The first museum where I had to sign my ticket before going inside. Why? I don’t know, I did it without asking. A few hours before, on the roof of the cathedral, I met Alberto, a stout local with a feisty glint in his eyes. After I asked him about the Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas, he said with a grin that it is a „magical prison“. When you enter this place, you will never get out again.
So, maybe I sold myself to the devil when I wrote my name on the piece of paper? If there were places able to bind one’s soul to some dark entity I wouldn’t be surprised if this was one of them. León’s Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas is weird, cheesy and disturbing and it has the charm of an 80’s action flick set in the tropics.
Museum With A History
Built as a prison in 1921, this small concrete fortress became a torture chamber of the Somoza regime, known as the infamous Cárcel la XXI. Until the Nicaraguan revolution, its inmates, mainly political opponents, had to endure countless ways of torment. In 1979, the Sandinistian guerilla fighters seized the prison forcefully and it became
history. Now it is an odd mixture of many things: A memorial to the inhuman crimes of the tyranny, a monument to the heroes of the revolution, a show-off for the local figurative arts, and a collection of the most morbid and spookiest national legends.
Those Odd Puppets
Two statues greet the visitors upon entering: the one in the centre is a life-sized model of a revolucionario. The fighter is masked with a red and black bandana and armed with a stone. The other one at the edge of the palm planted square is Florentina, la Gigantona. She is an eleven metres high woman surveying the prison walls. On the inside, more figures are waiting to unsettle unsuspecting tourists. All of them are crudely made of papier maché and fabrics, with coarse faces drawn onto them. A museum guide recited the different myths they represent but unfortunately, I could not understand everything because of his cranky Spanglish.
But I found not all the figurative depictions unpleasant. The Nahua oxcart is a scary procession of life-sized skeletons. Still a bit cheesy but it left an impression with me. The style reminded me a bit of the adventure game Grim Fandango. The story behind the Nahua Oxcart is, that when the conquistadores came over to the new world, they brought carts with them, which were unknown to the indigenous people. The rattling of the vehicles scared the nature folks and they came to connect the sound with oncoming death.
By the way: If you want to see skilful depictions of the old Nicaraguan folk tales, have a look at the murals in the entrance square. There are some fantastic mosaics.
And, as I learned later on my trip through León, it is quite common to sign your name when entering a museum here. So maybe I jumped a bit too hastily to my devil’s contract conclusion. On the other hand, in the night after my visit, I have had the most intense and terrifying nightmares of my whole life. Agony and pain, paired with sleeping paralysis, a formless twilight zone without forms, seemingly endless torment. One of those nights where you wake up screaming, turn on the light and have to assure yourself for a couple of minutes that you are truly out of it.
Anyway, thumbs up for the Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas in León, truly one of the must-sees there.
Standing in front of the León Cathedral, walk three blocks south. When you see a fenced ruin (Iglesia San Sebastián), turn right.
Monady to Sunday: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm