Nicaragua’s capital city is an overflowing cauldron of people, poverty and dirt on the shores of the Lago de Managua. Although it’s the entertainment, commercial and transport hub of Nicaragua and home to over a quarter of its entire population, rebuilding the city in the wake of natural (two earthquakes in the twentieth century) and manmade (the 1970s revolution) disasters has been so slow that it still resembles a large sprawling suburb with no identifiable city centre.
Many visitors find Managua less than enticing but there are some attractions nestled among the shopping centres, empty dirt spaces, busy markets and ramshackle buildings. The main sights surround the Plaza de la Democracia. The Teatro Rubén Darío is considered one of the best venues in Central America; here you can watch music and dance performances and the chandeliered Sala de Cristales hosts rotating international art exhibitions. The Huellas de Acahualinca museum has ancient footprints of people and animals trying to escape a volcanic eruption, while the Museo Revolución offers an insight into the Sandinista revolution of 1978-9.
Granada, Nicaragua’s oldest colonial city, was once the major transit point for shipments of gold and other minerals mined from across the Spanish empire – a position that brought it fantastic wealth. Its fortunes have waned since then and now it’s a quiet, inviting place with plenty of colonial architecture to wander around; most of its major attractions including the Cathedral and Parque Colón are within a few blocks of each other. Branching out from the city you can explore Lake Nicaragua (only 15 minutes walk away), the brooding volcano Volcán Mombacho and the tropical hiking paradise of Isla de Ometepe on the lake.
The Corn Islands (Islas de Maíz), 70 km off the east coast of Nicaragua, are perfect for fishing, diving and doing absolutely nothing. Most people head to Big Corn Island (only about six sq. km) with its reasonable selection of tourist facilities. Those looking for real seclusion however, journey a further 18 km to Little Corn Island (1.5 sq. km) which has no resorts, cars or roads and a supremely relaxed atmosphere. Like its bigger brother it has quintessential Caribbean beaches lapped by warm water, with colourful reefs and fish in abundance. There is talk that an Italian company is planning to invest $30 million in the island so anyone attracted by its remoteness should visit soon before construction gets underway.
Known as ‘La Perla del Septentrión’ (Pearl of the north), probably because of its relatively cool climate, Matagalpa is a small, quiet town in the heart of coffee plantation country. Many visitors come here on their way to the hiking trails of Selva Negra National Park but Matagalpa is well worth a stopover if only to watch the clouds descend from the surrounding blue mountains and come to rest on the rooftops of the town.
The town is home to a significant German, Italian and American immigrant population, many of whom moved here in the nineteenth century and give it a cosmopolitan air. Its major attractions are the Catedral de san Pedro and the big Sandinista monument on the north of the pleasant Parque Morazán. You can also buy local artensanísa including interesting black pottery (ceramíca negra). The style of this pottery suggests a link between the indigenous people of the area and the Maya since the only other place this type of craftsmanship is found is in southern Mexico.