A walking tour is the most enjoyable and effective way to treat yourself to the impressive architecture of León’s churches. Ranging from the 16th to 18th centuries, these churches showcase colonial, baroque, and neoclassical styles. Begin at La Catedral de León, near the central park, then head either northeast or southwest to view the following churches and ruins.
North and East from the Central Park
Iglesia de la Merced, 1.5 blocks north of the main cathedral, is the church considered most representative of León in the 1700s. It was originally built in 1762 by the Mercedarian monks, the first order of monks to arrive in Nicaragua during the years of the conquest. It is essentially baroque in style but has neoclassical elements in the front and colonial on the south side. It faces a small but lovely park popular amongst León’s skateboarders. Particularly attractive is the church’s side bell tower.
Passing the Iglesia de la Merced and walking two blocks east along 2 Calle NE, you’ll find the yellow Iglesia de la Recolección on the north side. This church has the most perfect baroque style of the León churches and a massive, functional bell tower. It was built in 1786 by Bishop Juan Félix de Villegas and is the only church in León constructed using carved stone.
From the Iglesia de la Recolección, continue one more block and turn north. Walk two blocks until you reach the picturesque Iglesia de San Juan. The old train station is a block farther north from the east side of the church. Built 1625-1650 and rebuilt in the 1700s, the Iglesia de San Juan’s architecture is a modern interpretation of neoclassicism. This neighborhood of León will give you a good feel for what León was like in the 1700s: church, park, small houses of adobe using traditional taquezal construction techniques, and the nearby market.
Walking four blocks south down the same road, you’ll find the Iglesia del Calvario on your left side. It is set at the top of broad steps on a small hill overlooking one of León’s narrow streets. Renovated in the late 1990s, Calvario was built 200 years before in a generally baroque style, but with neoclassical ornamentation in the front that reflects the increasing French influence in Spain in the 18th century. Inside are two famous statues known as El Buen y el Mal Ladrón (The Good and the Bad Thief).
South and West from the Central Park
La Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco, three blocks west of the park on the north side, and across the street from the Casa Museo Rubén Darío, contains two of the most beautiful altars of colonial Nicaragua. The church was built in 1639 by Fray Pedro de Zuñiga and rebuilt and modified several times afterwards, notably in the mid-1980s to restore the damage done to it during the Revolution. Its small, tree-lined courtyard is a pleasant place to escape from the hot sun and relax.
Turning and walking a block south, you come to the unassuming Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, built in 1620 as a chapel for León’s first hospital (now gone). Its simplicity and colonial style reflect the wishes of Felipe II when he designed it in 1573.
Two blocks farther south and one short block to the west is the Iglesia del Laborío, a graceful, rural-feeling church in the old mixed neighborhood of El Laborío. This church, one of León’s earliest, formed the nucleus of the working-class neighborhood that provided labor to León’s wealthy class in the 17th century. The street from Laborío east to the Ruinas de la Ermita de San Sebastián is known as Calle la Españolita and was one of the first streets built in León.
The Ruinas de la Ermita de San Sebastián consist of the shattered remnants of the outer walls, and inexplicably, the intact bell tower. The Ermita was built in 1742 on a site long used by the indigenous people for worship of their own gods. It suffered major damage in 1979 during Somoza’s bombardment of León. El Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas is across the street.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.