San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Hotel El Convento: The Cat’s Meow in León

LEÓN – Historic León might be known as “Nicaragua’s second colonial city,” but nothing about this lively and enchanting tourist destination is second-rate.

From the intricate architecture of the city’s massive Cathedral (the largest in Central America), to the colorful Municipal Theater, the charming childhood home of Rubén Darío and the elegant facades of the smaller churches that dot the corners of quiet colonial streets, León is a photographer’s paradise.

Those who aren’t easily wowed by aesthetic detail are still sure to be fans of León’s cozy baseball stadium, which erupts with cheers and chichero music every time the home team comes to bat, or the city’s hip night-life scene, which is fueled by enthusiastic university students.

When it comes to lodging options in León, the centrally located, colonial-style Hotel El Convento sets the standard for stately comfort.

Rebuilt in 2000 on the site of a 17th century Franciscan convent, Hotel El Convento has become an emblematic point of reference in León, and one of Nicaragua’s more famous hotels.

The original façade and architectural integrity of the 17th century building were replicated in exacting detail by using historic photographs of the convent as a guide to blueprint.

Victor Hugo Sevilla, the hotel’s general manager, says the reconstruction of the building has become a source of pride in León, where other colonial buildings have started to crumble over the years.

The hotel is also associated with the neighboring Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian, an elegantly resorted 18th century hacienda that now serves as a private museum of art from all over Latin America.

Inside El Convento, the hotel feels like a museum, where, as a child, your mother might have told you to not touch anything.

The red-bricked rooms, which cost $87 for a double, are comfortable with air-conditioning, cable TV, phone, Internet hookup and hot-water showers (not that you need hot water in León!)

Guests who enter the hotel from the circular driveway are greeted by the magnificent courtyard and antique-replica furniture.

The long hallways around the perimeter of the courtyard are decorated with local art, furniture and antiques.

The hotel is home to a gourmet restaurant, El Victoriano, which overlooks the central courtyard and regal lobby era, complete with an enormous and detailed replica alter and other religious artwork inspired by the original convent.

The restaurant serves a buffet breakfast, which is included for guests, and has a full menu for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

El Convento has also become a popular venue for conventions and other meetings in León; the hotel has two meeting rooms, with a total capacity of 250 people.

According to Sevilla, most guests who stay in the hotel are either businessmen in town to visit the nearby free-trade zones, some European tourists, or well-to-do Nicaraguans.

León, despite its many cultural and historical attractions, and lively nightlife, has not experienced the tourism boom that has occurred in rival colonial city Granada.

Though Gringo backpackers and some older, mostly European tourists can be seen walking around and checking out the sites, the overall presence of tourists is far less here than it is in Granada.

But that’s good news for those who want to experience Nicaragua without the herds of foreigners. In León, tourists can get the genuine Nicaraguan experience by going to bars and restaurants that cater to locals, not foreign-run establishments that cater to tourists. In León everyone still speaks Spanish.

The city is also very safe; crime is low, walking around the streets at night doesn’t seem to be a problem (teenage girls walk home at night after visiting with friends in the park), and houses are generally not gated off from the rest of the outside world.

León has a different history, culture, architectural and political affinity than Granada.

As El Convento’s Sevilla notes, those who visit here after going to Granada will realize that not all colonial cities were created equal.

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