If you talk to older Central Americans, some may tell you that Managua was once the most pleasant capital city in the region. Until an earthquake in 1972, Managua boasted an elegant colonial city center on the southern shore of Lake Managua, once a scenic highlight.
That earthquake was the beginning of a series of tumultuous events that would transform Managua - and Nicaragua - leaving the country’s politics, and the city’s development, unresolved. Today, Managua’s old city center is lacking new development and locals will tell you to avoid Lake Managua, which is badly polluted.
Contemporary Managua is a city without a center. Anchored by a handful of shopping centers and covered in lush tropical foliage, development professionals living here often describe this city of approximately one million residents as more like a large village, with all the accompanying advantages and frustrations.
Poor but relatively safe
Nicaragua is poor, but it is sparsely populated. Even Managua lacks the concrete jungle feeling of so many other Latin American cities. Perhaps above all else, foreigners visiting Managua appreciate its relative lack of crime and violence. Nicaragua’s neighbors Guatemala and El Salvador have some of the highest homicide and crime rates in Latin America.
In fact, ask expats in Nicaragua what they like best about the country, and it may be less than a minute before they happily tout the country’s status as the safest nation in Central America. For expatriates living in a region acutely aware of the growing violence of the “maras,” or gangs, in other parts of Central America, Managua’s relatively relaxed atmosphere is a huge attraction.
“It’s like a green park. It’s a big town,” retired German Technical Cooperation development worker and longtime Managua resident Manfred Marotzke said. “Compared to how many people live here, I think it’s very safe.”
But while the city and country’s dispersed population may help reduce crime, it also makes transportation difficult. For visitors from more traditionally designed, centralized cities, Managua’s decentralized urban sprawl can be disorienting.
“You end up living in your car and driving everywhere,” Population Services International Country Representative Norbert de Anda said.
A cheap but unattractive and unsafe bus system doesn’t help. For long-term residents, having a car in Managua is almost a requirement, aid workers said.
“Without a car it’s impossible,” GTZ’s Marotzke said. “The bus is ugly and with a taxi you have to bargain every time.”
Light traffic and easy parking also favor owning a private car. For short-term visitors, taxis are plentiful and cheap, with most rides within the city costing just a few dollars. But taxis in Nicaragua are collective, meaning you may be sharing a ride with other passengers. Although generally safe, this system has also led to assaults.
The good news for visitors without cars is that while there is no official city center, much of the international business, including development offices and embassies, is clustered along the southern part of the Carretera Masaya, one of the city’s main thoroughfares.
Many of the city’s hotels, businesses and malls - which serve as de facto city centers - are also clustered along the southern part of the Carretera Masaya, beginning with the Metrocentro shopping center. Metrocentro serves as one of the city’s main focal points. The upper-middle class neighborhoods of Los Robles, Altamira and Reparto San Juan, where many aid groups have offices, are also close to Metrocentro.
Solidifying Metrocentro’s role as a city center is the adjacent Inter-Continental Hotel, regarded as one of the best in Managua and a common destination point for international visitors and development professionals. The Hilton Hotel Princess is also in this area and is another popular accommodation for foreign visitors.
Los Robles in particular is a green and shady neighborhood with restaurants and cafes catering to the neighborhood’s expat community and middle-class Nicaraguans. Many European development agencies have their national headquarters here, including SNV, Oxfam, Plan, and the European Commission.
According to SNV Country Representative Noemi Danao, Los Robles “seems to be the place that people are moving to.”
Los Robles is also a walkable neighborhood, with cafes and restaurants catering to international tastes. The local café chain Casa del Café has an outlet in Los Robles and is famous for its high-quality coffee and pastries. It also has Wi-Fi access and is a comfortable place to catch up on cyber-communications. Another popular restaurant for expatriates in Los Robles is Ratatouille, a French-owned bistro near many of the European organizations housed in the area.
Adjacent to Los Robles on the other, western, side of the Carretera Masaya are two additional neighborhoods that house international development organizations and residents: Altamira and Reparto San Juan.
Altamira lies just southwest of Los Robles, making it a safe and central alternative to stay for visitors. The Hostal San Augstin is a popular choice for international travelers seeking an economic and homey base in Managua. Discounts are offered for long-term stays.
