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There was a time when travellers skipped Nicaragua’s hectic capital and headed straight from the airport to the colonial city of Granada to start their trip, enveloped in the warm pastel delights of its colourful cobblestoned streets. But things are changing. Managua is getting a tourist-friendly makeover that has breathed bright new life into the once forlorn downtown area and spruced up the lakeshore promenade with shiny new attractions. This is Managua’s moment and here are the best things to see and do in the city.
Chosen as the capital of Nicaragua in 1852 as a compromise to end the squabbling between the rival cities of Granada and Leon, Managua is a late bloomer that was tragically stopped in its tracks by a devastating earthquake in 1972, effectively leaving a hole where the city’s heart should be. Now, ambitious infrastructure projects, modern malls, and promenade parks along the lake shore are bringing Managua back to life and giving Nicaragua’s growing number of tourists a reason to stay and explore.
The best place to get your bearings in Managua is at the highest point in the city, the hill of Tiscapa, which is actually the lip of an extinct volcano. This was where the cruel dictator Anastasio Somoza Garcia had his elegant Moorish palace and his sadistic torture rooms. In a form of exorcism, a giant silhouette of national hero General Augusto Calderón Sandino has been erected and now dominates the skyline on the spot where the dictator’s palace once stood. The panoramic views take in the Tiscapa lagoon, the surprisingly leafy city, and the wide expanse of Lago Xolotlán (Lake Managua). Check out the tiny tank given to Somoza by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, and don’t miss the underground room dedicated to Sandino’s life, his fight to free his homeland from US intervention, and his mysterious death at the hands of Somoza.
With its cracked walls, wonky bell towers and a gutted interior, the neo-Baroque Santiago Cathedral is one of the few buildings that survived the deadly 1972 quake that flattened downtown Managua. It is now closed to the public for safety reasons but remains an iconic symbol of the city and is a much-Instagrammed landmark. As part of the regeneration of the area around the Plaza de la Revolucion the cathedral is now lit up at night by surreal swathes of electric neon in perfect harmony with the curvy metal trees in acid colours that lead down to the lake. Opposite the cathedral is the austere white tomb of Sandinista hero Carlos Fonseca, and a suitably romantic marble monument to the poet Rubén Darío, the father of Latin American modernism.
Opposite the old cathedral is the Palacio Nacional de la Cultura, where the country’s cultural treasures are housed. This was once the National Congress, and upstairs is a plaque honouring the daring Sandinistas who on 22 August 1978 burst into the building and took the congressmen hostage, eventually securing the release of Sandinista prisoners and a tidy amount in cash. Downstairs there is an eclectic display of pre-Columbian statues and ceramics, wooden dance masks from around the country, and exhibits of contemporary artists. In the late afternoon, head to the back of the building, where illuminated water fountains gush on and off in time to the music while local kids dance around in the multi-coloured spray.
The most popular spot in Managua for families, this lakeside promenade is just a short walk from the Plaza de la Revolución and is a symbol of the dramatic regeneration that has taken place in the city in recent years. It features a stationary 737 plane that you can board for photos, a miniature model of pre-earthquake Managua, larger models of Nicaragua’s 35 most iconic churches, a new water park for kids, and kiosks selling snacks. With a relaxed, friendly vibe and a kitschy colour scheme, there is no better place for people watching.
At the western end of the three kilometre malecón (lakeside promenade) is a buzzing area of restaurants and food kiosks. Busy at lunch times and early evenings, it gets packed at weekends, when there is always at least one bar with live music. Those with a need for speed can try out the brand new go-kart track, the biggest in Central America. There are also double-decker boats that do short trips on Lago Xolotlán. After a busy day’s sightseeing, this is the place to sit under the palms, enjoy an ice-cold Toña, Nicaragua’s favourite beer, and watch the sun set over the lake.
Nicaraguans still do most of their shopping at the local market, and Managua is no exception. The huge Mercado Oriental is piled high with everything you could imagine a market might stock, but negotiating its labyrinth of covered stalls might be too much for a first-timer. Mercado Roberto Huembes is better-tailored to tourists, combining a food and clothes market with a section selling handicrafts, baskets, and leather goods from all over the country. Haggling over the price is expected, and a cheeky smile will get you a better bargain than a poker face. The fresh food section offers an Aladdin’s Cave of exotic fruits to savour, like nancites, jocotes, and coyolitos.
For a night out, follow the Managuans in their Sunday best for a stroll around Galerias de Santo Domingo, a swanky shopping mall with an area of sports bars and restaurants out back. With a combination of US chains like Papa Johns and local eateries serving seafood, steaks and sushi, there’s plenty of choice here. If you want a taste of traditional Nicaraguan food head to the Cocina de Doña Haydée, which offers a wide range of regional dishes such as Indio Viejo and vigorón. Most Managuans indulge their passion for barbecued beef, pork, and chicken at roadside grills called fritangas. The best place to get the fritanga experience at a sit-down restaurant is at the ever-popular Asados de Doña Tania.
In Ticuantepe, just 25 minutes from downtown Managua, the Chocoyero-El Brujo Natural Reserve is a haven for Pacific parakeets and a paradise for birdwatchers. The seven kilometre dirt road from the highway to the park entrance passes through partially-forested farmland where fields of pineapples are bordered by shade coffee, and tentacled cacti give birth to bright purple pitahaya (dragon fruit). On the short trek to the El Brujo waterfall you can usually hear – and sometimes see – howler monkeys. But it’s the dusk arrival of hundreds of pairs of chattering parakeets to their nests in the cliffs that makes the experience so magical.
Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya is Nicaragua’s top tourist attraction and the only place in the world you can drive to the rim of an active volcano, smell the sulphor whispering up from its entrails, and stare down into a bubbling lake of lava. Spanish priests dubbed the crater La Boca del Infierno (the Mouth of Hell), after learning that the local Nindiri people would cast young maidens alive into the bubbling magma to appease an easily-angered volcano god. Come in the evening for a night tour to see the vast crater glowing red.