24 Hours in Managua, the Most Idiosyncratic City in Americas

Nicaragua travel guides usually recommend visitors to skip the capital Managua and head straight to the picture-perfect Granada. After reading how bad Managua was, more than anything, it got me curious. So after a month in Nicaragua, and just before leaving the country, we spent our last day in the capital, exploring its revolutionary landmarks, empty squares and peculiar cathedrals. A city without a center (the downtown was erased in the 1972 earthquake), Managua is not an attractive or orderly urbanity. But what it lacks in looks, it makes up in sheer quirkiness.

Arriving to Managua on late evening from Granada, we stayed in Managua Backpackers Inn. Located in the wealthiest neighborhood in the city, it’s close to all the 5-star hotels. Passing by the InterContinental and the Hilton the next morning, I could almost mistake it for Miami.

InterContinental Managua

But as we walked north along the main road, the mirage quickly gave away to more typical views of Nicaragua.

Billboard advertising Flor de Caña rum, the national drink in Nicaragua.

After several unsuccessful attempts to stop a taxi, we continued on foot, navigating the stroller along the broken, disfigured sidewalk.

Soon, Managua’s new cathedral was on our right.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Managua

The cathedral was built in 1991 to serve as a replacement for the Old Cathedral of Managua, which was damaged beyond repair in the 1972 earthquake.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral, Managua

It’s easy to see why the new cathedral has generated a lot of controversy. With its roof adorned with multiple cupolas, the locals refer to it as La Chichona (chicha is a Spanish slang for “breasts”).

Inside, the cupolas grant the main hall a striking modernist look, letting in a plethora or light.

Continuing along Paseo Rubén Darío, we were sweating when the road finally brought us to fork around a circular green space. Surrounded by vegetation and fences, it turned out to be a lagoon.

Laguna de Tiscapa

A lagoon of volcanic origin, it formed over 10,000 years ago. On its far side loomed the unmistakable silhouette of Sandino, the national hero whose name the Sandinistas took.

Circling the lagoon on the left, passing another hotel and climbing up the hill, we soon arrived at the Sandina memorial.

Hotel Crowne Plaza Managua
As we walked by, bored soldiers were covering in the shade of a submarine-looking concrete outpost

Thoughtfully, a statue of Jesus was also provided with a shade.

Like Waldo, the silhouette of Sandino always pops-up unexpectedly.

The dictator Somoza’s army tank, captured by the Sandinistas

Photographs and text about the failed rebellion of 1954 fill the walls of the memorial

Reaching the top of the hill, a view of the Tiscapa lagoon opens up. Like most volcanic lakes, it’s almost a perfect circle.

Looking in the opposite direction, a nice view of the city is revealed. It’s probably the most flattering angle to view Managua from.

The tall building on the right side, the former headquarters of Bank of America, is one of the only ones that survived the 1972 earthquake.

From here we’ll continue all the way to the lake. Descending from the hill, we passed the Plaza Inter shopping mall and a beautiful, empty square covered with a mosaic and for some reason, surrounded by columns.

The nearby Hugo Chavez traffic circle celebrates the friendship of the Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega with Venezuela. Up until its economy collapsed, Venezuela shipped US$3.7 billion in oil donations to Nicaragua between 2007 and 2016.

The cheap oil fueled impressive growth in Nicaragua, with Ortega’s government spending 40% of it on ambitious social welfare programs. The other 60% went to fill the pockets of Ortega’s family.

Hugo Chavez fast-food restaurant

Monument to the Martyrs of Latin America features some familiar heroes of Latin-American mythology, such as Simon Bolivar, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro as well as Hugo Chavez.

The highest building in Nicaragua, the former headquarters of Bank of America now houses a government bureaucracy.

Is that another silhouette of Sandino on the left side of the building, or am I just imagining seeing him everywhere?
National assembly of Nicaragua

Passing the government complex, we dove in a large children park. Ayan was very happy with this unexpected development.

Luis Alfonso Velásquez Flores Park

Revolution Square

Revolution Square is the central square of the capital. When we got there, it was empty and desolate.

The Old Cathedral of Managua survived the 1931 earthquake, but was heavily damaged during the 1972 earthquake, which eventually led to the construction of the new cathedral.

The cathedral skeleton still stands facing the Revolution Square

In the adjacent Central Park, revolutionary flags and monuments justify the square’s name

A tomb and statue of Carlos Fonseca, founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front

Before the 1972 earthquake, Temple of the Music used to be surrounded with small ponds of water where turtles and alligators amused the crowds.

Temple of the Music

When we got back to the square, it was no longer was empty. What looked like a group of medical clowns has gathered for an open-air seminar.

