Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage–listed ruins of León Viejo makes it easy to imagine life for the first Spanish settlers in Nicaragua. Located on the slopes of Momotombo volcano and preserved by volcanic ash, the ruins are some of the most complete Spanish colonial ruins in Central America—even though they’re also some of the oldest, dating back to 1524.
Exploring the León Viejo ruins makes a great day trip from León, as well as from Granada or Managua. Wander the old city’s 3-foot-high (1-meter) remains and see the layout of 16 of the city’s original structures, including the old plaza, convent, cathedral, and fort. Many of the structures have signs in English and Spanish that explain their significance, but you can also hire a guide at the entrance for a small fee.
For the highest quality guided tours of León Viejo, book ahead with a vetted tour company. Many tours offer convenient hotel pickup and drop-off from León, so you don’t need to figure out transportation.
Things to Know Before You Go
León Viejo is a must for history and archaeology fans.
Wear good walking shoes and sun protection, and bring water plus a camera for good photos of the ruins.
Plan to spend roughly two hours walking around the site.
The ruins of León Viejo are not accessible to wheelchair users.
How to Get There
To get to León Viejo, take a bus to La Paz Centro, a town on the highway between Managua and León. Then from La Paz, local buses regularly head to the ruins. If you’re coming by public transportation, it’s best to visit in the morning as the last bus from La Paz to León is at 2pm.
When to Get There
León Viejo is open from 8am to 5pm daily. Visit in the morning to beat the heat and the crowds.
Abandoned City to UNESCO World Heritage Site
León Viejo, surrounded by belching volcanoes, was abandoned in 1610 after a huge earthquake caused locals to reassess the town’s precarious location. Residents decided to resettle 20 miles west, in León’s current location, and León Viejo was left to crumble under the falling ash of Mount Momotombo. The gradually buried site was rediscovered nearly 350 years later and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its significance as the only 16th-century colonial city in the New World that never expanded beyond its original site plan.