Managua, the largest city in Nicaragua, is home to more than a quarter of the entire country’s population. It sits precariously on top of 11 different fault lines that have formed it into what it is today. Whenever it seemed that the city had successfully rebuilt itself after one earthquake, it was only knocked back down again by another. But on December 23, 1972, a massive 6.2-magnitude earthquake devastated the city with more than 5,000 killed, 20,000 injured, and more than 250,000 left homeless. After the quake, much of its older portion was never fully rebuilt and portions still remain eerily abandoned. The overall result is a fascinating combination of crumbling ruins inhabited by the poor, quickly built concrete structures for a variety of small businesses, and some of the region’s best shopping malls and luxury hotels.
Since its establishment as the country’s capital in 1855, Managua has seen its share of wealth, tragedy, and overall political turmoil. This bustling Nicaraguan commercial center was heavily involved in both the Revolution in the late 1970s and the Contra War of the 1980s. Names such as Sandino, Somoza, and the Sandinistas are still spoken in one way or another and many residents still recall the vivid memories of bombings, food rationing, and senseless violence. But despite the growing debate about the country’s current progress, you will still see support for the Sandinista government. This can be seen in everything from the black-and-red FSLN flags to the billboards with the smiling face of President Daniel Ortega who was elected in 2007.
Today, Managua is divided into the older (pre-1972) sections as well as the gleaming newer sections. Compared to other large Central America cities, Managua is more of a mixed bag of neighborhoods holding on to their sense of community and commercial districts that offer the latest trends in fashion and technology. With some older areas finally undergoing some redevelopment, it is safe to say that Managua does have some tourist attractions that are worth taking some time to see.
Things to See in Managua
For visitors, the Plaza de la Revolución is the best place to begin exploring the city. It includes a concentration of historic sites all located within walking distance of one another. This plaza, built around 1900, was originally the center of the older (pre-1972) city known as the Plaza de la República. But after the Sandinistas came to power in the 1979, the name was appropriately changed to Plaza de la Revolución. Later, when Daniel Ortega was taken out of office in 1990, the plaza was transformed back into a tranquil plaza complete with an illuminated fountain that played musical selections. When Ortega was elected President in 2007, the name of Plaza de la Revolución returned and the fountain was removed in order to provide space for the occasional motivational rally. Other historical attractions around this plaza include:
Catedral Vieja: Known as the Old Cathedral or more formally as the Catedral de Santiago, it is located on the eastern side of the plaza. Its ash-gray ruins stand as an important reminder to a once glorious past. It was the first cathedral in the western hemisphere to be built entirely of concrete over a metal frame. Miraculously, it survived the 1931 earthquake, but it could not stand up to the power from the 1972 quake. Visitors, prohibited from entering the sanctuary due to the structural damage, can still view the interior from the locked gate at the entrance. It is an eerie scene where birds now make the interior their home as the cracked murals and stone angels silently watch. Unfortunately, all restoration plans for the cathedral remain shelved.
Palacio Nacional de la Cultura: Located next to the Catedral Vieja, this neo-classical marble structure was built in 1931 and it is one of the oldest buildings to survive the 1972 earthquake. It was formerly the seat of government during Somoza’s rule but on August 22, 1978, Sandinista commandos disguised as National Guard soldiers stormed the building and held the legislative body for more than 45 hours. This act would become the beginning of the end for Somoza’s senseless dictatorship. Today, the building still functions as a government building and it also includes the national archive and library as well as an art museum with a collection of pre-Columbian artifacts.
Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío: Situated north of the Plaza de la Revolución, this is Nicaragua’s most important theater and a regular venue for many foreign orchestras and dance troupes. Its interior includes massive chandeliers, marble floors and an incredible view of the lake from the second floor. In addition, it bears a striking resemblance to the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., but it is less than one-third the size. Located in front of the theater is the ornate monument dedicated to Nicaragua’s favorite poet, Rubén Darío, which was beautifully restored in 1998 with funding from the Texaco Corporation.
Tumba de Carlos Fonseca: Located on the west side of the plaza is the tomb of Carlos Fonseca (1936-1976), one of the founders of the FSLN and its most revered leader. He was killed in an ambush by Somoza’s National Guard and is still honored every July 19 for his sacrifice. The white-marble tomb is surrounded by rows of black-and-red FSLN flags as well as blue-and-white Nicaraguan flags. An important feature that represents his overall importance is the eternal flame, which is the only one in Central America.
Catedral Nueva: Known formally as the Catedral Metropolitana de la Purísima Concepción, this cathedral is located a short walk away from the Metrocentro shopping mall. It is a peculiarly designed structure that goes against any preconceived image of a cathedral in Central America. Built with the majority of funds provided by the Domino Pizza Corporation, the roof consists of orbs of different sizes, which residents of Managua state they look like either a nuclear reactor or breasts. Compared to the exterior, the interior is surprisingly plain except for the figure of Christ encased in glass.
Monumento al Soldado: This statue is one of the city’s few remaining monuments to the first Sandinista era and it shows a muscular, shirtless soldier, with a Russian rifle in his raised arm and a pick ax in the other. The plaque at its base summarizes the inspiration for its design: "Only workers and campesinos will march to the end." It is located on Avenida Bolívar in the Barrio Santo Domingo.
Museo Huellas de Acahualinca: Located just a half-mile northwest of the Plaza de la Revolución is the small but informative museum that covers the region's history. The highlights include animal and human footprints that date back 10,000 years, which were preserved in volcanic ash from the nearby Volcán Momotombo. It is open from Monday through Saturday and admission is approximately US$2.
Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa: This hilltop park, located south of the Plaza de la Revolución, is a popular weekend retreat for residents of the city. But it was once the former site of the Somoza’s presidential palace and notorious prison, and where Augusto Sandino (one of Nicaragua’s national heroes) was assassinated. Today, the spot is marked by the silhouetted statue of Sandino that is visible both day and night.
For more information about Loma de Tiscapa, read my post: Exploring Loma de Tiscapa in Managua,Nicaragua.