12/27/2016 - 12/28/2016
The itinerary NA originally provided completely excluded Managua. They were going to put us up in a hotel close to the airport the night of our arrival and then whisk us north to Matagalpa in the morning. That didn't surprise me, based on what I'd read about Managua. The lowdown was that there was little for tourists to see, and lots of downside in terms of crime and other city blights. However, that didn't sit well with us. Big cities and big markets are part of our travel DNA, regardless of the presence of tourist attractions. We requested a hotel in the middle of the city and a late afternoon departure, which would give us a few hours to see the city and more importantly a major market. The largest market in Managua is Mercado Oriental, but extensive research convinced me that the widely-reported danger of crime was real enough that we had to avoid it. Instead we chose Mercado Roberto Huembes, a slightly smaller but much safer location. For more about Mercado Oriental, try this article or this video. The videographer has a great YouTube channel about what it's like to live on the Corn Islands off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.
We enjoy the challenge of DIY traveling, but I have to admit it was nice to get off the plane and see a guy holding up a placard with my name on it among the throng of shouting taxi hustlers. The main boulevard downtown was lined with brightly lit floats celebrating the Nativity as well as Managua's famous "Trees of Life", a recent creation of the country's First Lady. We could see a lot of people milling around the sidewalk and some street food stands. I wished we could have stopped to walk around, but I didn't want to take advantage of our driver late in the evening and I wasn't sure we'd be safe.
The driver took us to the restaurant I'd picked for dinner, which turned out to be mediocre and mostly empty. Check out my nearly-raw churrasco!
Our room for the night was very basic, but in the morning we saw the hotel had a beautiful pool area with an outdoor dining patio.
After our complimentary breakfast, we met our driver and a guide to show us some sights of Managua. Our first stop was the hilltop Loma de Tiscapa, which was appropriate considering that to understand Nicaragua it's important to know a little of the modern history of the country. Most of the 20th century was characterized by a struggle between conservatives from the South, backed by the United States, and liberals from the North. In the 1920's, liberal general Augusto César Sandino pushed out the Conservative government in a guerilla war but was ultimately forced to share power with the US-backed strongman Anastasio Somoza García. Somoza soon had Sandino killed and assumed full control of Nicaragua, engendering a family dynasty that would rule for half a century. In the 1970's, the Sandinista guerilla movement was greatly strengthened after it became known that the Somoza regime had embezzled billions in international aid that was sent in response to a devastating earthquake. In 1979 Somoza's regime collapsed and the Sandinistas took control. However, in an anomaly for Marxist revolutions, the Sandinistas were not highly repressive of their opposition and largely maintained the democratic process. They held an election in 1984, which they won handily and was generally recognized to be legitimate, and then actually lost to their opposition in 1990. Since then the Sandinistas and their opposition have traded the presidency back and forth, with the current president being Daniel Ortega, the original architect of the Sandinista revolution.
Loma de Tiscapa is the former site of Somoza's presidential palace as well as the horrific prison where he tortured his political opponents. Fittingly, the hill is now crowned with a giant silhouette statue of Sandino overlooking the city. Directly below is the Tiscapa crater lake.
On our next stop, we walked through Parque Central to the Museo Nacional, where we took a brief walk among exhibits of Nicaraguan history. Across the plaza from the museum is the Santiago of Managua Cathedral.
Just north of the Museo Nacional is the lakeside Paseo Xolotlán. Here we found a rather barren plaza full of Trees of Life and views over heavily-polluted Lake Managua, also known as Lake Xolotlán.
Next was the day's main attraction, Mercado Roberto Huembes. We weren't disappointed. The market was large and contained hundreds of stalls replete with fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and seafood. Among the unique sights were tortillas being made and live iguanas to be used for soup.
We ate twice, first at a small tortilla stall and then at a larger food court where the selection of soups was too tempting to forgo even though our stomachs were mostly full. We split a mondongo, which was a huge pile of tripe and starchy vegetables in savory yellow broth. Despite our best efforts we were unable to finish the bowl, but there was a friendly toothless dude who immediately scooped up the remnants.
I made a couple of videos of the Huembes market. It was a great market with lots to see and delicious food. While it didn't quite reach the heights of Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca or Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena, I found it more enjoyable than the markets of Mexico City and a lot better than what we found in Panama City. We never felt remotely uncomfortable or unsafe in the market or anywhere else in Managua. Of course, we were never out after dark and we were never on our own except in the market.