The 1972 earthquake shattered Managua_s once glorious boulevards, and today building styles vary wildly, fro...
The 1972 earthquake shattered Managua_s once glorious boulevards, and today building styles vary wildly, from the squat residential buildings that popped up after the tremors, to older, more majestic neo-Classical and modern edifices. But despite an initial impression of chaos, you will find smooth roads and a full range of hotels and restaurants serving hearty local fare. The years of political upheaval marked by the 1979 revolution and then the brutal civil war of the 1980s have finally given way to stability. Yet travelers on their way to the coasts or quaint colonial towns still rush away from the capital upon arrival. That_s too bad. There is a blossoming of culture in this city that is the key to understanding modern Nicaragua.
1. UP, DOWN, OVER
While taxis are plentiful and local buses abound, both can pose logistical problems. Consider hiring a car and driver, about $50 for a full day. (Addresses below are given in Spanish, as drivers generally don_t speak English; where there are Web sites, addresses are not included, as they may be found on the site. See vianica.com for a full description of the unique Nicaraguan directional system.) You can drive up to the Parque Hist__rico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa, set high on a hill above the Crown Plaza Hotel. From there, for more than 40 years, the Somoza family dictators looked down upon the sprawling city from an enormous Moorish-style palace. The palace no longer stands (the earthquake all but destroyed it, and the revolution finished the job) but the exquisite view remains. A massive statue of the guerrilla fighter Augusto Sandino, hero of the modern Sandinistas, stands guard over a playground. Below ground, a concrete basement once used as a prison now holds a photo exhibit tracking the history of Sandino, who fought the occupation of Nicaragua by the United States military, only to be assassinated by Anastasio Somoza_s men in 1934. For the adventurous, a zip-line tour begins in the park and hurtles through a cloud canopy ($15). (Note: Prices in Managua switch often between c__rdobas, the local currency, and dollars. Often both are accepted.)
2. CATHEDRALS OLD AND NEW
Venture down to old Managua to the neo-Classical Vieja Catedral de Managua. Rocked by 20th-century earthquakes, it is now a gorgeous shell, a paper doll of a church, with the walls standing, but the ceiling almost entirely gone. Then check out the bizarre Nueva Catedral, about a 10-minute drive away. Built by the Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta in 1993, it looks like a place where Mad Max might worship or, as locals say, 63 enormous breasts.
3. HOMESTYLE COOKING
For decades Nicaragua_s dealmakers have dined at Los Ranchos (Bo Altagracia, Montoya, 3 cuadra al oeste; 505-266-0526) on grilled steak, pork, and guapote (_the big handsome_), a white fish pulled from Lake Nicaragua and thrown in the deep fryer. Best of all may be the appetizer of cazuela de frijoles, a thick stew of refried beans accompanied by sliced plantains and fried fresh cheese; 75 c__rdobas, or $3.10, at 23 c__rdobas to the dollar. More traditional Nicaraguan fare, like the beef stew Indio Viejo (_old Indian_), vigor__n (a sort of pickled cabbage salad with boiled yucca and pork cracklings) and homey gallo pinto (fried rice and beans), is found at La Cocina de Do__a Hayd__e (505-270-6100, lacocina.com.ni).
4. BEAT GOES ON
Bar Cultural El Caramanchel, _the shack_ (Bolonia, Del Hospital Militar, 3 cuadras al norte, 1/2 cuadra al oeste; 505-8931-4199), once a metal music bar, is now a hangout for hippie do-gooders and cool Managuan 20- and 30-somethings. The music ranges from salsa to electronica to new house.
5. SNACK LIKE A LOCAL
Quesillos are a national treasure: a yogurtlike fresh cheese, boiled and salted, served with diced vinegar-fermented onions, wrapped in a tortilla, drenched in cream and served in a plastic bag. Managuans swear the best are at Quesillos el-Pipe (Kilometer 12 1/2 Carretera a Masaya; 505-8823-3556), a roadside restaurant with a shiny-clean kitchen and ingredients made on site.
