The morning after Sunday Funday in San Juan del Sur, I jumped on a local bus to Rivas, where I’d have to change bus to get to Managua. I got on one just as it was leaving from next to the local market, but as it was full I had to stand up. Not such a problem for me with my small bag, though a few other tourists struggled somewhat with their house-sized backpacks in tow. They made the classic mistake of asking the charger how much it cost and were duly charged a slightly elevated price, whereas I waited until he came round asking and paid the same as those around me, 15 Cordobas, or half a dollar. They were headed towards to Ometepe and were of course dropped off amidst a swarm of taxi drivers, as I had been a few days previously.
I was going to stay on for a little while more, but a couple of minutes later the back doors were suddenly sprung open and cries of ‘Managua, Managua’ could be heard. A few other passengers hopped off our bus and onto another which had pulled up behind ours. My task had been made much easier and I boarded the smarter-looking vehicle and went on my way. The price from Rivas to Managua was 70 Cordobas. It took just short of two hours to get to Managua, and I must have been reading maps upside down the previous day, because we passed Granada, where I was going after Managua, first.
The bus pulled in at one of the ugliest bus terminals I’ve ever been to, and all I can recall from it is a decrepit building and a haze of smoke and dust. But let’s not judge Managua on solely this basis. After all, I oft defend the capital cities of Central America, and to base your impression of what a city is like on the bus terminal is unfair, and is an ignorant habit frequently witnessed in the passages of Lonely Travel columnists. Thankfully I could stroll off the bus and through the myriad of taxi drivers waiting for my custom and casually say ya tengo transporte as I was to be picked up by Monica, a Nicaraguan girl I’d met in Ometepe. But then I remembered I was in Managua, and tourists don’t go to Managua, so the taxi drivers didn’t have their gringo radar switched on and I wasn’t accosted at all. I went over to a Claro stall and made a phone call to Monica, who’d pick me up around the corner near a shopping centre.
I can kind of see why someone’s bad impression of Managua would continue if they were to take to the streets in the vicinity of the bus terminal. There’s no traffic lights in sight so you have to run across the road, streets aren’t signposted, the sun bears down pretty intensely, and a few dodgy characters hanging around the wide avenues, as they do, all of which might be off-putting for a heavily-laden backpacker with their life’s possessions around their shoulders desperately straining to see a street number.
Small bag, jeans, no flip-flops, walk casually as if you know where you’re going. That’s the way.
Monica came pretty quickly in her little red car, we picked up Adriana, and then went for lunch in a place where typical food was to be served. The girls announced we were to eat Caballo Bayo, which I hoped didn’t involve horse, much like Bife al Caballo, which entails beef steak, eggs and chips. In the end it was a platter of meats, plantain, salad, cheese and tortillas. We all dug our fingers in without worrying about who was touching what and I quite enjoyed it, and certainly was full enough. I accompanied it with a quesillo, a kind of tortilla served in a plastic bag, with oniony sauce and cream cheese. After you’ve eaten the dough you’re left with a bag of slimy yellowy-white stuff which looks like a used condom. But when in Rome. So I copied my companions and sucked the leftover cheese out of the plastic bag. Yummy. I drank semilla de jicaro, which closely compares to Mexican horchata and was rather nice. A meal for three; starters,shared main and drinks which came to just 20 USD. And that was in quite an upmarket-looking restaurant.
A note on the Spanish spoken in Nicaragua. First of all they use vos, criminally unbeknownst to me before arriving, as do people from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. At one time I used to vosear when in Buenos Aires, but I’ve long since lost that. Also, Nicaraguan pronunciation is what you might call a little guttural, the ‘j’ (‘h’ in English) is quite heavy and forced and they often miss out their ‘s’ at the end of words. The former I’d heard lots of many moons before in Paraguay, whereas the latter was something I’d more associate with Caribbean South America, like Colombia and Venezuela. Though all in all, they are pretty easy to understand and speak quite clearly, so a recommendation there for anyone thinking of picking up Spanish as a beginner.
After looking for it for ages, we next went to a museum which you’d never notice unless you asked several people to direct you and finally have it pointed at by a kind elderly gentleman, in which there were footprints from 6000 years ago apparently preserved by molten lava. They were supposedly from locals who were migrating to another town. And that was that. Just dried footprints in the mud. I didn’t really get it to be honest, and nor did Adriana, whose facial expression told the extent of her interest. Unfortunately, a storm had caused a wall to collapse and destroy another exhibit. Shame. But I had learned about culture. Entrance incidentally costs about 2 USD.
We then had a drive over to the old centre of the city which had been destroyed by the 1972 earthquake. From the disaster, only the old theatre and a solitary church remain. In the years following the quake, the area had become a crime-infested rundown place, frequented by street girls and a spot for dealing. However, current president Daniel Ortega decided a few years ago that the old centre should be restored and now there’s a series of nice places where you can get fruit shakes and look out over Lake Managua. They’ve also erected a few statues and monuments to commemorate the heroes of the revolution and some of Nicaragua’s most important historical and literary figures, such as General Sandino, the messiah to most Nicas, and Ruben Dario, the poet famous throughout the Hispanic world.
From the lake you can see Momotombo volcano in the distance. On the day we could barely make it out on the cloudy horizon. Yet the following day sat in Granada, I’d see on the news that it had erupted after more than a hundred years of being dormant, and I’d missed it by a day!
Anyway, returning to ways in which President Ortega has attempted to smarten up Managua, loads of 10-metre high multi-coloured metal trees can be seen throughout the city, particularly along the main boulevards, the brainchild of his wife. As well as that, due to its Socialist politics, many huge billboards pop up around the city hailing the recently-deceased Hugo Chavez from Venezuela and Che Guevara amongst others.
There was an interesting plaque placed near a statue of Sandino talking of the need to rid the country of William Walker’s descendants i.e. people from the US, though do not fear, the anti-imperialist hatred isn’t usually directed towards tourists bringing money into the economy. We also went to the spot where Sandino was murdered after being tricked into attending alleged peace talks, and the statue that now stands there is certainly imposing. Every image I’ve seen of the man accentuates his hardness and you can really imagine him being a ruthless and effective leader of men.
Still in the old centre of Managua, there’s a rather cute miniature version of what it used to look like before 1972, what with banks, universities and hotels depicted exactly as they were decades ago. Adriana commented to me that just seeing the exhibition had reduced her grandmother to tears, such was the resemblance to how the centre used to look.
Looking down at Managua from above really accentuates how green the city is. You’d think it was just a few urbanisations in the middle of the jungle unless you knew otherwise, such is the abundance of trees that absolutely smother the landscape. Obviously, at ground level it’s a capital city, but you’d never know it if just flying over.
With that, and the sun coming down, the girls dropped me off at the place where I needed to catch a bus to Granada.
In conclusion, Managua wasn’t the dive that many people make it out to be. Then again, I was moving around with some locals. On the surface, especially if you step off a bus, the city doesn’t look too pretty and the current centre doesn’t really have much to see from a tourist’s point of view. But if you can get yourself over to the old town, it’s really worth it so you can learn a lot about the history of Nicaragua and get good panoramic views of the capital. As was the case with San Jose in Costa Rica, don’t knock a place until you’ve really tried it, and if you can, engage with the locals and you’ll definitely learn a lot by just talking to them.
Nicaragua was really proving to be a cauldron of culture, history and breath-taking landscapes. Long may the adventure continue!