Electric Green

A Travel Blog

The Prison You’ll Never Escape: El Museo de Tradiciones y Leyendas in León, Nicaragua

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

El Museo de leyendas y tradiciones

El Museo de leyendas y tradiciones

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.

A monument to the heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution

A monument to the heroes of the Nicaraguan Revolution

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.

Get there
Standing in front of the León Cathedral, walk three blocks south. When you see a fenced ruin (Iglesia San Sebastián), turn right.

Opening times
Monady to Sunday: 8:00 am – 5:00 pm

Admission Price
50 Cordoba

Notes from a Walk Through León, Nicaragua

Rust red roofs on top of one story stone buildings, sometimes washed out, sometimes freshly painted in colours of detergent ads, never dull. Dozens of black cables knotted together, chaotic strings supplying the homes and shops with unreliable power. The wires are fixed to poles with metal scraps sticking out, waiting to scratch the arms of inattentive passersby.

Iglesia La Recolleción

Iglesia La Recolleción

La Recolección (1786)

The church is coated in mustard yellow, tainted with black dust from dozens of years. Between its 18 columns dominating the front, stone carvings stick out, which to me, seem to warn of vices which could lead the Leóners away from the right path. But dagger, dice, drink and cat o’nine tails may also represent very catholic values, what do I know?

Mercado Central

On this Sunday the central market is much quieter than on weekdays. Some sort of tiredness hangs over the sweltering hall in which heaps of fruit, vegetables, canned food and giant plastic bottles with washing fluids are stacked. In the aisles, candy coloured children’s dresses, zapatos, zapatos and more zapatos are waiting to be picked up by a buyer. Shortly after noon brown-hatted, hard working chicos cover the nonperishable wares with brightly striped sheets.

El Calvario

Iglesia El Calvario

El Calvario (1810)

The towers remind me of Fitzcarraldo, where the mad Kinski besieged the church and screamed from the top until he gets the attention he feels to deserve. Here, the screams of a dozen distinct birds create a soundtrack to the colourful images of Christ’s path of suffering. In front of the colonial church lies a tiny park with yellow benches, a dried out fountain and a black and red memorial to the Commandante Guerillero Edgard Munguía Álvarez „La Gata“. A former biology student who brought the revolution to the universities, fallen in 1976.

Parque Central

In the central parque, confined by the blindingly whitewashed León Cathedral and the municipal administration building, held by the Sandinistian FSLN, I buy a Chicha. A small plastic bag with a chilled pink liquid, „Jamaican“ flavoured, as I am told. I rip off the corner of the bag with my mouth and start sucking. While I am taking notes on a bench, a barefooted kid with a shoe shine box sits next to me and tells me how he has no money for shoes and food. I don’t fully buy his heartbreaking story that it’s is his 25th birthday and he has no one to celebrate it with. But he is kind and knows a few words in my language, so he is able to get a  handful of cordoba out of me.

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