Managua: Against All Odds
View of the city from the Loma de Tiscapa
As a capital constantly battered by death and destruction, Managua’s reputation precedes itself:
Flooded by Lake Managua in 1876, leveled by an earthquake in 1885, damaged by a military arsenal in 1902, destroyed by civil war in 1912, occupied by US Marines from 1928-1933, torched by fire in 1931, struck by polio epidemic in 1971, completely destroyed by earthquake in 1972, damaged by fighting in 1979, and again during the Contra war. Washed away by floods in the 80s, and landslides in the 90s, Hurricane Mitch then threw thousands of vampire bats from caves in the surrounding countryside and dumped them upon the people, causing rabies outbreaks. As if that wasn’t enough, Mitch dug up thousands of old land mines and scattered them all over the country.
Only God knows what the people of Managua will suffer next.
“Thank God for Haiti,” the people of Nicaragua used to say. If it wasn’t for the small poverty stricken Caribbean nation, they would rank just about last in everything. Managua is a city on its knees, so wracked by poverty and so constantly battered by the wrath of God that when the city was leveled by earthquake in 1972, they just left the center of Managua where it was and moved on. When I arrived in 1999, more than 30 percent of the city still lay in ruins. Stretches of vacant lots showed evidence of once what was a major commercial area. Crumbling buildings, cracked pillars, and wrecked cars were still sitting in vacant areas, overgrown with weeds from having been untouched in almost two decades.
The occasional bullet holes and shrapnel marks are also a reminder of the capital’s turbulent times. Constant foreign occupations, looting and pillaging by a forty year old family dictatorship, guerilla warfare, and a communist regime are all familiar things to Nicaraguans. Living in a country where the money is often not even worth the paper that it is printed on, Nicas (as they are called) push on against all odds with such pride and passion. It seems as if the wars, revolutions, earthquakes and natural disasters will always come and go in Nicaragua as life just becomes a series of disasters and tragedies.
It is the harshness of this poverty, disaster, and crisis that shape Nicaraguan society. Yet the capital continues to bustle day after day, slowly rebuilding itself and crawling into the 21th century. It is a city that man and nature has tried to destroy so many times, yet it keeps coming back to life. If nuclear holocaust were to sweep the earth tomorrow, cockroaches and Managuans would be the only things left.
Out and About
The Old Cathedral
The good news for independent travelers is that you won’t find any gringos around. The old cathedral, damaged by the earthquake in 1972 is one of the capital’s famous sights. Venturing over to the Loma de Tiscapa, a hill behind the Intercontinental, you can climb to the top for a view of the city to see that few buildings rise over the tree line. On a good day, you can see more than a dozen volcanoes in the surrounding areas.
The Museo Nacional has a few exhibits on volcanology, earthquakes, wildlife, and pre-Colombian artifacts. The Mercado Roberto Huembes (Mercado Central) has just about everything a person could need in Nicaragua and is one of the most interesting places on earth for people watching! Grab a seat by a small stall, and you could keep busy for hours just watching the commercial madness around you.
The Casa Presidencial and the Asemblea Nacional are not far from the Inter although when in session, armed soldiers will usually keep you at a distance. After the sun sets, you might want to head out to Lobo Jack, said to be one of the wildest, noisiest, and largest discos in Central America.
There is little of a tourist infrastructure in Nicaragua and few resources, but you may want to try Careli Tours for information, advice, and tours of the capital as well as excursions to volcanoes and beaches.
Check out Volcanolive.com for more information on the volcanoes of Nicaragua, a few of which are ready to blow their tops any day now!
You may be too late to join the revolution, but the Sandinistas (now a respectable party that may actually take the next election) maintain a great web site in Spanish.
At first glance, it may seem that there is not much to see in the capital of Nicaragua. You couldn’t be more correct, but what Managua has to offer a traveler is something that you can’t take pictures of. A visit to Managua is a glimpse into a battered society, providing the traveler with inspiration from a people that just don’t know how to quit. One comes to Managua to watch, listen, and learn. Take advantage of every opportunity you have to talk with a Nica – they can teach you things you will never learn anywhere else, and give you history lessons that you’ll never learn in America.