6. LAVA WALK
You can_t go far without running into a volcano. Just outside Managua is the 21-square-mile Parque Nacional Volc__n Masaya. (Foreigner entrance fee: 100 c__rdobas.) Twelve miles of flower-studded rocky hiking trails meander past petrified lava fields and an enormous crater spewing sulfur (hard hats required) perched atop a volcanic cone. Just up the highway are the white walls of the eerily beautiful Coyotepe Fortress on a dormant volcano. Now a park with a glorious vista, it once held political prisoners. The dank, horrific cells can be toured ($2).
7. MARKET DAY
Just outside Managua the village of Masaya boasts markets known for bright woven hammocks, carvings, ceramics and other crafts. Start at the Mercado Nacional de Artesan__as, enclosed by 19th-century walls; on Thursdays dancers perform here. Then head up to the Mercado Municipal de Ernesto Fern__ndez at the central bus station, where locals shop. It_s grittier and more crowded, with a row of men who patch shoes, and dozens of food hawkers.
The Laguna de Apoyo is a swimmable fresh water volcanic crater lake. High above it is Mirador Catarina, an overlook known for its crisp, clean air, perfect for plant shops. The rustic restaurants here serve empanadas and snack food like fried cheese, beans and tostones (crispy fried plantains) and heartier dishes. A series of wide observation steps are cut into the hillside; they face the intense greenery of the mountainside with a great view of the lake. Local troubadours roam, happy to croon for a dollar.
9. FRENCH STYLE
The Alliance Fran_aise (505-2267-2811; alianzafrancesa.org.ni) is known for its concerts, talks and art exhibitions. Le Bistro, on site, offers French wines (80 c__rdoba for a glass, 300 for a bottle from Burgundy) and light French fare. But if it_s just cocktails you crave, Granada_s favorite watering hole, El Tercer Ojo (the Third Eye) now has a Managua outpost in the center of town (505-2277-4487; eltercerojo.com.ni), graced by an enormous carved Buddha. Beers are $1.50. AnM, a shop inside the bar, peddles locally made leather bags ($145 and up).
10. SPANISH SPOKEN
Grab a seat under the thatched roof at Taska Kiko (Funeria Monte de los Olives, 1 cuadra al este, Casa No. 6; 505-2270-1569) where expat Spaniards serve pulpo (octopus) and excellent pargo (red snapper) grilled with garlic, olive oil and bits of chile (about $35 for two).
11. DRY DOCK
Zona Viva, outdoors at the mall Galer__as Santo Domingo mall, may look a bit Potemkin-like, but it_s packed. There_s a taquer__a (Tacontento), a steakhouse (El Churrasco), a sushi joint (Sushi Itto) and, above it all, the Reef (505-2276-9289), a popular surf-themed bar with D.J._s, live music and an outdoor deck.
12. SUNNY SIDE UP
Claudia Chamorro_s bright small eatery, Zacate Lim__n (El Tiangue, M__dulo 2 del Club Terraza, 300 meters Arriba; 505-2255-0504), is known for breakfastlike _huevos norte__os,_ a sunny side up egg served over refried beans on a crispy tortilla and topped with salsa ranchera, cream and Parmesan cheese ($6.25).
13. TRACE THE REVOLUTION
The Museum of the Sandinista Victory (Frente al Estadio Nacional) is perched, oddly, in a busy traffic rotunda. No matter: it boasts a small but evocative collection documenting the heady months that followed July 19, 1979, including a downed statue of Somoza. Then head to the Teatro Nacional Rub__n Dar__o (www.tnrubendario.gob.ni), named for the country_s most famous poet. The 1960s-era theater showcases classical music and traditional dance. Even if there_s no event, the halls, filled with rotating exhibitions of modern Nicaraguan art, are worth a meander.
14. SNARE A SOUVENIR
Wind up where everyone else does: at the Mercado Roberto Huembes, which wraps around the central bus station and is full of crafts, from crocodile and python skin bags (find Maritza Blanco Cortez_s stall, at Modulo E-221; 505-2255-2010) to pi__atas, as well as fruit and vegetables.
By SARAH WILDMAN