Reparto San Juan, northwest of Altamira and west of Los Robles, also offers popular bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations such as La Pyramide, operated by Marotzke. La Pyramide offers free Wi-Fi and is close to NGOs like the International Democratic Institute, Care, Habitat for Humanity, and Catholic Relief Services.
Many long-term expats also live father south on Carretera Masaya in the Santo Domingo and Las Colinas neighborhoods. These neighborhoods are often gated communities with fewer restaurants and other walkable attractions compared to the more accessible Los Robles, Altamira, and Reparto San Juan neighborhoods.
Just as foreign residents and the Nicaraguan upper-middle class have moved toward the higher and cooler reaches of Carretera Masaya, so Managua’s newest and most upscale shopping center lies on the city’s southern outskirts. Galerias Santo Domingo isn’t only a large, modern shopping mall, but also serves as a social center replete with cafes, restaurants, bars and discos.
The two-story fortress-like complex also boasts banks, a high-end supermarket and traditional Western shopping fare ranging from RadioShack to Tommy Hilfiger. It’s a common destination for Managua’s expat crowd.
“It’s the most foreigner-friendly mall,” PSI’s de Anda said. “You can get backup battery packs for your iPods. It’s all there.”
But if going to a mall for entertainment isn’t appealing, Managua has other options where you are more likely to find a more mature clientele.
The Zona Hippo entertainment cluster is closer to Metrocentro and the more international neighborhoods noted above. This collection of restaurants and bars is also near the Hilton Princess Hotel and includes sports and cocktail bars that draw tourists, students and local office workers. One particularly popular bar with expats and travelers is Tercer Ojo.
Further from the Los Robles, Reparto San Juan, Altamira cluster, but a major Managua cultural institution and gathering place for foreign visitors, is La Casa de los Mejia Godoy. Owned by two brothers, this rustic space hosts live music with a focus on Nicaraguan folk acts. For many expatriates, including development volunteers and professionals, it’s a must-see stop on the city’s nightlife scene.
But overall, in a country where the large majority of citizens earn less than $2 per day, visitor seeking a huge entertainment and social scene are likely to be disappointed.
“One of the negatives of Managua is that it’s dull,” Marotzke said. “For kids, there are no museums, there’s one theater, there are six or seven shopping malls, there are discotheques and that’s it. It’s a very calm social life.”
The Managua expat community is similarly informal and dispersed. The lack of political violence coupled with a friendly, Westernized populace results in an expat community that is better integrated with locals rather than clustered together and cut off from the host nation.
But tensions with the Sandinista government and a reduction in aid programs mean that formal professional networking among development workers in Managua has diminished.
“I used to meet with the Canadians and the British, but they went away,” said Tim O’Hare, the USAID Nicaragua mission’s senior economist. “There were mesas sectorales [sectoral roundtables]. They were pretty strong at one time. Because of the electoral fraud … we haven’t been able to meet … other embassies and donor agencies have found it much more difficult to work with the government.”
But development workers in Managua have found creative ways to build networks in spite of the lack of formal organizations.
“Many people who have kids abroad understand that that’s the best way to expand your network,” PSI’s de Anda said. “All the parents of my son’s schoolmates tend to be working in international work.”
De Anda said his family has also found networks though health clubs and schools.
And while the development community isn’t cohesive, it is relatively large for a country as small as Nicaragua, according to USAID’s O’Hare.
“It’s not like living in Brazil, Lima or Mexico City, but you still have a fairly sizable and engaged donor community,” he said, adding that he estimates about 1,000 development-related professionals in the country.
Although there is no formal expat community publication, most international organizations announce local vacancies through the newspapers El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa. The Web site ViaNica also provides helpful information in English on Nicaraguan culture, geography, entertainment and news.
Low cost of living
International visitors to Managua who end up staying in the country long-term are able to do so at a fraction of the cost of living in Europe or the United States.
Housing is particularly inexpensive. A comfortable two-bedroom apartment in a desirable part of town can be found for $500 a month. A single-family home with pool and other amenities averages about $1,000. Less comfortable and smaller accommodations are even cheaper.
Food is also cheap.
“A typical meal would be $5 dollars and would take care of your needs,” de Anda said, cautioning that this would be “a pretty starchy diet with beans and rice and some kind of banana.”