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Good advice, overall. Managua was a modern skyscraper city when an earthquake leveled it in 1972. It never fully recovered. (The wholesale theft of relief aid by Somoza and his cronies didn't help.) Lacking a downtown core, it's less a city and more like a patchwork of neighborhoods alongside polluted Lake Managua.
Nonetheless, the capital does have its attractions. Just outside the city limits, the Masaya volcano is one of only four in the world that keeps a constant pool of lava in its crater. Another site, the Huellas de Acahualinca (Footprints of Acahualinca), has 6,000-year-old human footprints that were pressed into volcanic mud before the Great Wall of China or the Egyptian pyramids were built.
At the Plaza of the Republic, the crumbling gray ruins of the Old Cathedral are an eerie testament to two major earthquakes: in 1931, shortly after the cathedral was completed, and the one in 1972. Looking through the upper windows, we could see angels still going about their heavenly business, dappled in sunlight by the holey roof.
And standing in the nearby National Palace of Culture the day after our arrival, Rob and I listened as a guide related how this pastel building -- which holds a motley collection of pottery shards, geothermal models and taxidermy specimens -- once housed the national assembly.
"A group of 24 Sandinistas dressed as National Guardsmen infiltrated on Aug. 22, 1978," the guide said. "They took everyone hostage, including the entire congress."
I didn't tell the guide that on that day, my mother, a secretary, was one of those hostages. When I was old enough, she told me that until she was released two days later, she was sure that she was going to die there.
If you want to stay near Nicaragua's populated Pacific coast (the east, an experience itself, is still mostly undeveloped), the colonial city of Granada is a better home base than Managua. Spread out in the shadow of the majestic Mombacho Volcano (now a beautiful cloud forest reserve), it was a Chorotega Indian settlement when the Spanish settled there in 1524, establishing it as one of the oldest cities in the Americas.
Thankfully, Granada was spared the worst of the fighting during the civil war. Its colonial architecture is striking and in recent years has been spruced up. In the town square, horse-drawn buggies offer rides by the neighborhood's pastel-painted houses, many with Spanish-style central courtyard patios. Wooden rockers beckon from covered walkways, and at night, restaurants are filled with the sound of wandering mariachis. The city has also become a center for night life, with people driving the 45 minutes from Managua for a good meal, drinks and maybe a late night at one of its discos.
It has also, controversially, become a hot real estate market for international buyers, most notably of the small volcanic islands that sit off Granada's shore in Lake Nicaragua.
"I think it's a little bit scary to go to Granada and see foreigners all over the place," says Richard Leonardi, who started a local tour company (since sold) in 1996. "You can destroy paradise pretty easily. But not everyone feels that way. And they haven't paved it for a parking lot quite yet."
For me, worries about overdevelopment jostled against happiness at the comfort of our hotel room, with its balcony on the main plaza, and pride at how beautiful the city looked. At dinner that night, two mariachis in maroon suits found willing listeners at our table.
"A romantic song, 'Besame Mucho,' " the younger one kept suggesting. But I wanted to hear Nicaraguan classics such as "Cristo Ya Nacio en Palacaguina," a revolution-era song imagining Jesus being born in Nicaragua. I cried when I got them. It was good to be home.