Hotter than sin and crisscrossed by anonymous highways, there can’t be a more visitor-unfriendly capital than MANAGUA. Less a city in the conventional sense than a conglomeration of neighbourhoods and commercial districts, Managua offers few sights and cultural experiences – in fact, most visitors are so disturbed by the lack of street names and any real centre that they get out as fast as they can.
Not even the city’s setting on the southern shore of Lago de Managua is particularly pleasant: the area is low lying, swampy and flat, relieved only by a few eroded volcanoes. It also, unfortunately, sits on top of an astounding eleven seismic faults, which have shaken the city severely over time. The result has been a cycle of ruin and rebuilding, which has created a bizarre and postmodern mixture of crumbling ruins inhabited by squatters, hastily constructed concrete structures and gleaming new shopping malls and hotels. The old city centre, damaged further in the Revolution of 1978–79 and never thoroughly repaired, remains eerily abandoned.
All this said, there are things to enjoy here, although being a tourist in Managua does require a good degree of tenacity. As Nicaragua’s largest city and home to a quarter of its population, the city occupies a key position in the nation’s economy and psyche, and offers more practical services than anywhere else in the country.
For the visitor, sprawling Managua can thankfully be divided into a few distinct areas. The old ruined centre on the lakeshore is the site of the city’s tourist attractions, including the few impressive colonial-style buildings that have survived all the earthquakes. Lago de Managua, which forms such a pretty backdrop to this part of the city, is unfortunately severely polluted from sewage and regular dumpings of waste.
Just to the south is the city’s main landmark, the Crowne Plaza Hotel, whose white form, reminiscent of a Maya pyramid, sails above the city. Walking just west of the Crowne Plaza and twelve or so blocks south of the old ruined city centre brings you to the backpacker-frequented Barrio Martha Quezada, home to rock-bottom prices and international bus connections. A further 1km south, around Plaza España, you’ll find many of the city’s banks, airline offices and a well-stocked La Colonia supermarket. In the southeast of the city, a new commercial district has grown up along the Carretera a Masaya, the main thoroughfare through the southern part of the city. East of here lie the Metrocentro shopping centre and upmarket residential suburb of Altamira.
Top image: Ruins of old cathedral in Managua © PixieMe/Shutterstock