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Nicaragua In the News

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The Unseen Virtues of Managua, Nicaragua


Nicaragua’s volcanoes, coastlines and colonial towns are no longer a secret among travelers seeking authentic Central America — and they have fewer crowds than neighboring Costa Rica. Yet despite the growing popularity of Granada, Leon and San Juan del Sur, certain places remain well off the tourist radar.  Managua, the capital, is one of Nica’s most overlooked destinations and has long been dismissed by foreign visitors, who linger in the metropolis only long enough to change planes or catch the first bus out of town. Those willing to scratch beneath the surface, though, find a proud and fascinating city with a wild landscape and rich history.

Excellent restaurants and nightlife, cozy colonial hotels and a surreal assortment of sights make for rewarding exploring, and help put this land of lakes, poets and revolutionaries into context.

Perched along the shores of the Lago Xolotlán, Managua is a low-rise city of winding streets. Woven into its geography are picturesque crater lakes, with volcanoes to the north and south and the Meseta de Estrada mountain range to the northeast. 

A city of tropical verdure, it’s also one of constant reinvention, an essential quality given the wounds that nature has inflicted. Monstrous earthquakes have twice leveled the city, once in 1931 when it was still a tiny municipality, and again in 1972, when five square miles of the city were instantly wiped out, leaving some 20,000 dead.

RETURNING HOME

Since then, the former downtown near the lakeshore, known as zona monumental, was largely abandoned. This forlorn collection of former museums, plazas and government offices was the bustling heart of Managua prior to the quake. Abandoned for a generation, the neighborhood is slowly being revitalized, and capatalinos (Managua residents) have recently started returning to the area.

The streets end at the lake, where the malecon skirts along a colorful assortment of lakeside kiosks and a rickety theme park. Morning is the best time to visit, when songbirds fill the trees around the parks and a cool breeze blows off the lakefront. Among the highlights here is the shell of the old cathedral, whose hauntingly beautiful facade is decorated with murals and stone angels. Despite promises, it has never been restored.

On a grassy plaza a few blocks south is the country’s most evocative revolutionary monument. The Monumento de la Paz is a lighthouse built atop the destroyed remains of thousands of weapons, including a tank, from the Sandinista-Contra War of the 1970s-80s. These were forever encased in concrete by former President Violeta de Chamorro. The nearby Palacio Nacional de la Cultura has impressive exhibits on the conflict and Nicaragua’s more distant past.

Also in the area are the Casa Presidencial, where current President Ortega works, and the Centro Cultural de Managua, the city’s former Gran Hotel. The first floor contains the Bar La Cavanga, a 1950s-era gem, which stages live folk and jazz shows in the evenings. A few blocks north is the Teatro Rubén Darío, a graceful building that was one of the few in the area to survive the earthquake. The second-floor balcony boasts pretty lake views.

There are numerous ways to experience the dramatic scenery (and perhaps see some wildlife) within city limits. Among four crater lakes in Managua, Laguna Tiscapa is the easiest to reach and offers splendid views over the lushly forested lagoon. A zipline whisks down the hillside (for maximum adrenaline boost, opt for the ”Superman” pose).

A short drive south of the capital, the Montibelli Wildlife Reserve has 162 hectares of tropical dry forest. Along the trails, visitors have spectacular views of nearby volcanoes Masaya, Mombacho and Cerro Ventarrón, and impressive glimpses of birds, butterflies and howler monkeys.

NIGHT SONGS

In the evening, Managua comes into its own, with dozens of lively, music-filled bars and restaurants about town. Not far from the zona monumental is Ruta Maya, an airy thatch-roof bar where a laid-back crowd comes to hear live Nicaraguan folk music.

For a denser concentration of nightspots, head to the Zona Rosa, an upscale district in the south of the city. In addition to trendy bars and restaurants, this is the neighborhood of the intimate Casa de los Mejia Godoy, a club (and nonprofit foundation) started by the legendary Godoy musicians Carlos and his brother Luis Enrique.

The Bello Horizonte rotunda in the northeast corner of town is another great place to head. An epicenter for party people, this area provides premium strolling past discos and bars, grill stands and fast-food joints. Wandering bands of sparkly, big-hatted mariachi musicians add to the fray.