San Salvador, El Salvador
With a series of massive, disorganized barrios in place of tall buildings, the city feels more like an overgrown suburb than the capital of Central America’s largest country. Downtown Managua was leveled by an earthquake in 1972; what remained was then left to the mercy of the revolution. Today, empty dirt lots surround shopping centers and bustling markets border gutted buildings. Nonetheless, Managua remains the entertainment, commercial, and transportation hub of Nicaragua. Although it is less safe than other parts of Nicaragua and its cultural life is suffering—many museums and galleries have closed due to inadequate funds—Managua does have bright spots: the famous Teatro Rubén Darío and the impressive Palacio Nacional.
Managua doesn’t have street names; helpful, we know. “Addresses” are given in terms of proximity to landmarks—a Texaco station, a statue, where a cinema used to be—and their proximity to the Rotunda. Al sur means south, al lago is toward the lake and north, arriba is east, and abajo means west. For example, “Del Tica Bus una cuadra abajo y media cuadra al lago,” means from the Tica Bus Station walk one block west and half a block toward the lake (north).
Managua lies on the south shore of Lago de Managua; the locals call it Lago Xolotlán. Managua expands in all directions away from the lake. Near the malecón (lakefront), you will find many of Managua’s sights. El viejo Catedral, La Casa Presidencial, Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío and the Rubén Darío monument are all located lake’s shores. The effective center of the city is the pyramid-like Hotel Crown Plaza. Just north of the hotel is Plaza Inter, a US-style shopping mall complete with specialty stores, a cinema, and a food court. Just west of the Inter, Avenida Bolívar runs north to south 1km north from the hotel to the lakeshore and the old city center, where it meets Teatro Rubén Darío. Along the way, it passes the Asemblea Nacional, the Bank of America skyscraper, the Palacio Nacional, and the Santo Domingo Cathedral. Across Av. Bolívar from the Inter is the Intur tourist office of Managua. Martha Quezada is the neighborhood that houses most of Managua’s budget hotels and hospedajes. Situated in the center of this barrio is the Ticabus Station. Avenida Williams Romero, with the now-defunct Casino Royale, forms the western border of Martha Quezada. The northern border of the barrio is formed by Calle 27 de Mayo. Both of these streets are larger and busier than the bumpy byways of Martha Quezada. Eight blocks south of C. 27 de Mayo, on Av. Williams Roberto, is the Plaza de España, home to a number of banks, several travel agencies, and a supermarket. Most of the discos, chain restaurants, and the Metrocentro Mall are located on the Carretera a Masaya.
The sights in Managua surround the Plaza de la Democracia (formerly Plaza de la Revolución), on the northern end of Av. Bolívar, near the lake. From Martha Quezada to the plaza, walk 12 blocks north or take bus #109 from the corner of Av. Bolívar and C. Julio Buitrago. Head to the plaza for the colorful light show choreographed to classical music in the central fountain at 6 and 9pm nightly.
Unsure of which sites to visit in Managua? Here are our recommendations. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Managua has an abundance of fritangas - sidewalk comedores that offer traditional, deep-fried buffets; you point at something and they throw it into a pan of boiling oil. The stews and platos tipicos dished up at the city's markets are another cheap, authentic option, while the food courts at Plaza Inter and Metrocentro wil satisfy those homesick for Happy Meals and Subway. The streets around the Inter are home to more upscape spots.
Nicaraguan cuisine is based on rice, beans, meat, and tortillas. Nicaragua is not for the heart-healthy or carb-wary, as everything is cooked in oil and fried into oblivion. Though this may seem scary at first, it is undeniably delicious. These starch-heavy loads are balanced with an abundance of tropical fruit and ensaladas of cabbage, tomatos, and beets. Even fruit can be fried, and plantains are no exception—they are often served greasy and sweet as maduros or crispy and brittle as tostones. As for the thirsty, national beers can be found everywhere, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they came dripping out of your faucet. Flor de Cana, the favorite local rum, is produced from evaporated sugarcane and will provide an extra punch to any drink.
An important trades top, Nicaragua is home to a blend of cultures and nationalities. Nicaragua’s music and dance hail from a wide array of cultural origins including traditions of indigenous tribes, European settlers, and African slaves. Surprisingly, all musical genres are not only accepted but also embraced in this country. Home to such popular singers as Reggaeton artists Torombolo and J. Smooth, Nicaraguans listen primarily to modern Latin American music as well as Reggae groups like Kali Boom. One is likely to see people dancing to another nation’s popularized beats, like Colombia’s cumbia or the Dominican Republic’s bachata, in addition to the salsa and mambo, but there is no shortage of local musical flair. The marimba, a percussion instrument with keys arranged like a piano, is a staple of native bands whose music style embodies the soulful ethnic core of Nicaraguan culture.
Nicaragua’s literary history can be traced to pre-colonial times where its oral traditions of myth and folklore originated. The most famous Nicaraguan story, first orated by an anonymous author, was passed down from the 16th century until it was finally recorded in the early 1900s. This satire, called “El Güegüense”, depicts Nicaragua before Columbian settlement. The story is a masterful rendering of indigenous dance, customs, and music. The majority of Nicaraguans only recently became literate thanks to the Sandista’s literacy campaign of the 1980s. Few modern Nicaraguan writers gain international literary recognition. Modernist poet Rubén Darío (1867-1916), whose poetry started the new movement of “Modernismo” in Nicaraguan literature, is an exception to this trend. As is Pedro Joaquin Chamorro (1924-1978), whose activism against the Somoza dynasty led to his assassination in 1978.
Nicaragua’s art history has experienced remarkable change with the country’s political revolutions. Its native arts are essentially unpracticed now, except for a few remaining rituals observed in isolated indigenous areas. Most of the art one sees today is of a style pioneered by Ernesto Cardenal, a Sandinista priest and leader. He created a small community on the island of Solentiname, where he encouraged Nicaraguans to create experimental and imaginative paintings and murals. While the creative styles of these pieces were not traditional, Cardenal’s technical influence did include some features typical of indigenous art such as strong emotion and bold colors. Though much of this art was censored and eventually burned by the National Guard after the 1979 Revolution, this inventive, colorful painting style became Nicaragua’s most popular form of visual art.
Nicaraguans are friendly people, but like most of us they cherish their personal space. A simple handshake will suffice between men and generally between men and women as well. A brief hug and a single cheek kiss are usually reserved for close friends and family. Depending on whom you are interacting with, don’t be offended if they don’t look you in the eye or try to shake your hand. Typically, people of lower classes will not make eye contact upon formal introduction. But don’t be frightened if you catch some staring at you, especially in rural areas; Nicas like to people-watch like the best of us.
Don’t be afraid to use the finger! No, not that one—a finger wag is a common way to motion toward something, such as a taxi or a passing bus, and rubbing fingers together usually signifies you want to pay for something.
Nicas value politeness and avoid conflict whenever they can. Try not to say “no” if you can handle the consequences of saying “yes,” and never take off your shoes unless you are told to do so.