Managua is the capital of Nicaragua, located at the midpoint between the Nicaraguan cities of León and Granada and situated at the southwest tip of Lago de Managua (Lake Managua). The recent past has not been kind to Managua. In 1972, a 7.2 earthquake rocked the city killing thousands of people and leaving many more homeless. But Managua has risen from its ashes and today is a booming modern center of shopping malls, government buildings, and monuments – so much so that it has experienced significant urban sprawl. Many tourists complain of how vast the city has become and how difficult it is to explore its entirety. Unfortunately, most travelers do not find Managua to be the most delightful or exciting of Nicaragua’s destinations, but use the city nevertheless as a convenient base to explore Granada, León, Lake Managua, and Lake Nicaragua as well as the dozens of volcanoes in the region.
Managua was inhabited by Native American people for centuries and was an indigenous fishing village prior to the Spanish arrival in the 16th century. When the Conquistadors arrived, the villagers refused to submit to Spanish rule and so the Spanish completely destroyed the village.
In 1852, Managua became the country’s new capital, taking this political honor away from Granada. The switch was made as a compromise to appease two competing political factions, the liberal León and the conservative Granada; it made sense given Managua’s location roughly halfway between the two competing cities. Managua soon underwent extensive urbanization, transforming from a small quaint town into a major city.
Unfortunately, from the late 1800s to the late 1900s, Managua suffered a series of natural catastrophes including major floods in 1876 and 1885 and disastrous earthquakes in 1931 and 1972. Between 1936 and 1979, the capital was run by the brutal dictator, Anastasio Somoza García who embraced rapid development and grew the city during his early reign, establishing several government buildings, infrastructure, and universities. After the 1972 disaster, however, the city center was never rebuilt and many of the residents sprawled around the outskirts of Managua. The outskirts underwent a construction boom in the 1990s, resulting in new shopping malls, restaurants, and hotels all stretched out and encircling the shattered old city center.
There is really not much to see and do in Managua. The damage of the earthquake has left many of the old buildings and landmarks in shambles. However, the earthquake ruins of the city center may itself be an interesting site. You’ll find old, crumbling buildings in their original state – a glimpse of the horrendous damage caused by the earthquake. One of the ruined buildings you’ll see is the Catedral de Santo Domingo, which was Managua’s former cathedral. Built in 1929, it was completely destroyed in 1972 by the earthquake. All that’s left of the church are murals and statues adorning its crumbling walls. It is currently being restored, however.
Not all has been destroyed at the old city center. The main attraction and heart of Managua, the Plaza de la República, remains in place. This is the site of the Sandinista victory celebration after the Somozas fled Nicaragua in 1979. At the center of the plaza is a massive fountain built in 2000. The fountain dances and glows with colored lights on weekend evenings to the tune of Nicaraguan folk music. At the plaza’s north, you’ll find the newly built Presidential Palace that is not open to the public but a beautiful sight from the outside nevertheless.
The National Palace is also one of the buildings that survived the quake. It is considered the most impressive building in Nicaragua, built in the neoclassical line by President Juan Bautista Sacasa in 1931. The palace has high ceiling chambers, an orange elegant façade, and a palm-filled courtyard. It houses the National Museum, which exhibits a collection of pre-Columbian art, statuettes, ceramics, and other artifacts. The palace also houses the Museum of Acahualinca, which has a set of fossilized human footprints that are dated 6,000 years ago found engraved in volcanic ash. The National Palace is also remembered for its role as the former meeting place of the National Assembly. This role all but ended in 1978 when Sandinista National Liberation Front commandos stormed and sealed off the building, holding the legislative body hostage for two days. The event was the beginning of the end for the dictatorial rule of the Somozas.
A few blocks north of the National Palace and next to Lake Managua, you’ll find the National Theatre of Rubén Dario, another building that survived the quake. This building houses Nicaragua’s most important theater. It is the country’s leading performance venue for music, theater, concerts, and other cultural shows and is considered one of the most modern theatres in Central America.
Also near the city center is Lake Managua. On the south shores of the lake, you’ll find the famous ancient footprints of Acahualinca. Paleo-Indian human footprints and prehistoric animal prints have been left behind in volcanic ash and mud solidified 6000 years ago. It is the oldest prehistoric evidence of human existence in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the lake itself is heavily polluted and not a pretty site. While some people still live along the lake, it is not particularly attractive for recreational activities.
Managua also offers a few entertainment options. Gambling is very popular in the city and there have been a number of casinos built in the last decade including the Pharaoh’s Casino on Carretera Masaya.
Salsa dancing, meringue, rhumba, and the cha-cha are also very popular among Nicaraguans and can be embraced at the various dance clubs.
The shopping in Managua may well be the best in the country. There are local markets, boutique and department stores, and modern malls. The Mercado Roberto Huembes is the best market in Managua; it sells everything from traditional crafts to trendy clothes, including American and European brands.