Getting Lost in Managua

While waiting for the lovely people in the UK Consulate, and in the British Embassy in Costa Rica, to produce my emergency passport, back in June, I had very little to do (and very little money to do it with). So wandering the (safer) streets of Managua became my daily little ritual. Which was often followed by getting hopelessly lost in the city’s shambles of anonymous neighbourhoods and unmarked roads.

The capital, and biggest city of Nicaragua sprawls endlessly outwards like any other Central American city, the only barrier to its continued expansion being the polluted Lake Managua to the north. However, unlike other cities in the region, the centre of town is almost completely deserted – every time I visited (including at the weekend), it was a ghost town. In the parques centrales of Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa, and San Salvador, there will be old, crumbling, colonial structures built by the Spanish, plus hordes of itinerant vendors hawking various types of tat (including a bizarre preponderance of remote controls), raving evangelical preachers thumping The Bible, lunching office workers, giggling schoolchildren, canoodling teenagers, and assorted drunks and derelicts.

But Managua’s downtown is empty. 80% of the city’s buildings collapsed after an earthquake in 1972. And 40-odd years of war and neglect haven’t put many of them back up again. Under the dictator Anastasio Somoza II, most of Managua was left as a pile of rubble, and it wasn’t until the Sandinistas ousted Somoza in 1979 that any of the mess was cleared up. Even now, the emptiness of the city centre gives the place the unreal, temporary feel of a film set.

At the side of the Plaza de la Revolución is the city’s cathedral, an empty shell of a building that’s quite a fitting monument to a ruined city, and one that seems to be permanently closed (although it is atmospheric and photogenic, in a kind of Hammer-horror-film-set way). Pigeons flap around the empty interior, around crumbling brick walls and stone angels with cracked wings. In old, black-and-white photos of Managua from 1979, the plaza is packed with thousands of people celebrating the fall of Somoza and the victory of the FSLN (Frente Sandinista Liberación Nacional – Sandinista National Liberation Front, the former socialist revolutionary army which is now the ruling political party). But today, apart from me, a couple of teenagers snogging on a bench, the plaza’s gardener, and a homeless man shouting at a squirrel up a tree, it’s eerily empty.

Managua’s Catedral Vieja

For the best views of the city, I climb to the top of one of Nicaragua’s many extinct volcanoes, Tiscapa. From the top, I’m able to see Managua in all her, erm, glory, criss-crossed by highways in every direction, with the only structures poking out of the featureless (although still quite green and tropical) urban landscape being large billboards, all proclaiming various messages. “¡Viva La Revolución!”, shouted one. “Cristo Vive”, claimed another. “McDonald’s Teriyaki Burger”, said a third. Plus, in the distance, the new cathedral, a brutal-looking building that appears to have a roof made of concrete breasts. Or hand grenades. Or hatching eggs. But to the north, beyond the empty city centre, is Lake Managua, and in the far distance, the volcanoes of the Maribios chain, from Momotombo to San Cristobal. And the breeze is nice up here too…

Laguna Tiscapa, in the crater of extinct Volcan Tiscapa

At the top of Tiscapa is an enormous, silhouetted statue of Augusto Sandino. His image is everywhere in Nicaragua, celebrating the revolutionary who led a rebellion against US occupation in the 1920s and 30s (Uncle Sam’s been poking his big nose into Latin American business for a very long time), and who was executed by Anastasio Somoza I’s men in 1934. Despite the fact that it’s a silhouette, it’s obvious that it’s Sandino, because of the hat. Even though I’ve not seen that many photos of the man, his image is instantly recognisable, due to his ever-present headgear. I don’t know how often he wore his hat in life, but it must’ve been pretty often for it to have become a central part of his image (if not the one visually-defining part) in death. The ghosts of the past have a peculiarly enduring power in Nicaragua, with museums of martyrs in almost every town, and images of numerous dead soldiers, politicians, and poets all over the country. And none more so than Sandino, who, along with his iconic sombrero, has been elevated to superhuman status in the national mythology.

Sandino and his hat

Also at the top of the volcano is the remains of the former prison where Anastasio Somoza II (the third of the Somoza family dictatorship, and as much of a lovable scamp as his daddy) used to torture his enemies, including feeding them to his pet panthers. No longer supported by the Americans (although they propped him up for decades, and turned a blind eye to his rampant corruption and numerous human rights abuses – but that was all ok, because he was anti-communist!), he finally fled Nicaragua (with most of the country’s money) in 1979. It’s no wonder that there are numerous murals in Nicaraguan cities that say “No More Somozas”.

Lake Managua and its volcanoes

Managua’s address system is one of the most perplexing of anywhere I’ve ever been. No one uses building numbers or street names – the addresses all seem to be based around some landmark, such as a hotel, roundabout, shopping centre, or church, and distances are given in blocks along the four cardinal points (although here, the locals have added to the confusion by using up and down instead of east and west, and towards the lake and away from the lake instead of north and south). In the case of the UK Consulate building, their address is given in blocks from the nearest hospital; and then, just to makes things even more fun, the address uses varas, archaic measurements once used by the Spanish, which are equivalent to about one metre. I eventually ask a security guard outside a bank and he tells me I’ve walked past it already. The U2 song “Where The Streets Have No Name” could’ve been written about this place.

From that point on I take taxis, which is lucky, as my next destination is the Immigration Department, and that building has an address based on a landmark that doesn’t even exist anymore. The address is simply “Donde Fue La Pepsi” – where the Pepsi bottling plant used to be. The ‘donde fue’ aspect of the addresses is probably the most discombobulating part of navigating Nicaragua – later, in another town, I see an address written as “On the corner of the square, next to where the big tree used to be”!

And it’s not just Managua that uses this odd system, the whole country seems to have it. But incredibly, people don’t seem to get lost, and everything from letters to pizzas seems to get delivered correctly (although absolutely everyone, even the taxi drivers, asks for directions constantly). So the next time you have a bad day at work, just be glad that you’re not a Nicaraguan postie…

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