Located in northwestern Nicaragua, about 90 minutes northwest of the capital city, Managua, and just 12 mi/20 km from Pacific coast beaches, Leon, Nicaragua, was first established in 1524, though it was destroyed in an earthquake in 1610 and rebuilt in a different spot. To the north and east of Leon are several prominent volcanoes.

Leon served as the capital of Nicaragua throughout most of the Spanish colonial period until 1857 and was the center of politics, education, culture and religion. As a result, the Spanish built many grand government buildings, Catholic churches and city blocks full of smaller colonial buildings. Thousands of original colonial buildings fill the city—many have been restored and others are still undergoing restoration.

Universidad Nacional Autonomo de Nicaragua (UNAN), Nicaragua's first and most important university, is located on a huge leafy campus just south of the city center. Today, the city has a large university population and is considered the intellectual capital of Nicaragua. Long Nicaragua's liberal hub, Leon was one of the strongholds of the anti-Somoza forces during the revolution. The Sandinistas still remain a powerful force in the city.

For a glimpse of Leon's revolutionary spirit, visit the monument to the "Martyrs of the Revolution" across from the cathedral, where a fascinating mural portrays the history of Nicaragua, from pre-Columbian times through the present. Other colorful murals can be seen throughout the city, along with pro-Sandinista graffiti.

One of the city's greatest attractions is its spirited street life: Mariachi bands and marimba players often stroll the streets. Children often go door to door with 10-ft-/3-m-tall puppets, reciting humorous poetry and beating on drums and trash-can covers. One fun way to observe the activity is to take a ride on the inexpensive open bus that cruises the city on warm nights.

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