You can easily visit all of Managua’s main attractions, which are scattered along the Avenida Bolívar, in half a day. Keep in mind this city was not made for walking; hoofing it between sites can be done, but if you’d rather not walk, negotiate a rate with a taxi driver to take you around. The buses are slow and confusing.
Puerto Salvador Allende
It was a loudly decried pity that rather than capitalizing on Lake Xolotlán’s windswept lakefront, Managuan mayors had instead chosen for decades to defile it. However, the Malecón benefitted from a facelift in 2007 and Puerto Salvador Allende (at the end of Avenida Bolívar, tel. 505/2222-2745, $0.20, parking $1.15) opened for business not long after. Currently it offers plenty of dining and snacking options. There are several sit-down restaurants and bars, and even more small kiosks and stands offering everything from local food like raspados and quesillos to seafood and steak to coffee. (For strong northern coffee, visit La Diosa del Café, in a kiosk across from the park.) There’s also a recreation area for kids. You could easily spend a lazy few hours here.
The port offers tourist cruises (tel. 505/2222-3543 or 505/2222-2756, 1 hour round-trip) into the lake and around the Isla de Amor, an islet at Managua’s western side once used by the dictator for trysts. The lake is still polluted, but conditions have improved, and the pleasant cruise is certainly one of the better ways to spend a late afternoon in the capital. The Novia de Xolotlán (adults $4.60 upper deck, $3 lower deck with a/c) was the first to start running tours on the lake. Enjoy the view while a guide tells you about the history of the lake. Cruises on the newer Meyer’s Momotobito (tel. 505/2276-2864, Tues.-Sun. noon-8pm, adults $4.60) depart five times a day and offer meals and drinks from their on-board kitchen. Both run a 7pm weekend night tour, where you can see the city lights from the water while enjoying the bar service.
Plaza de la Revolución
The Plaza de la Revolución, ostensibly just an open area, has become a living monument to the incessant bickering of Nicaragua’s political elite. Under Somoza, it was known as Plaza de la República. The rebel Sandinista movement assembled huge crowds there to manifest their outrage against the dictator, and upon overthrowing him, the Sandinista government renamed it Plaza de la Revolución. Renowned Sandinista-hater President Alemán, upon taking power, was thus thrilled to punch a hole in the symbolic Sandinista chakra by building an audiovisual fountain in its center. So naturally when President Ortega returned to power in 2006 he wasted no time in demolishing Alemán’s fountain and holding political rallies and celebrations here. Visit in the morning, when the breeze off the lake is cool, the trees are full of birds, and the traffic is momentarily silent.
On the north side of the plaza, in the direction of the lake, is the brightly painted Casa Presidencial (not open to visitors). It was built in 1999 by Alemán, despite popular outrage over the unjustifiable expense in Hurricane Mitch’s aftermath. The list of countries on the facade recognizes those governments that financially contributed to its construction. President Ortega doesn’t live there but has instead turned it into “the people’s house.”
Catedral Santiago de los Caballeros
Managua’s most iconic and evocative landmark, the Catedral Santiago de los Caballeros dominates the Plaza. It had barely been completed when the earthquake of 1931 struck. It survived relatively unscathed that time, but was all but destroyed by the 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua. During one of the aftershocks, the clock on the right tower stopped and hasn’t been altered since. Still standing but structurally unsound, the Ruinas de la Catedral Vieja (as it is now known) are a poignant testimonial to the destruction caused by the quake. Until the late 1990s, the ruins of the cathedral were open to visitors, but due to continued structural degradation, it is no longer safe. You can still peer in, however, to appreciate its ravaged, sunlit interior.
Palacio Nacional de Cultura
On the south side of the plaza, the Palacio Nacional de Cultura houses El Museo Nacional de Nicaragua (tel. 505/2222-2905, Tues.- Fri. 8am-5pm, Sat.-Sun. 9am-4pm, foreigners $3, nationals $0.75) but at various times has also housed the Ministry of Housing, the treasury, the comptroller-general, and the National Congress. Sandinista commandos raided the building in 1978 and held the entire Congress hostage, winning international recognition and the liberation of several political prisoners. In addition to the national library, several murals and the Institute of Culture can be found here.
Once the prestigious Gran Hotel (severely damaged by the quake in 1972), the first two floors are now Managua’s official cultural museum—look for the murals around the outside. The building hosts art exhibits, concerts, puppet shows, and dances. The second floor holds studios of prominent Nicaraguan artists. The hallways are lined with striking black-and-white photographs of old Managua, pre- and post-earthquake. Sneak up to the roof to see how the upper floors of the old hotel were never replaced, yet another monument to the earthquake.
Set in the small green space of the Parque Central (Avenida Bolívar, west of the Plaza de la Revolución) are several monuments of historical significance. An eternal flame guards the Tomb of Comandante Carlos Fonseca, father of the Sandinista Revolution. Also buried here is another father of the Revolution, Tomás Borge (one of the political prisoners liberated as a result the 1978 raid of Congress). Across from the Fonseca tomb is Santos López, a member of General Sandino’s “crazy little army” in the 1930s, who helped train latter-day Sandinistas in the general’s ideology and the art of guerrilla warfare. The historical frieze that circles the Templo de la Música, a brightly painted gazebo, highlights the arrival of Columbus, Rafael Herrera fighting pirates, independence from Spain, Andrés Castro fighting William Walker, and more, but it’s just as interesting for the antics of the sparrows in its arches.
La Loma de Tiscapa
If you only have time to make one tourist stop in Managua, this is it. The Parque Histórica ($4.60 for vehicles, $2 for foreigners on foot), which sits on the Loma de Tiscapa, offers the best views of Managua. It holds the city’s most recognized landmark, an enormous silhouette of Sandino, which now stands next to a Sandinista tree of life. To reach the park, follow the road south of the Crown Plaza Hotel up to the entrance. From far above, Managua’s chaotic, unorganized streets seem almost tranquil. Here you can observe the stark contrast between the historical former downtown along Lake Xolotlán and the more developed southern half of the city. You can see everything from the city dump (now a brown patch along the lake) to the north to the new National Cathedral (the roof looks like many domes stacked next to each other) in the south.
After entering the park, the twin-towered monument halfway up the road is the Monumento Roosevelt, which was the southernmost point of the city pre-earthquake. Twenty meters farther up the hill is the statue of justice, sardonically decapitated ages ago. The park sits on the site of the former Presidential Palace and National Guard headquarters, which were destroyed in the 1972 earthquake. In Tiscapa’s prisons (at the top of the hill, but closed to the public), Somoza tortured many resistance leaders, including current President Daniel Ortega. Revolutionary martyr Augusto C. Sandino ate his last meal here, lured under the pretense of a peace treaty. Follow the blue sign that says “Exposición” down the stairs to a historical revolutionary museum located in what remains of the palace. In theory there’s always an attendant, who’ll give you a brief tour in exchange for a tip ($1.50-4, depending on the number of people).
La Loma de Tiscapa sits above a lagoon of the same name, which fills in a dormant volcano. Once a popular swimming hole, the lagoon is now being cleaned up after decades of contamination. If you’re feeling adventurous, zip line over it with Tiscapa Canopy Tours (tel. 505/8872-2555 or 505/8471-5516, Tues.-Sun. 9am-5:30pm, foreigners $17.25, Nicas $13.80). Wear your sunscreen, there’s not a lot of shade!
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.