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History of Leon and the North West

Nicaragua was long inhabited by indigenous peoples, and the northwest sector was no exception. When the Spanish arrived in the 1500s, they found thriving communities of Chorotegas and other local peoples. El Viejo, near Chinandega, was once an indigenous capital called Tezoatega and León Viejo, the country’s first Spanish capital, was founded next to the existing town of Imabite. The original Leon was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and had a Royal Foundry House, a blood-soaked square and a cathedral. The city was doomed to succumb to first the greed of local officials and, between 1580 and 1610, devastating volcanic eruptions. Frightened citizens fled the area and founded the new Leon in 1610. (The ruins of the original site were discovered in 1967).  

Over the course of the 16th century, Spanish conquistadors spent their time riding out from the Leon capital to establish trade routes and vanquish the locals. One of the most infamous of their raids involved hanging a local chief from the branches of a tree in Naragote. The tree, now a national monument, is a celebrated local feature. By 1796, they had also found time to settle Chinandega and the surrounding fertile lands. 


Along with the Spanish came Christianity and ever town, it seems, has an important relic with a dramatic story. Among the most important is Nicaragua’s patron saint, La Virgen del Trono, which was carried to El Viejo in the 1570s by the brother of Saint Teresa of Spain. Guatemalan priests brought el Santo Christo a Esquipulas (Black Christ) to El Sauce in 1723. The Iglesia de San Nicólas in La Paz Centro was elevated to a national heritage site in 1972.  

All was not quiet on the northwestern front, though. Following the country’s independence from Spain, Leon and Granada fought bitterly for the title of Nicaragua’s capital city. Leon finally hired William Walker, a former newspaper editor and the man who would become Nicaragua’s historical villain. Walker captured Granada, but made himself president instead of turning over control to Leon. Forced out of the country, Walker set Granada alight. In 1852, the rival cities decided on Managua as the compromise in the capital fight.

The northwestern waterways have had an equally troubled history. The port of El Realajo was so often attacked by pirates that the Nicaraguan government finally moved the majority of the shipping trade to Corinto in 1858. The deep water port became an important railway stop and shipping center. But nature hasn’t always been kind to such stops along the Pacific coast. A 1992 tsunami and Hurricane Mitch in 1998 hit the coast hard. Some places, such as the village of Jiquilillo, still haven’t recovered from the devastation wrecked by the wind and water.  Other points, such as El Transito, have not only rebuilt, but are looking at ways to become more tourist friendly. 

By Rachael Hanley
A sometime newspaper journalist with a heavy side of wanderlust, Rachael moved to Quito in November to work on the V!VA staff. She is currently...
08 Oct 2009

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