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
Barrio Martha Quezada, where most international buses arrive, is the place for backpacker-friendly hospedaje-type accommodation; most places are scattered in the quiet streets on either side of the Tica Bus terminal. Elsewhere in the city, you’ll find more secure and modern districts than Martha Quezada, notably in the relatively swish area around the Metrocentro.
About 1km south of the laguna lies Managua’s biggest concentration of residential and commercial neighbourhoods and most of its westernized nightlife. The main thoroughfare through this part of the city is the Carretera a Masaya, hemmed in to the east by the embassy neighbourhood of Altamira and to the west by La UCA, or the Universidad Centroamericana. It’s on this road, just south of Pista Juan Pablo II, where you’ll find the bland but blissfully cool Metrocentro shopping centre, which offers shops, ATMs, a food court, banks, a cinema and the InterContinental Metrocentro hotel.
A short walk from the Metrocentro shopping centre, in the middle of a field, is the Catedral Metropolitana de la Purísima Concepción, known simply as the Catedral Nueva, a striking and brutal piece of architecture whose roof resembles a collection of large concrete hand grenades. Inside there’s a bleeding figure of Christ encased in glass, but the milling worshippers are more compelling than the cavernous interior.
On the eastern side of the Plaza de la Revolución stands the wreckage of the ash-grey Catedral Santiago de los Caballeros. Known as the Catedral Vieja, the ruins are a compelling and oddly romantic monument to a destroyed city. Birds fly through the interior, where semi-exposed murals and leaning stone angels with cracked wings still line the walls. Plans to restore the cathedral are continually being shelved; for now, the building remains officially closed to visitors.
Managua’s nightlife is given a shot in the arm with the continuing return of the “Miami Boys” – wealthy families who fled revolutionary Nicaragua – who have helped drive the demand for upmarket bars and discos. As well as the plusher options, the city offers a reasonable choice of cheaper places to drink and dance – most places only charge a few dollars cover and drinks are either included or cost around C$20–60. You can expect to hear merengue, salsa, reggaetón, pop, house and even Nica rancho music (not unlike American country). Most bars shut between midnight and 2pm, and clubs start filling up from 10pm – Saturday is the busiest evening of the week.
Wherever you walk in Managua – on the street, at the bus stop or even under a shady tree – you will find someone selling a drink or comida corriente. Good, cheap food on the hoof is also easy to get in any of the major markets – look out for pupusas, a Salvadoran concoction of cheese, tortillas, sauce and meat. Managua also has a surprisingly cosmopolitan selection of restaurants: Chinese, Spanish, Mexican, Japanese, Italian, Peruvian, North American – even vegetarian. Americanized fast food is virtually everywhere, but cafés are thin on the ground and tend to be frequented by expats and wealthier locals. As for picnic food and self-catering, well-stocked supermarket chains La Colonia and La Unión sell a large selection of local and imported food including organic produce. You can also buy a lot of the basics at local pulperías, small shops set up in people’s houses. Fruit and vegetables are cheapest at the weekend markets, when the growers come into town to sell their produce.
Directly behind the landmark Crowne Plaza, you can get some perspective on both Managua’s dramatic history and its weird, battered cityscape in the Loma de Tiscapa, or Tiscapa Historical National Park. The fifteen-minute walk up the hill takes you via a series of posters detailing the rise and fall of Somoza’s National Guard, then past the elegant white pillars of the Monumento Roosevelt and a decapitated statue of Justice before winding round and up to a silhouetted statue of Sandino. Nearby lie a tank and statue donated to Somoza by Mussolini. Photos detail the disastrous earthquakes of 1931 and 1972, while a display in the tunnels of the former prison goes into gory details of Somoza’s infamous noches de tortura (torture nights).
The views of the city from here are excellent, stretching north to Lago de Nicaragua and the distant volcanoes and south beyond the new cathedral towards Masaya. Adventurous types can enjoy them on a so-called canopy tour from the top of the hill. Three cables cover more than 1km, allowing you to glide high above the city and the picturesque – but polluted – Laguna Tiscapa, which sits below the Loma de Tiscapa’s summit.
