There are few things more surreal than a tour of a revolutionary spot. A visual representation of change and the culmination of the struggle to implement it always seems to evoke a lot of emotion. Add to this a tour guide who had taken part in the revolution itself and you’ve got one fascinating experience.
This wasn’t the first time I’d found myself in this situation. When in Vietnam, a former member of the Vietcong had shown myself and some friends around his restaurant- an establishment used to plan the Tet Offensive. With a lot of knowledge and the first hand experience to match, our guide provided one of the most insightful tours I’ve ever been on.
It’s safe to say then that I find tours of this nature hugely engrossing, and so when the opportunity arose again during my time in Nicaragua, I jumped at the chance.
I was in León, Eastern Nicaragua, when I came face to face with a former Sandinista.
Admittedly I knew very little about the Sandinistas. ‘The Clash’ album ‘Sandinista!’ from 1980, whose title paid homage to the party, had taught me the name. The rest of my knowledge came largely from watching an Anthony Bourdain episode on Netflix. I was keen to find out more about this small Central American nation.
In a day packed with sightseeing, I decided to finish it off by visiting the revolutionary museum. I initially thought it would be a wind down to a hectic day, but as soon as I arrived, I could tell this would be the highlight.
A group of five of us sluggishly walked up the steps to the museum to be greeted by a Nicaraguan chap who spoke absolutely no English. With the five us speaking Spanish very sparingly, this looked like a major issue. Luckily, down to a a set of amazing hand gestures, sound effects and the wonder app that is Duolingo, we were able to get through the whole tour and understand the majority of what was going on.
With a phobia of heights, the tour got off to a very shaky start for me. Our guide explained that the building was actually the town hall before the revolution and has now been converted into a museum. We at first bypassed the exhibits to go straight to the roof where a series of rickety panels awaited us. Without hesitation, he stepped out and urged us to follow. With a wince and a grimace I reluctantly followed onto a roof that felt as if it was going to crumble at my feet. Enough was enough and I thought it was best to get myself firmly back on the ground.
The tour proper now began. We were led routinely through the building, stopping off at spots of importance to both the struggle in the city and to our guide himself. One of particular note was a side room where the walls were covered in bullet holes and blood stains remained visible. Here, our former revolutionary turned cicerone revealed to us that he had been shooting into this room from a spot across the square. His words, and his gestures towards the location he had been firing from, dramatically added to the realism and emphasised just how much this peaceful little tourist spot has changed from it’s turbulent past.
Following this was the exhibition stage, where photographs of the events and poignant reminders of them painted a picture of a Nicaragua that I was not met by. This was the Leon of the past, a city in the midst of a struggle, and one vastly different to the place just beyond the doors of the museum.
Our guide once again relived past events by picking up a couple of grenade launchers and demonstrating how and where they were used. At first I thought the hands on approach was down in part to his lack of English, but in retro spect I think he was just genuinely passionate about what he was explaining. He wanted us to understand the realities of the struggle: the weapons, the noises, the sights. His enthusiasm was second to none.
We’d now come to the final part of the tour in the courtyard. Here we were greeted by a mural with all the faces of the major revolutionaries within the city and a list of the names of the people killed in the struggle. Our guide told us there were ten of his friends upon that list. Equally as potent was the mural opposite, that contained 12 hand prints with initials attached to them. These were tourists in the country at the time of the revolution, who went back home and told the world about what was happening in Nicaragua. This got me thinking a lot about how I would react in such circumstances being a tourist abroad myself. Nothing but admiration for these people.
A firm shake of the hand and my Sandinista-led tour was done. A combination of authenticity and the sheer unexpectedness of meeting an actual revolutionary had resulted in another museum experience unlike any other. A must do for anyone visiting Leon!