was slightly less colourful than Granada, but still brightly hued compared to North American cities. The roads into and out of the city were lined with low, broad trees dotted with pink and purple blooms. Volcanoes and conical mountains sprouted up in every direction.

One odd image that stuck with me was the mannequins displayed in León shopfronts. They were all secured to walls or doors with ropes or bungee cords around their necks. They appeared to be getting strangled, which I would think would be disconcerting to shoppers. Whether the purpose was to deter theft, keep them upright in the wind or something else, I couldn’t be sure.

A run-in with the law

Speaking of the road, I have to tell the story of our encounter with the Nicaraguan police. It started as we came upon an overturned transport truck. The truck was resting sideways on the edge of the highway, but fortunately it looked like nobody was hurt. Its load of beer was another story – broken bottles littered the road. A group of men was transferring the remaining intact crates to a new truck while others in safety vests took notes on clipboards and police directed traffic.

Our driver seemed to get conflicting signals from two officers, so he slowed down and veered to the right, then suddenly came to a stop. The officer came up to his window and spoke harshly, motioning for him to step out of the vehicle.

Adriana translated that our van had toppled one of the traffic cones, so the officer demanded our driver walk back to pick it up. He dutlily complied. Papers were then demanded and produced, and I wondered just how much trouble we were in. A second officer came into the van and counted us, then exited promptly. A few more words were exchanged with the driver, and finally he got back into his seat with a relieved look on his face. No bribes had been demanded, no tickets issued. We were free to go. Whew! A shame about the beer though.

Morning among the mangroves

A half hour from León is a nature preserve called San Juan Venado, a mangrove sanctuary. As we toured the watery channels in a motorboat, we saw snowy egrets, blue and green herons, and many other shorebirds. My favourite was a “stick bird” (potoo) that was so well camouflaged it was barely discernible from the branch it was perched upon. It stood there motionless, as if thinking it was invisible to us, as long as it didn’t move.

snowy egret in the San Juan Venado mangroves

There were other boats on the water too. A few other tour boats, and local working vessels hauling wood or trawling for fish.

Eventually we pulled up to a dock and walked a short ways overland to a stretch of beach where we found a small beach bar and turtle hatchery. We were fortunate to see a tub full new hatch-lings that would be released into the ocean that night. So adorable!

There was time for a dip in the Pacific for the first time on the trip. I didn’t venture out far though, since the surf was really too rough for swimming. Soon we were headed back the way we came, back through the mangroves for a return to the city. A beautiful green and blue morning it was.

beach and the Pacific Ocean at San Juan Venado in Nicragua

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