By the late 1960s, Managua had earned the nickname “the Paris of Central America” as the most modern capital in the region, but the city has seen more than its fair share of ups and downs since then.
Managuans are full of stories (and opinions) about their history; the best way to learn is to strike up a conversation.Home to a third of the country’s population, Managua is not a favorite for most visitors. However, if you can see past what looks like chaos, you’ll be surprised with glimpses of beautiful Lake Xolotlán and its dormant volcanoes, the most varied selection of restaurants in the nation, and a raging nightlife and music scene. This is the place to get your gear repaired and dance ’til you drop.
The stories of Managua and Nicaragua are largely parallel, from earthquake to revolution to economic revival and onward. An earthquake in 1972 laid waste to the city, killing 10,000 people and destroying the city’s infrastructure. The last Somoza dictator ignored the tragedy, using the relief aid to swell his bank accounts. Seven years later, Managua bore the brunt of the final battles of the Sandinista Revolution. Fighting the Contras in the 1980s left no money to rebuild, but Managuans shoveled themselves out of the rubble, and the city began to grow organically, forming the twisting neighborhoods that make it so difficult to navigate today.
Since the end of the Contra War in 1990, Managua has grown quickly. Fear of another big earthquake has kept most developers from building structures taller than a few floors and from rebuilding in the seismic zone near the lake. Instead, new, upscale establishments stretch south through the city in the direction of Masaya.
You likely won’t plan your trip around a visit to Managua, but neither should you necessarily avoid it. The city’s charm will become apparent once you’ve spent a little time here. Managuans are full of stories (and opinions) about their history; the best way to learn is to strike up a conversation. The better you understand this city, the better you will understand Nicaragua itself.
Planning Your Time in Managua
You can easily visit all of Managua’s main attractions, which are scattered along the Avenida Bolívar, in half a day. The city’s biggest attraction is its nightlife, which brings folks together from all walks of life. Just outside the city, a few usually overlooked outdoor activities can provide a respite from the chaos of the capital. If you’re just passing through, consider a stop at La Loma de Tiscapa for an amazing view.
Staying oriented in Managua is a challenge. The 1972 earthquake flattened the city, and it was never rebuilt with any kind of attention to city planning. There is no downtown, and its unnamed streets follow no grid pattern and are anything but pedestrian friendly. The city sprawls in every direction from Lake Xolotlán, its northernmost point.
Focus on the following specific zones of interest: Near the Malecón and along Avenida Bolívar you’ll find most of the city’s tourist attractions, as well as a few restaurants and bars at Puerto Salvador Allende, but few options for lodging. The various neighborhoods that flank the length of Carretera Masaya south of Metrocentro are where you’ll find most of the bars, clubs, and restaurants that make Managua fun for visitors, as well as an increasing number of charming guesthouses and boutique hotels. Lastly, Barrio Martha Quezada in Bolonia has historically been a backpacker and budget traveler center, and still houses international bus companies for those making overland connections.
Managua was not made for walking. After you organize your day into trips to different regions of interest, plan to get around by taxi, as the buses are slow and confusing. If you’d rather not walk between sights, negotiate a rate with a taxi driver to take you around (2 hours is enough and should cost you about $12). Any middle or upper range hotel can organize a guide and/or taxi to help you tour Managua. A taxi will cost around $25 per half day and a guide a similar amount.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.