The “flow” of Managua, Nicaragua –
“Agua” the Spanish word for water ends the capitol city’s and country’s name – inspired by the Spanish finding two of the largest lakes in the isthmus here during their empire expansion in what is now known as Central America. The “mana” in Managua meant “near” in Nahuati, the most populous indigenous people’s language at the time the Spanish arrived – and the beginning of Nicaragua stems from Nicarao, the name of a prominent tribal chief.
Our Nicaragua Photo Gallery
In Managua’s sprawl with 1.8 million citizens it is said there is no sense looking for a city centre, because there is none, or there are many – depending on how you look at it. Rather than a major city centre, it is a conglomeration of neighbourhoods each with their commercial district. To intensify the difficulty of getting around – streets signs are practically non-existent; navigation is by landmarks.
Our first walk from our small and comfy Hotel Casa Real is to stake out the Multi-Centro Mall about three blocks away, which leaves us pleased to have the all important resources of a large grocery store, and cafes that served up a great cup of cappuccino – our hood suits us fine.
Our next venture is an 8km walk to check out the Nicaragua International Bus Lines (not that we are anxious to leave, but for future reference). Along our route dwellings of any and all types of scrap material line the roads, with garbage disposal wherever. This is our awakening to Nicaragua being the poorest country in Central America, as well as the ramifications of Managua sitting on top of an astounding eleven seismic faults, which have severely shaken the city over time. In this cycle of ruin and rebuilding, the areas left in a crumbled state draw squatters. We note a low police presence, yet Managua and Nicaragua in general remains safer than many of its neighbours.
In the bus research department, we cross Tica off our list as it starts in San Jose, Costa Rica and passes through Managua on its journey north sometime around noon, but they can never be sure of the exact time. Platinum (King Quality) Bus Lines is a yin and yang affair – on the up-side northbound buses starts in Managua, but on the down-side they leaves at 3 a.m. Rick thinks we should fly – “Hmm, we shall see,” is my response when we check out the atrocious airfare.
One morning at breakfast we get a chance to chat with the hotel’s owner, Rene. He is a wealth of knowledge about life in Nicaragua, being that he came here from Switzerland as a chef on a 2-year-contract and stayed 35! We learn how baseball came to be the national sport, as opposed to the soccer craze of other Latin American countries. It was introduced by American marines who invaded in the early 1900’s (in response to a civil war to oust the dictatorship of General Jose Zelaya), its popularity cemented during the subsequent years of US military bases.
Another tidbit of interest is of the eccentric Howard Hughes sequestering the whole 7th floor of Managua’s Intercontinental Hotel for 2 years. Hughes arrived in 1970 and left the day after the 1972 earthquake viciously shook the city. None of the hotel staff ever laid eyes on him during his stay – not even when his abrupt escape was by stairwell, being the earthquake rendered the elevators inoperable. Other than the occasional visit from President Somoza, only Hughes body guards had access to the floor, and even they rarely saw him, leaving his food and other supplies in a designated area. After Rene shares this tale, my eyes glue to the 7th floor each time we walk past this caramel and off-white hotel with its autumnal orange roof.
GRANADA is our next Nicaragua stop. Early on our designated day, we walk a few blocks to where “colectivos” are parked in a dusty yard behind rows of street food vendors. These van-sized buses leave when filled, and filling them is the priority of hawkers that aim to drown each other out with their, “Granada-Granada-Granada” while rushing up to potential customers and attempting to steer them to “their” bus. Taxies, when dropping people off, tactfully pull up between the two or three buses currently in competition, wherein these hawkers descend like hawks grabbing luggage in the hopes those emerging from the taxi will follow them to their bus. Locals seem to get a kick out of this jostling – considering it is just part of the game. Squeezing ourselves and our luggage into seats of the “best looking” bus, it rapidly fills to what we think is the max – ohhhh, not so….fold-down seats are flipped open in the aisles making it a claustrophobic’s nightmare for the 1 ½ hour trip to Granada.
The bus drops us off at the action-packed Central Square. After finding our way and checking into the pleasant and spotless La Casona de Fabiana, we hustle back to the square to mill around the clumping horses pulling carriages, the rows of souvenir stalls, and to soak up Granada’s colonial charm in its brightly coloured shops, restaurants and cafes.
Granada Nicaragua was founded in 1524 by Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba, and is the oldest Spanish-built city in the isthmus. It became famously rich as a transit point for gold and other minerals mined throughout the Spanish Empire. A brief take-over of Granada occurred in the mid-19th century by American adventurer William Walker, which spelled disaster for the city, as when Walker was forced to retreat in the face of international forces, he practically burned Granada to the ground.
It so happens that the 10th Annual International Festival of Poets for Nicargua is underway. Our Spanish is too “un poco” to follow the rapid flow of poetry being recited to crowds seated on white plastic chairs at the edge of the square and along side-streets. An old timer with wildly swinging arms quotes with gusto what is no doubt a revolutionary poem by their most famous and loved poet, Ruben Dario (1867-1916). A wee boy of no more than six wins the hearts of the crowd with his big voice, his feet planted firmly on the chair to raise him to microphone level.
We barely came across any churches while in Managua, but Granada makes up for it. In the Central Square the Catedral de Granada flaunts a warm orange-yellow exterior. A few blocks away the Iglesia La Merced (Church of Mercy) is black with mold on the outside, but has a beautiful interior with an unusual statue of Jesus in a sheer gown lying in a glass coffin. The view from the top of the bell tower is worth the 70 tiny, winding steps to get there – all of Granada spreads out below. Another that impresses us is the sombre grey Church of Guadalupe; brought back from its ruined state at the hands of Walker.
