One of the many trends I’ve noticed in Latin America is that the neighboring Latin American country is always much more dangerous and sinister than the one you’re in. The Argentines told us we’d be mugged in Brazil, the Brazilians told us we’d be mugged in Bolivia (though to be fair the Bolivians agreed). In Peru, Ecuador was suspect and in Ecuador you can guess what they said about Colombia. Costa Rica and Nicaragua have an uneasy relationship. The neighbors share a similar landscape and history, but not a lot of affection. Predictably we heard terrible things about Managua, so I put my faith in what we’d learned: that is was probably a reputation ill-deserved.
We were picked up at the Ticabus station in Managua by Mauricio Rivera Urbina and his son Danffer, my cousin Troy’s Nicaraguan host family. He’d arranged to have us stay with them, and they welcomed us like lost family members. They drove us through the Managuan suburbs and from the windows we watched scenes of a metropolis in a developing country unfold. It’s sidewalks were crowded where they existed, where not, pedestrians spilled onto the street with cars, buses, bicyclists, dogs. Power lines, the nerve cords of any city’s modernity, drooped from telephone poles of all makes and materials. The gutters, which were built like canals to catch the runoff from Nicaragua’s intense rains, were filled only with debris.
In 1972, a massive earthquake struck Managua during the rule of its corrupt Somoza government. The city was absolutely leveled. When international aid poured in from abroad, the Somoza government took it for themselves in an act of outright larceny. Managua never fully recovered, few buildings above four stories can be found, large empty lots erupt with tropical foliage.
As we left the city center and turned into an alley of small one story row houses, my impression of the city changed. We entered the Urbina’s neighborhood and found it densely packed, but dotted with large shady trees. Their neighbors congregated around storefronts and the large covered patios fronting each house. Healthy looking dogs poked their noses between barred doorways and barked joyfully. Like every city we’ve ever been warned about, it was clear that there were rough areas, but that was never the heart. The heart was here in Mauricio’s barrio and we were deep in its beating center.
We spent the evening thrilling the Urbinas with my terrible Spanish and eating a delicious Nicaraguan home-cooked meal. In the morning they insisted that their niece, Maria, join us in taking a walk around the city. We told them we’d be fine, but it seemed that those most skeptical about Managua’s safety were Managuans themselves.
After stopping at a huge mall called Metrocenter, to pick up a new phone card, we walked across the street to Managua’s new cathedral, an infamous block of intense brutalism, topped by 67 incongruous domes. Naturally Magda fell in love with it instantly and we spent the next half an hour photographing its confrontational concrete planes. There were a half dozen extremely downtrodden people around the cathedral but none of them paid us any mind. As we were finishing up, a man approached and shook our hands, asking where we were from. After it appeared we understood, he went into a long lecture about himself, Nicaragua’s troubled history, and of course (no Nicaraguan monologue is complete without it) a disparaging mention of Costa Rica. It was funny to hear Costa Rica verbally mauled so much, since Costa Rica seems to bear no ill will towards anyone. It proved that rather effectively in my eyes by dismantling their military in 1948. It’s possible the hard feelings come from Costa Rica’s relative success, a long (by Latin American standards) history of peace and its well deserved reputation as a great place for tourism.
We headed into the center of town next, the three of us starting to sizzle in the midday sun. It wasn’t especially humid fortunately, but the sun burned at our skin with an especially painful intensity. Approaching a nice looking, manicured settlement on Lake Managua, we learned that it cost money to enter, so we turned around and found our way into one of the local bars fronting the water. A large mesh net was in place to keep patrons from throwing trash, or each other, into the lake, but it had only met with mixed success. The lakeshore was a mess, plastic bottles bobbed against the rocks like the bodies of dead fish. Maria taught us how to say, ‘that’s a shame’ in Spanish, and it was, apart from the trash it was a beautiful view. In the distance Volcan Momotombo towered, one of a chain of active volcanos that at once inspire and terrify due to their proximity to Nicaragua’s urban centers.
After drinking a beer, and watching the smaller of two freshwater lakes for a time, we headed towards Huellas de Acahualinca, a set of fifteen human footprints uncovered in 1874. Maria taught us how to low-ball the taxi drivers in Managua, none of whom have taxi meters, though they are allegedly coming soon. The footprints make their way across what was a mudflat, headed in the direction of where else but the lake. They’re estimated to be about 6,000 years old but could have been laid down yesterday the impressions are so clear. This is thanks to a layer of volcanic ash that fell during an eruption not long after they passed. A Nicaraguan later told us that they were made as their ancestors walked across a field of hot lava. I think that might not be true since the steps appear to be in no particular hurry.
We finished the day looking over Managua from a large hill called Parque Histórico Nacional Loma de Tiscapa, the location of the Somoza family’s ostentatious villa and the torture chamber they terrorized their countrymen with. A large silhouette of Augusto Sandino dominates the ruins of the villa now. Sandino was the founder of the Sandinista movement that currently runs the country and that the Reagan administration spent so much time, energy and capital trying to topple. The Sandinistas were and probably still are as corrupt as anyone, but fighting them was one of the biggest blunders in American history and ultimately led to the Iran-Contra affair, an absurd and illegal bit of Cold War theater.
From the top of the hill the city looks small of scale but massively spread out. The old cathedral, destroyed by the earthquake and now just a giant baroque skeleton, was visible, toasting its bones in the light of the still fierce afternoon sun.