Iraq Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

The ruins of León Viejo. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

León Viejo, The Lost City of Nicaragua That Emerged From The Ashes After 400 Years


The city of León Viejo has been rediscovered and is now open to visitors. The ruins of the city are very important in the history of the Central American nation as it has some of the oldest Spanish colonial buildings to have survived. León Viejo is now a UNESCO World Heritage site as it is an “outstanding testimony to the social and economic structures of the Spanish Empire in the 16th century. Moreover, the site has immense archaeological potential.”

The Story of The Ruins of León Viejo

The ruins of León Viejo are in the east of Nicaragua, close to the shores of Lake Managua. The area was settled by people who may have come from southern Mexico who developed a sophisticated culture long before the coming of the Spanish. They established a town near the site of the ruins of León Viejo, which was a flourishing center of trade and a population of around 15,000. The remains of pottery from the Inca Empire have been found, indicating the extent of the local culture’s trade network.

The expedition of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, 1517 (Public Domain)

The expedition of Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, 1517 (Public Domain)

The Spanish conquistadors, under Francisco Hernández de Córdoba (1475-1526), were the first Europeans to visit the area. In 1524, Córdoba founded the colonial town of León Viejo near the Native American settlement, possibly to control the town’s trade. Córdoba was later beheaded during a conflict between the Conquistadors in 1526.

The city initially flourished in part because the Spanish enslaved the native population. The Europeans took over the trade that had formerly been carried out by the indigenous people and used their new wealth to expand León Viejo. They established three monasteries and build a number of large public buildings.

Momotombo eruption, photo captured in 2015 (Mejia, J / CC BY 2.0)

Momotombo eruption, photo captured in 2015 (Mejia, J / CC BY 2.0)

This part of Nicaragua is susceptible to earthquakes and the city was located near the active volcano Momotombo. León Viejo was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1594 and again in 1610, with volcanic debris pelting the area. The inhabitants held a vote and agreed to move to a new location and here they founded the modern city of Leon, which is the second largest in Nicaragua.

The Burial And Re-Discovery Of León Viejo

Ash and pumice from Momotombo continued to rain down on the abandoned town for decades and the ruins became completely covered and overgrown by trees. It was only in 1967 that León Viejo was uncovered and since then there have been many missions that have excavated the site. While the volcanic ash covered most of the Spanish settlement, it had also preserved it.

The ruins of León Viejo. CC BY 3.0

The ruins of León Viejo. CC BY 3.0

Since the recovery, the ruins have become exposed to the elements. It is estimated that much of the site was destroyed, including its walls, by Hurricane Mitch in 1999.

The Ruins of León Viejo

Typical of early Spanish colonial towns, León Viejo was laid out on a grid pattern, built around a central plaza or square. The remains of some twenty private and public residences have been found around the plaza. In most cases only the floors and the connecting walls of these buildings can be seen and the majority of them have been restored by projects sponsored by the Nicaraguan government.

The most impressive remains in the site are those of the three monasteries, although there are also remains of a convent, the walls of the cathedral, and the Royal foundry. Some of the walls of the huge town hall can now be seen.

Monument to the indigenous people at the ruins of León Viejo (Photo by Oddvisor)

Monument to the indigenous people at the ruins of León Viejo (Photo by Oddvisor)

While the ruins of León Viejo offer insight into Spanish colonial towns in the 16th century, the volcanic debris preserved the material and designs used by Spanish colonialists. A statue representing the suffering of the indigenous people during the conquest of Nicaragua has been erected at the entrance of the site.

What To See At The Ruins Of León Viejo?

The ruins are 20 miles from the modern town of León. There is public transport to the ruins and a fee is charged to enter. The fee includes a guide who escort visitors around the site. Ongoing conservation work means that some of the ruins may be covered by scaffold and tarpaulin.

At the entrance there are two exhibition rooms that have artifacts from both the Spanish colonial town and the pre-Columbian indigenous culture and should not be missed.

Top image: The ruins of León Viejo. Source: CC BY-SA 3.0

By Ed Whelan


Staten, C. L. (2010). The history of Nicaragua. ABC-CLIO

Available at:

Van Wyk de Vries, et al. (2017, April). Geoheritage value of the UNESCO site at Leon Viejo and Momotombo volcano, Nicaragua. In EGU (Vol. 19, p. 8680)

Available at:

Webre, SA (2003). Early season of León Viejo: A story of the first capital of Nicaragua. Hispanic American Historical Review, 83 (2), 398-399

Available at:

Ed Whelan's picture


My name is Edward Whelan and I graduated with a PhD in history in 2008. Between 2010-2012 I worked in the Limerick City Archives. I have written a book and several peer reviewed journal articles. At present I am a... Read More

Next article