Del Parque Central, 2 Cuadras Al Oeste, León, Nicaragua
Lovely León, less discovered (and less developed for tourism) than Granada, offers even more for history and architecture aficionados than its popular sister city to the south. Her collection of ornate colonial churches and impressive museums is unparalleled in the country, and Hotel El Convento offers the rare opportunity to enjoy the city's finest religious art and architecture, from within.
Originally built as a convent for neighboring San Francisco Church in 1639, the classically designed, tejas–topped edifice, with simple rooms surrounding a private, enclosed courtyard, fell into disrepair in the 1960s. It was all but destroyed during the revolution of the 1970s. After the guns fell silent, the ruins of this peaceful sanctuary for meditation and prayer were acquired by the philanthropic family behind nearby Fundacion Ortiz–Gurdian Centro de Arte, which boasts the most complete collection of colonial religious art in Central America (and yes, that includes Antigua, Guatemala).
With a museum curator's commitment to historic detail, the convent was carefully rebuilt, its interior courtyard sown with an elegant topiary of tropical plants surrounding a fine fountain. The dark, cool hallways, wholly open onto those gorgeous grounds, provide ample space to rest and relax, or perhaps enjoy the recommended café and restaurant serving upscale (but well–priced) Nicaraguan and international cuisine. And the art…oh, where to begin.
The Ortiz–Gurdian Foundation's museum, nearby, already occupies two mansions filled to overflowing with this family's treasures. Thus, they've brought some of their most beautiful pieces here for safekeeping. Weathered santos, the hand–carved effigies of saints that line the naves and transepts of classic Catholic churches; luminous religious paintings collected from Peru, Mexico, and throughout the Americas; marvelously ornate furniture hand carved on this isthmus; and more modern work, including a series of light–hearted portraits that juxtapose everyone from Elvis Presley and Yasser Arafat to Princess Diana and Nicaragua's favorite son, Augustino Sandino. And dominating the cavernous lobby, hung with chandeliers and even more sculptures and paintings, is a truly incredible reproduction of the gold–gilt baroque altar from León's Subtiava Church. You could spend an entire day simply wandering these halls and absorbing the marvels within.
Rooms are simpler, spacious and cool, with smooth Spanish tiles and spare but stylish furnishings designed to enhance the historic theme. All are equipped with very comfortable beds, large bathrooms, and conveniences including WiFi and excellent air conditioning. Some are smaller and darker than others (a few have huge wooden doors that open to views just above the street, not the most restful view but pleasant nonetheless), so ask to see a few before committing, if possible. The accommodating staff will be happy to help if they can, and can also arrange any tour or activity you might desire.
Though this is not a true luxury property, it is the very best hotel in León and an unusual opportunity to experience the artistry of colonial Catholicism in unique environs.
Web Address: www.elconventonicaragua.com
Total Number of Rooms: 32
Published rates: $87 including tax and continental breakfast
Review and photos by Paige R. Penland.
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