By Julia Henríquez
Photos: Demian Colman
Cities are usually my least favorite places to visit as a traveler so I generally try to avoid the noise, traffic, and pollution typical of urban centers during my expeditions. However, you can’t really say you know a country if you haven’t visited its capital, and so as much as I’d like to avoid them, my nomadic wanderings often require visits to the big cities.
This is how we came to Managua, despite many people saying “not worth it” and only a few saying “don’t miss it.” The first thing I noticed was the colorful cityscape. The streets of Managua look like a rainbow that shines down on the concrete jungle, while the city’s greenery and natural lakes are a refreshing rest for the eyes. Incredibly, even in the very center of this city, my camera never stops.
Our first stop is Loma Tiscapa, where a lookout point offers a 360-degree view of the city and two of its lakes. Atop this hill stands a huge figure of Sandino, a monumental 60-foot work carved from a steel plate that features the “tree of life” symbol that abounds in the city, representing the triumph of life over death. Though it is now a park, the hill’s history is a dark one. Government House was built on its peak in 1931; just two months after it was built an earthquake destroyed it, but the building was rebuilt and went on to house twelve presidents. The shadow hanging over the house is linked to the years of the Somoza family dictatorship, when the basement was used as a prison and torture chamber for political prisoners who opposed the regime. On December 23, 1972 another earthquake destroyed the building yet again.
The museum that now stands in its place tells both stories: the Sandino Vive room tells of the campaign carried out by Sandino to free Nicaragua from U.S. intervention; the Nights of Torture room narrates the story of those who suffered abuses of power during the Somoza dictatorship. Our guide is rather quiet, but once he sees our interest, he surprises us with the amazing history of his country while also asking us questions about our own countries and their liberators. The end of this visit leaves us astonished by the amount of knowledge exchanged on both sides, all for the modest sum of a smile.
We know now the terrible story of a country that struggled for years and even centuries to achieve the peace it has enjoyed since the 1990’s. Leaving this hall of infamy behind, the first thing we see is a children’s playground painted pink, green, and blue. This is the current reality: playgrounds built on what were once centers of repression and torture. The walk down the hill, immersed in our thoughts, helps restore our bodies and souls. We leave behind the gigantic statue of Sandino and soon the streets around us are full of color and culture.
The park dedicated to the revolutionary leaders of America, the Central Plaza, and the Rubén Darío Theater form an open-air gallery along an avenue that connects all of Managua with the waterfront. The entire walk is filled with Nicaraguan culture and history told through colors, graffiti, murals, statues, and music, all under a sun so hot it seems to melt the soles of our shoes. When we reach the malecón, or pier, the colors explode again. From here, there are two possible routes: the one on the left takes would take us past Puerto Salvador Allende and the one on the right would take us past the Paseo Xolotlán. The routes are separated by a square flying the Sandinista and Nicaraguan flags where students meet and all kinds of celebrations take place
We decide to head to the left and discover a pathway overlooking the lake that is lined with restaurants, bars, and music. Puerto Salvador Allende is the perfect place to enjoy the sunset and spend a very pleasant moment with family or friends. If you aren’t interested in eating or cruising around on foot, you can check out the lake from one of the comfortable catamarans; we waste no time in doing just that. We climb aboard one of the boats and head to Isla del Amor, famous in the past for the wild parties that the dictator Somoza used to throw but now a perfect paradise for wild birds. Our return trip is accompanied by the rhythms of bachata and traditional Nicaraguan music. At sunset, the sky is invaded by color and we dance under fiery clouds. In the City of a Thousand Colors, the sunsets are, naturally, spectacular.
We return to the malecón the following day under an intense sun. It’s Saturday and the square is full of families. Children run back and forth between the monument to the country’s war veterans and the large kiosk in the park and teenagers look for Pokemon in the square. We visit the old cathedral, the Casa de los Pueblos, and the National Palace.
Next, we explore the Paseo Xolotlán, which is much quieter and designed for family outings. It has small kiosks and playgrounds for children. The view of the lake and the fresh air make us want to linger. On the far right there is a replica of old Managua: buildings built to scale give us an idea of the city before the devastating earthquake that destroyed it in 1972. And on the far left, a small museum displays models of the homes of Rubén Darío and Sandino and his wife Blanquita, the invincible heroes of these heartlands.
The sun has begun its descent and we’ve been promised an evening of culture at the Tiangue Moninmbó beginning at 5 o’clock with young dancers from Masaya, the cradle of Nicaraguan folklore. The tiangues, formerly indigenous trade centers, are now small government-sponsored cooperatives where entrepreneurial families can set up handcraft or food stalls. In the evenings, the tiangues are ready for a party with dance performances and folk music from all over the country.
We can hear the drums and a trombone in the distance. Masked devils and monsters surround us in a foot-stomping dance, followed by multicolored skirts and one dance after another. The stars and the sparkling lights illuminate the whirling youngsters in gorgeous regional costumes.
Managua gives us the perfect send-off as one of its typical rainbows explodes, flooding this capital of celebrations with color over and over again. Our evening comes to an end and we say goodbye to Managua with the refrain, “Come all, come now.”