Hotter than an oven and crisscrossed by anonymous highways, there can't be a more tourist-unfriendly capital than MANAGUA . Less a city in the European sense than a conglomeration of neighbourhoods and commercial districts, Managua offers few sights or cultural experiences of the type you can have in other Central American cities -

in fact, most visitors are so disturbed by the lack of street names or any real centre to the city that they get out as fast as they can.Being a tourist in Managua does require some tenacity, but there are things to enjoy, and as Nicaragua's largest city and home to a quarter of its population, the city occupies a key position in the nation's economy and psyche. Unfortunately, it's difficult as a tourist in Managua to enter into "real" Nicaraguan life unless you have a local contact, due both to the lack of public spaces and meeting places like cafés or galleries and the fact that Managuans' social life is based in their own neighbourhoods, in churches, discos and playgrounds.

Eating and Drinking

Wherever you walk in Managua - on the street, at the bus stop or even under a shady tree - you will find someone selling a drink or a comida corriente . Good, cheap food on the hoof is also easy to get in any of Managua's major markets - look out for pupusas , a Salvadorean concoction of cheese, tortillas, sauce and meat. Hygienically speaking, the food is safe to eat, and you can get a decent meal for as little as a dollar. Managua also has a surprisingly cosmopolitan selection of restaurants : Chinese, German, French, Italian, Peruvian, North American - even vegetarian. Cafés are thin on the ground, though, and the ones that do exist tend to be frequented by expats and wealthier Managuans.

Entertainment

There are plenty of places to drink and dance in Managua. Some of them are crowded with the young and reckless teenagers of the Nica rich. Others have grandmothers and adolescents dancing to the same music. The venues are often large ranchos, or palm-covered shelters, open to the warm Managua night air and whatever cooling breeze there happens to be. Most Nicas are fans of either rancho music (not unlike "country" - fairly unsophisticated and raucous) or merengue, but you can also hear plenty of salsa, disco and occasionally reggae.

Women generally don't go out dancing without a male escort as it can be dangerous on the street at night. Beware of overcharging in the shadier places - keep the bottles on the table and keep track of the bill if in doubt. While there have been reports of travellers being stung with outrageous bills and ending up in jail for non-payment, all the venues listed here should be OK. A beer that costs US$0.50 at a shop will cost you US$0.70-1.50 in a bar

Shopping

Managua's best shopping is to found in its characterful and varied markets . The Mercado de Mayoreo in barrio La Concepción, near the airport, is divided into separate areas or buildings for different types of produce: onions, lettuces, seafood, eggs, chickens, plantains and so on, and you can get a cheap meal at the market café while waiting to board buses heading north. In contrast, the famous Mercado Oriental , a few blocks southeast of the old centre, is a small, lawless city-within-a-city where you can buy just about anything, but need to keep a close eye on your pockets - take someone with you to watch your back and help carry your stuff. In the streets around the entrance to the market are several shops selling furniture and electrical goods. If you can carry it, it's worth buying a rocking chair here: beautifully made, they cost around US$25, and can be bought disassembled for carrying onto the plane.

Markets apart, in these post-revolutionary days you can buy anything you want in Managua, and there are now plenty of large supermarkets along the Carretera Norte, as well as the well-stocked La Colonia supermarket just off Plaza España. You can also buy a lot of the basics at local pulperías , small shops set up in people's houses, which are never more than a couple of blocks away. Fruit and vegetables are cheapest at the weekend markets, when the growers come into town to sell their produce. Fresh produce tends to be more expensive elsewhere, unless you go to some of the bigger markets like the Oriental and the Mayoreo.