North of the theatre, an attempt has been made to spruce up the previously seedy lakeshore boardwalk, or malecón, with bars and food kiosks, plus a couple of fairground rides. A statue of Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar sits in the middle of the nearby roundabout, guarding the shorefront’s entrance. The area gets quite lively at weekends, though it’s fairly deserted during the week except for ambling teenage couples. There are pleasant views to the north, where Volcán Mombotombo and Mombotombito sit side by side against the horizon on the far shore of the lake, 50km away.
Volcán Mombotombo’s capacity for destruction is evoked in the Museo Huellas de Acahualinca, just west of the malecón in Barrio Acahualinca. A rudimentary affair, it nonetheless offers a fascinating glimpse into the area’s history. Alongside fragments of pottery and boards on fauna and geology, a series of great pits reveals animal and human footprints from prehistoric nomads – preserved in volcanic ash, the footprints have been dated to around 6000 years ago.
The lovely blue-marble and cream-stucco exterior of the Palacio Nacional, on the south side of the plaza, holds a darker history. During the long years of Somoza rule the columned building was the seat of government power: Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez called it “el partenón bananero” – the banana parthenon. Then, on August 22, 1978, Sandinista commandos disguised as National Guard soldiers ran through its corridors to capture the deputies of the National Assembly, a cinematic coup d’état that effectively brought down the Somoza dictatorship.
Today, the Palacio, still a functioning government building, also houses the national library and archives, while the ground floor intersperses small, relaxing gardens with a museum and art gallery. There’s a good display of Nicaraguan handicrafts, colourful murals and large sculptures, plus a few pre-Columbian artefacts. The museum frequently holds dance, poetry and artesanía events; ask at reception.
At the heart of the old centre is Plaza de la Revolución, a battered, intriguing and often eerily empty square flanked by city landmarks, including the cathedral ruins, the Palacio Nacional and the park containing Carlos Fonseca’s tomb (marked by an eternal flame). The tomb, which serves as a memorial to the FSLN founder, is fringed by a row of huge black-and-red flags. Each year on July 19 thousands of Sandinista supporters make a pilgrimage to the area, paying homage to the revolution and the ensuing movement.
Just south of the malecón is the Plaza de la Fe San Juan Pablo II, a large square whose central obelisk commemorates Pope John Paul II’s two visits to Nicaragua. At its lake end sits the Concha Acústica or “acoustic shell” statue (resembling a large white wave), which serves as a stage for concerts and shows. The plaza is rarely busy and is one of the fiercest suntraps in the city, though it looks better at night when floodlighting adds some definition to its vast expanse.
Perched like a huge white futurist bird north of the Plaza de la Revolución, the Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío (2222 7426,tnrubendario.gob.ni) is Managua’s main cultural venue, hosting foreign and Nicaraguan theatre, dance and opera groups. It’s worth going inside just to see the massive chandeliers, marble floors and stirring view out to the lake from the enormous windows upstairs. There is a small permanent art exhibition in the foyer, and theatre buffs might be interested in a tour, which takes you around otherwise closed parts of the building. South of the theatre is the Monumento a Rubén Darío, a striking sculpted memorial to the famous poet.
Organized tours are generally best arranged locally. If you’ve only got a short spell in the country and don’t fancy the rigours of Nicaragua’s clamorous bus terminals and ramshackle taxis, though, various places can arrange trips from Managua. These are usually pricey, but can get you to remote areas fast and will pick you up from your hotel or the airport. Careli Tours, opposite Colegio La Salle, Planes de Altamira (2278 6919,carelitours.com), are good for expensive best-of-Nicaragua-type packages, lasting up to a fortnight, as well as trips combining Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Otherwise, operators in León and Granada can help – try the likes of Green Pathways and Va Pues or Tierra Tour and Nicaragua Adventures.