Managua, the largest city in Nicaragua, sits precariously on top of fault lines that have formed it into what it is today. It seems that whenever the city rebuilds from an earthquake, it is only to be knocked right back down again. This happened with the earthquakes in 1931, 1968, and the devastating 6.3 magnitude quake that killed over 11,000 people in 1972. But this resilience is what makes the city special, and has inspired many, ranging from literary figures to political leaders.
Since its inception as the nation’s capital in 1855, Managua has seen its share of wealth, luxury, economic growth, and political turmoil. This Nicaraguan nerve center was heavily involved in both the revolution and the Contra War of the 1980s. Names such as Sandino, Somoza, and the Sandinistas are still spoken every day, and many residents recall the vivid scenes of military bombings and violence. But despite the atrocities, the people have remained intensely proud and supportive of the Sandinista government, electing of Daniel Ortega as president in 2007.
Today, the city of Managua is divided into both old (pre-1972) and new sections. The older area stands quietly in homage of its colonial past and former glory, while the newer region consists of business centers, upscale shopping malls, large corporations, and luxury hotels, all to attract the growing tourist business.
Things to See in Managua, Nicaragua
Before exploring the city, take a trip to the top of Loma de Tiscapa, to fully understand what the city is all about.
This national historic park includes a large lagoon, the famous black silhouette of Augusto Sandino (which stands 59 feet high), and a 360-degree view of the city and its surroundings. From this vantage point, travelers can literally see hundreds of neighborhoods, both old and new, with the 4,127-foot Volcano Momotombo to the northwest, the Zona Monumental to the north (the pre-1972 lakefront area), and the Zona Rosa to the south, with its restaurants, casinos, luxury hotels, and exclusive neighborhoods.
The Zona Monumental offers many historical attractions worth seeing that include:
Old Cathedral – Known as the Catedral de Santiago, it survived the 1931 quake but not the 1972. Its battered shell stands as a solemn reminder of a once glorious past, and empty promises to repair it. Today, the ornate angels can only be viewed through the gates, since the structure is dangerously unsound.
Palacio Nacional de la Cultura – One of the oldest buildings to survive the 1972 quake. It functions as the National Archive, Library, and Museum all under one roof.
Monumento a Rubén Darío – After years of neglect, this ornate monument to Nicaragua’s favorite poet son was beautifully restored to its former glory in 1998.
Teatro Nacional Rubén Darío – Nicaragua’s most important theater and concert venue. It has a striking resemblance to the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, but is about one-third the size.
Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, Nicaragua
After exploring Managua, most itineraries include some express transportation to other popular tourist destinations such as colonial León or Granada. But before heading away, you should visit the Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya.
Located south of the city, this national park includes the most active steaming volcano in Nicaragua. Called “the gates of hell” by the Spaniards, the nearly perfect cone sends gas billowing into the sky. It is the only volcano in the western hemisphere where cars are allowed to be driven right up to the rim. With favorable winds and good visibility, lava can still be seen bubbling at the bottom.
Guided and self-guided tours provide access to several attractions within the park:
Bobadilla Cross – A series of steps lead to a large cross, named after the priest who put it there. The path is unfortunately off limits due to the toxic gases that regularly blow over the path.
Bird and Bat Watching – The chocoyos, unaffected by the toxic gases, number in the thousands around the volcano’s rim, while bats have chosen to live in the cooler lava tunnels down below.
Trails – There are three major trails: Los Coyotes (a one-mile trail winds through the lava fields), El Comalito (a 1.5-mile trail that leads to volcanic cones), and Las Cuevas (a guided two-hour hike down to the lava tunnels).
When it’s time to leave Managua, its central location and proximity to all of the country’s major highways, make for a quick and easy exit.
Many tourists seem to skip the city entirely on their way to other tourist destinations such as Granada or San Juan del Sur. But inside this vibrant city are areas worth seeing with their own special history. There are monuments, to people ranging from literary and political figures, to reminders of past governments and the earth’s power of destruction. In many ways, to see these attractions is not only a way to learn about the history of this city, but also to understand why the inhabitants are still fiercely proud of it.