Managua looks like a bomb hit it. The city is a scattered, disheveled, and disorganized urban sprawl where everything is spread out and there is no center. The truth is a bomb did hit it, in the form of a massive earthquake in 1972. It flattened the city center, and planners decided it was pointless to rebuild on such a shifting tectonic nightmare again. The result is a ghost-downtown surrounded by dispersed, anonymous neighborhoods, pockmarked with craters and crisscrossed with streets that lack character as much as they lack names. It is a frustrating, bewildering place and easily the least accessible, the hardest to negotiate, the toughest to discover capital city in Central America.
If the city seems like one big accident, that is precisely because it is. Originally it had always been just a proud little indigenous fishing village on the shores of Lago Xolotlán -- proud enough to beat off the somewhat surprised and vengeful Spanish. But the small village suddenly found itself the country's capital when León and Granada reached a compromise to end their vicious 19th-century rivalry and chose Managua. With hindsight they might have chosen differently. A devastating earthquake in 1931 caused havoc, as did a fire several years later. The city experienced a brief boom in the fifties and sixties and was one of the region's most advanced metropolises. That all changed on December 23, 1972, when another earthquake hit, and 8 sq. km (5 sq. miles) were flattened and 10,000 killed. Revolution followed and the city was bombed by its own leaders. The rich elite fled to Miami and the city stagnated under the Sandinistas. It is only in recent years that Managua has finally begun to emerge from the rubble.
Today, Managua is a city of sprawling markets, chaotic bus terminals, tacky theme bars, and boisterous dance clubs. Once you figure out how to negotiate and get around this strange city of 1.5 million souls, you'll see it has a lot to offer. Despite the chaos and heat, it is, after all, the cultural, political, economic, and academic engine of the country. You also can't avoid Managua, as all international flights land here. Whether you stay or not it is up to you. Stay long enough and you can dance on volcanic rims, eat in tropical courtyards, listen to poetic folklore, experience a vibrant art scene, peek into crumbling cathedrals and, ultimately, understand Nicaragua all the more.