Even the most ramshackle cities usually have a dynamic downtown area. Not, however, Managua. Unfortunately, the city's center (Zona Monumental) was destroyed by a powerful earthquake in 1972, and the whole area has been left largely untouched and put aside, as its name implies, for monuments of the past and the occasional government building. It is a dilapidated, decrepit zone with many poor squatters and empty buildings. Yet, it is worth an early-morning stroll around to see what remains and to learn the stories behind each building. At night, it is best avoided. Its center is the Plaza de la Revolución, otherwise known as the Plaza de la República, depending on your political point of view. The most interesting thing to see here is Las Ruinas de la Catedral Vieja, 1/2 block east of the plaza -- it's a poetic testament to the tragic history of Nicaragua. Completed in 1929, this cathedral survived several earthquakes until the big one in 1972 made it too dangerous to enter. Much of it still stands, and you can peer into its shell-like structure and spy beautiful frescoes and statues.
Palacio Nacional de la Cultura is just south of the old cathedral and was once the National Congress. It was here that Sandinista rebels instigated a hostage siege in 1978 that ended with the release of political prisoners. Now, it is the beautifully restored site of the Museo Nacional (tel. 505/2222-2905). The museum has an extensive collection of pre-Columbian pottery and statues, and is situated in the same building as the National Library. There is a marvelous revolutionary mural above the main staircase that leads up to the library, plus a set of illustrated displays that explain in detail the many different dishes of indigenous cuisine, and also classic examples of handicrafts from each town and province. The museum is open from 9am to 4pm daily. Admission is C80.
The Casa Presidencial sits opposite the Palacio Nacional. Completed in 1999, this president's office created a controversy as loud as its colors because of its exorbitant cost of roughly $10 million dollars. The current Sandinista president Ortega refuses to work from such an opulent building and has threatened to turn it into a giant children's kindergarten. Just south of the plaza is the Instituto Nicaraguense de Cultural (tel. 505/2222-5291). This used to be Managua's main hotel, the Gran Hotel, until the 1972 earthquake literally toppled the top floors. Now, all that remains are two stories of exhibition rooms and concert halls. It's open from 9am to 4:30pm Monday to Saturday, with later closing times for shows. Murals decorate the entire building, but it is very scruffy and in sore need of a makeover. The building is free to enter, though there may be an admission price for any special exhibitions and performances.
On the lakeside of the Plaza de la República, in Parque Rubén Darío, you'll find a stark white statue dedicated to Nicaragua's greatest poet, Rubén Darío. Continue your literary-themed walk by next strolling through Plaza de la Cultura República de Guatemala. This is dedicated to the Guatemalan writer and 1967 Nobel winner Miguel Angel Asturias Rosales. His book El Señor Presidente (Catedra) is one of Latin America's greatest portraits of a tyrant.
The Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío (tel. 505/2266-3630; www.tnrubendario.gob.ni) was built in 1969 and is one of the few buildings to survive the 1972 earthquake. It's a beautiful structure and the cultural heart of Managua. The 1,200-person auditorium hosts plays, dance performances, and even the occasional fashion show. There is also an exhibition space upstairs in what is known as the Chandelier Room (after a set of chandeliers donated by the Spanish government). Performances can be sporadic, but its open weekdays from 10am to 6pm and weekends from 10am to 3pm. It's where Nicaragua's great come to rub elbows, but don't let that turn you off. Tickets are very affordable. The theater is 1 block north of the Plaza de la República, in front of the Malecón, Managua's lakeside promenade, which features food stalls and great views of the breezy Lago Xolotlán in the distance. (Note that the water is unsuitable for bathing.)
Just west of the theater is Plaza de la Fe (Faith Plaza), ex-president Alemán's concrete homage to Pope John Paul II. That president was later discovered to have stolen from the state's coffers, but perhaps he thought his papal extravagance might buy him a place in heaven anyway.
Three blocks south on Avenida Bolívar is the Estatua al Soldado, otherwise known as El Guerrillero sin Nombre (the Unknown Guerrilla). This is a large, muscular paramilitary statue, with a pickax in one hand and an AK-47 in another. It is an important city landmark, but 3 blocks east, you'll find something a little more conciliatory and bipartisan. The Parque de la Paz is a lighthouse growing out of a buried mound of weapons and tanks -- a symbolic proclamation by ex-president Violeta Chamorro that the Contra war was over. The nearby shantytown and general poverty are reminders that this country has some problems to solve yet.
One final, poignant statue to see downtown is the Monumento a Víctimas del Terremoto, a memorial to those who died in the earthquake of 1972. It is located in front of the Cancilleria, where the Iglesia de San Antonio used to stand. If you want a simple explanation about why this city is so fragmented and just plain ugly, see this portrait of a man standing amid the wreckage of his home, and read its moving poem by Pedro Rafael Gutierrez called "Requiem for a Dead City."
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.