Down another street the Convent of San Francisco has been converted into a small museum with displays of many petroglyphs recovered from Isla Zapatera on Lake Nicaragua. Hewn from black volcanic basalt about 1000AD, these statues, which probably had a religious significance for the indigenous peoples, depict anthropomorphic beings – half-man, half-monkey or jaguar or lizard.
The faded glory of Granada is most vividly seen along the wide streets leading to the shores of Lake Nicaragua and along the promenades at the water’s edge. Only a few brave people sit on the garbage strewn beach, and no one is in the (no doubt polluted) water.
Back in Managua we settle into the super El Almendro Hotel with a handy kitchenette in the same great area as before, from which we venture out to visit the Old City Centre, and an archaeological site that even Rick agrees we cannot miss. Combining both makes sense, and hiring Alcides (Al for short) for $30 to take to both turns out to be a super move. Passing through many residential areas along our route gives us a different impression of Managua. The streets are absolutely litter-free along the attached one-storey homes that are freshly painted and well maintained – poverty not able to erode the pride of those who make their home here.
The “Ancient Footprints of Acahualinca” is first, on the southern shore of Lake Managua. “This is museum,” Al announces in his best English as he pulls up in front of a building with a low-square-warehouse appearance.… “Really?” I say, staring at this most un-museum-like structure. While getting out of the taxi we are bombarded with local flavour– a garbage tractor/truck with waving men rattles past, bikes with carts hauling goods whiz by, a chunky fellow crosses the road to collect one of his roosters that are tied with strings to stakes, a donkey walks by on his own.
We tear ourselves away from this outside action and enter the museum that was built over the famed footprints to protect them. Staff guide, Maria, is on hand to greet us. She leads us to a small room with skeletal remains and says, “These are the bones of a woman who was buried with her newborn infant. The jars found with the body were radiocarbon dated at 2000 BC; all were moved here from another location.” Other ceramics, some utility bowls and large funerary jars are around the walls of the small room. Engaging, but I wait with baited breath for what we have really come to see.
The first footprint excavation site is before us! Accidentally discovered by construction workers in 1874, the footprints were first brought to the attention of the international science community and media ten years later, and the excavation and scientific analysis of the footprints took place in 1941 and 42. Then in the 60’s and 70’s carbon dating of soil humates directly below the footprints place them as being made 6,000 years ago. “A group of about 12 people, men, women and children, walked through volcanic mud and ash,” says Maria, “their imprints solidified shortly after and were preserved under more layers of ash.” Maria points to show us closer to the pit wall are animal tracks, similar to today’s raccoon and deer.
I question her about the age of the footprints, adding that I have read reports of further studies based on the type of volcanic material, namely “Masaya Triple Layer” that place them around 2,000 BC. She adamantly reiterates, “No, these footprints were made 4,000 years before Christ, which makes them 6,000 years old.”
We move onto the second deeper pit where in 1978 more footprints were uncovered at a depth of 4 metres comprised of a dozen layers of volcanic material. “This is an extension of the first path and it is believed further excavation will reveal more of their trail!” exclaims Maria.
Rick and I go back and forth between the two excavations, astonished at how nature found a way to preserve what is logically unpreservable. From the size of each set of footprints my imagination sees the person who so long ago tread here – a moment in their life’s journey. I am filled with an overwhelming sense of awe at being privy to this powerful link to our past humankind – imprints that will remain life-long in my memory.
Tucked back into the taxi, Al heads for the Plaza de La Revolucion. An apropos place for the tomb lit by an eternal flame of Nicaragua heroes, including Carlos Fonseca Amador (1936-1976), the founder of the FSLN (Frente Sandinista Liberacion Nacional or in English, Sandinista National Liberation Front).
Palacio Nacional de La Cultura is on another side of the square, now a museum, art gallery, and part still for government. It was on August 22, 1978 that Sandanistas, disguised as National Guard soldiers, stormed through the halls bringing down the Somoza 40-year dictatorship. Across the square is the mustard yellow La Casa de Los Pueblos; once presidential offices, now administrative departments.
Most imposing is the square’s sombre Catedral Vieja (Old Cathedral) ruins, with birds flitting through the massive window frames. Angels with broken wings and semi-exposed murals can be seen through the wrought iron grills.
It is back towards our hotel again with Al treating us to a few extra stops, one being Loma de Tiscapa. Situated behind the pyramid-shaped Crown Plaza landmark, the roadway climbs a hill for a tremendous view of the city, while the opposite side of the hill looks down on the murky Lagoon Tiscapa. Perched on the summit is a silhouetted statue of Augusto Cesar Sandino; on the exact spot of this revolutionary leader’s assassination in 1934 at the age of 39. Further to one side of the hill is a small museum with Sandino’s history and how his philosophies inspired the later FSLN, plus some photos of past earthquake damage and where I snap a photo of two smartly uniformed military guards.
Al then takes us to the Catedral Metropolitana de la Purisima Concepcion, understandably simply called Catedral Neuva (New Cathedral). Church bells toll as we approach. This massive concrete structure must be as earthquake proof as is humanly possible. I puzzle over the design, the roof looks like cement hand grenades to me; Rick likens it to many propane tanks. A mass is underway, which allows us a peak inside, where we see that each of these roof “forms” has an opening allowing light to enter the church in a poke-a-dot pattern.
More walks around our hood with many more cappuccino stops take up our days. Our thoughts as we leave this least visited country in Central America, is as well as its landscape beauty of volcanoes, mountains and lakes, its vibrant yet impoverished cities give it an individualistic quality, and the welcome we received at every turn made us glad we came.
Oh, yes, Guatemala is next and in spite of my cost-consciousness of taking a bus the thought of the eleven hours from Managua to San Salvador, then another six hours to Guatemala City bends my resolve – and Rick wins out – we will fly.