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You must approach Managua city with rose-tinted glasses perched firmly on your nose. Ignore the scrappy, vacant-lot city center; the forbidding poor neighborhoods; the characterless, literally nameless, streets; and the chaotic markets and tacky malls. It is a frustrating, bewildering place and easily the least accessible, hardest to negotiate, toughest to discover capital city in Central America.

If the city seems like one big accident, that is precisely because it is. Originally, it was just a proud little indigenous fishing village on the shores of Lago Xolotlán -- proud enough to beat off the somewhat surprised and vengeful Spanish. But the small village suddenly found itself the country's capital when León and Granada reached a compromise to end their vicious 19th-century rivalry and chose Managua. With hindsight, they might have chosen differently. A devastating earthquake in 1931 caused havoc, as did a fire several years later. The city experienced a brief boom in the 1950s and 1960s, and for a while was one of the region's most advanced metropolises. That all changed on December 23, 1972, when another earthquake hit, and 8 sq. km (3 sq. miles) were flattened and 10,000 people killed. It completely destroyed the city center, and planners decided it was pointless to rebuild on such a shifting tectonic nightmare again. Revolution followed, and the city was bombed by its own leaders. The rich elite fled to Miami, and the city stagnated under the Sandinistas. It is only in recent years that Managua has finally begun to emerge from the rubble, and it still has a long way to go before establishing itself as an attractive Central American capital.

Today, Managua is a city of sprawling markets, chaotic bus terminals, tacky theme bars, and boisterous dance clubs. Urban sprawl has seen it stretch southwards with giant malls and upscale residential zones, but the center is sadly neglected. Once you figure out how to negotiate and get around this strange city of 1.5 million souls, you'll see it has a lot to offer. It is, after all, the cultural, political, economic, and academic engine of the country. You also can't avoid Managua, as all international flights land here. Stay long enough, and you can dance on volcanic rims, eat in tropical courtyards, listen to poetic folklore, experience a vibrant art scene, peek into crumbling cathedrals, and ultimately understand Nicaragua all the more.