If you have an empty square, why not use it for clown training?

A man in a costume of princess was smoking a cigarette, puffing smoke from a little hole in the dress. Just another perfectly-normal scene from Managua’s central square.

Palacio Nacional de la Cultura

The National Palace is one of Managua’s oldest buildings, undamaged by the earthquake. For more than 50 years, it housed the Congress. Today, the National Museum is located here.

The propaganda posters have Sandino proclaiming “we are fulfilling!”, and Carlos Fonseca announcing “we are moving forward with the revolution!”

The museum contains a collection of pre-Columbian statues and ceramics as well as paintings by modern Nicaraguan artists.

On the left: portrait of Rubén Darío, Nicaragua’s national poet

“Del Trópico”, a painting by Sergio Velasquez, inspired by a namesake poem by Rubén Darío, contains characteristic elements of idealized Nicaraguan scenery: a volcano, a lake, and a beautiful, plump woman preparing corn dough.

“Del Tropico” by Rubén Darío:

¡Qué alegre y fresca la mañanita!
Me agarra el aire por la nariz:
los perros ladran, un chico grita
y una muchacha gorda y bonita,
junto a una piedra, muele maíz

How happy, fresh is the morning!
The air grabs me by the nose:
dogs bark, a boy screams
and a chubby, pretty girl,
grinds corn on a stone

A wooden installation in the patio depicts Danza de los Voladores, an ancient Mesoamerican ritual.

Spread through much of the Mesoamerican world, it was practiced from northern Mexico to Nicaragua

A mural on the far side of the museum evokes the destruction inflicted by Managua’s two deadly earthquakes.

The second floor of the museum was closed off to the public, so I couldn’t examine the futurist-looking mural up-close.

Park Malecón de Managua

On our way to the promenade, we passed several street food vendors. If there is anything that unites the American continent, it’s the ubiquitous devotion to corn snacks.

To feed a suddenly-hungry child, we stopped for a quesadilla.

Ayan is quick to make friends

A line of colorful metallic trees decorate the promenade. A city beautification project by Ortega’s wife and the Vice President Rosario Murillo, 140 of those Trees of Life, were installed throughout the city.

In April 2018, months after our visit, a peaceful student demonstration was gunned down by Ortega forces, inflaming the deadliest civil conflict since the end of the Nicaraguan Revolution. As a rebuke to the government and Murillo specifically, demonstrators toppled, and in some cases set on fire, a number of the Trees.

A ‘Tree of life’ destroyed by protesters. Photo credit: Jorge Torres/EPA

Right on the shore of Lake Nicaragua, another testament to government’s allegiance with Venezuela: Simon Bolivar on a horse, and a flag of Venezuela flying next to the one of Nicaragua.

A strange abandoned structure looks out from the water. When I asked locals what it was, I was told it used to be a fountain.

Whatever it was, since then it has been appropriated by birds.

Boys rehearsing hip-hop rhymes of their own authorship

We spent that afternoon on the promenade, surrounded by locals enjoying the company of their partners, children, friends, their pure joy rubbing off on us.

The nearby Faith Square is as empty as the Revolution Square

Further along the shore, the Xolotlán promenade contains models of Managua’s downtown buildings that were destroyed in the 1972 earthquake

The day was winding down when we caught a taxi to return to our hostel. Passing the Monument to the Unknown Soldier, I managed to snap a photo, the last memory of the city. Nothing says anti-imperialistic, revolutionary vigor as a man holding a Kalashnikov.

The writing on the base proclaims: “Only the workers and peasants will go until the end”

Despite its dubious touristic reputation, Managua is filled with curious attractions, even if those work counter to their intended impact. To anyone who is attracted by sights and artifacts that attest to country’s turbulent history rather than idealized version of the past, Managua is a must-see.

7 Replies

  • Wonderful photography and reporting on Managua. You brought it all back for us. Muchas gracias por pasear tanto tiempo en tus informes.

  • Fantastic. I worked there in 2005 and still own a house in San Juan Del Sur but have never taken in all these sights Despite the current troubles its a wonderful place to see and beautiful country. .

    • Thank you Dan!
      We also have very warm memories of Nicaragua and its people. Hopefully, things will return to normal sooner or later, even though Ortega proved he is ready to do anything to cling to power.

  • Hey,

    Still on the road!!! Iam impressed! I really hope the 3 of you are ok 😉

    Beautiful pics…and thanks for sharing

    Huge hug from Switzerland,


    • Hi Fatia,
      It’s great to hear from you! Sorry for the late reply, somehow missed your comment in the inbox.

      We are doing great, thank you. Will write you an email 🙂

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