In an effort to stretch our shopping dollars, and also to escape Tamarindo for the weekend, my wife and I made plans to shop in Managua, Nicaragua. We were in for an adventure.
This actually happened in November — ‘twas the season — but you may find our experience enlightening at any time of the year, whether you’re in the market for gifts, new clothes or home furnishings.
We already knew that prices in Granada and San Juan del Sur were lower than in Tamarindo, but Managua we hadn’t conquered. I can’t say for sure if we finally did, but we learned many lessons. You’re going to thank me so much for our hard work.
The biggest lesson we learned was that size doesn’t matter. We searched Google for “shopping in Managua.” The hits included endless blogs and even a Wikipedia page. As part of that search, we discovered that the Centro Comercial Managua had over 200 shops, compared to the paltry 100 or so at the Galerías Santa Domingo. By accident, we would learn that more was not better. We’ll come back to that.
In the end we found it boiled down to a couple of key factors. Shopping in bright malls with a fewer but better stores was superior to the dank megamalls full of stores we wouldn’t shop. The good news is, you don’t have to travel too far from the main clump of good shopping spots, another tidbit we wish we’d known beforehand.
The road out of Granada is the 4. It’s an easy drive, less congested than Costa Rican roads even on Black Friday. In fairness, the clear roads could have been due to Hurricane Otto that had just swept through the night before. Like I said, adventure.
As you approach Managua proper, the 4 widens in places to two lanes. That’s when things slow down, especially at traffic signals. For our purposes, we’d agreed to stop at out first mall before checking into the hotel. We’d left early to beat the border crowds so we had plenty of time.
“It’s up on your left,” I told Cristina, pointing. My point paused mid-air, then slid right to the three-story Seussian trees in the middle of the roundabout. One was painted Pepto Bismol, the other eggplant. I’d read of their existence, but wasn’t prepared for how big they were. The Trees of Life, as they are called, are large metal, light-up trees “planted” all over Managua.
“Wow,” was all Cristina could say as she tried to keep her eyes on traffic.
There were Black Friday signs and Black Friday lunatics everywhere. The Galerías, our first stop, appeared to be under construction. Corrugated metal dividers separated the mall parking lot from the roads in places like a war zone.
Galerías Santo Domingo
Modern mall with a large food court, a couple of hip shops and a department store.
Inside the Galerías, it’s lovely. It reminded me of malls we used to frequent in Southern California. On one end of the mall was a large food court, with all the familiar chains you know, but a few you don’t. We were hungry, so we started there. After lunch and a cup of coffee, we were ready. One forgets how to shop the mall when it’s not part of every weekend.
“Let’s meander to the other end, where Siman is, then we can hit these small shops on the way back,” I suggested, walking away from the food court.
“Something between a Sears and a Macy’s, from what I’ve read.”
If we knew then … we could’ve stopped shopping there. Siman had most of what we wanted. There were also a couple of hip shops in the mall with decent prices, one called Pull & Bear and another called Stradivarius. They’re both Spanish fashion stores. The former reminded me of an Urban Outfitters. In addition to those shops, Levi’s Dickies, Columbia, Kenneth Kole, Victorinox, and Calvin Klein made the list of brands with storefronts amongst others. Since this was our first stop, we left empty-handed.
After checking into our hotel, we decided to shower and rest. Both of us needed a moment to recover from the chaos of border crossing, driving and shopping. We’d read that Managua was dangerous after dark, but we rarely heed these types of warnings. Instead, we do what we do anywhere in the world: Keep to main roads with our heads screwed on tight. Walmart wasn’t far from our hotel, La Posada del Arcangel. When we found it, it was like we pulled off the roads of Managua into a parking lot in Podunk, USA.
The Walmart you know, but with some different brand names.
“Remind me again why we’re here?” Cristina asked as I grabbed a large blue plastic shopping cart.
“Christmas decorations,” I snipped, shaking my head.
“We have decorations.”
“Just follow me.”
I admit, Walmart was a morbid curiosity, one I’m glad we satiated. We found a sweet new garbage container for our kitchen, the kind with a step, molded from plastic made to look like stainless steel.
“Thirty bucks. Not bad,” Cristina said, inspecting the bin. “Aren’t we supposed to be shopping for each other?”
“We need this,” I said, shoving it into our cart.
Admittedly, I’m not an avid Walmart shopper. I’m more of a Target guy, but you’ve seen one you’ve seen ‘em all. The quality seemed better in Managua’s Walmart than San José. We found no decorations, but some snacks for the hotel room and little things we needed for our place in Tamarindo.
When we left the Walmart parking lot we’d still scored a zero on Christmas presents. It was late. We were both exhausted.
“Where to in the morning?” asked Cristina as we pulled out of the parking lot.
“We’re gonna hit a mall that will make the one we went to today look like a hole in the wall.”
Not to spoil the ending, but I was so wrong. Somehow I’d crossed my wires, confusing the Multicentro with the Metrocentro. They are very different malls. Don’t make this mistake.
After an early breakfast at 7, we put on our shopping faces, but for naught. The first mall we planned to blaze through was the Plaza Inter. It was not yet open for the day.
Aging, dark Managua mall with a couple of discount retailers.
“What time does it open?” I asked the guard in my impeccable shopping Spanish.
It was 8:30. How stupid? What were we thinking? Black Friday, thanks to Amazon, has extended to the rest of the world via the internet, open 24-7. But we were still in Managua. Nobody would be open until 10, in some cases 11 a.m., Black Friday be damned.
Cristina shrugged. “Let’s take a walk,” she said.
“Towards all that stuff,” she said, pointing across the street at what looked like a parade float.
By the time the mall opened, we’d toured the roads south of the mall, driven past dozens of life-sized dioramas depicting religious scenes on the main drag, cruised the parkway along Lake Managua, taken a picture of a guard asking us to leave because we were too close to a dilapidated church, and gone back to our hotel room to chill. We had not spent a cent, but the morning was already so full.
“Déjà vu,” I said, climbing out of the car.
We were parked in the exact same spot as hours before.
“At least there are people walking around and lights on this time,” replied my wife.
“Yeah, it’s a totally different place.”
I wasn’t being sarcastic, not completely. The sleeping mall had woken up. There was a discount shop somewhere on a floor above us, but we found a Dollar Store on the first floor. It was nothing like the franchise back home. In this version they had super-cheap brand name clothes. Cristina took the men’s section; I took the women’s. This store was a good find. We both left with bags of gifts, finally.
“I scored some good stuff,” bragged Cristina as we walked out. “Where next?”
In the mall atrium, we found an artist selling jewelry made from recycled materials, aluminum, melted glass, even plastic.
“Not the usual Taiwanese import stuff we find everywhere,” I whispered to Cristina. “My mother would like some of this.”
“So would the girls.”
She meant the two employees for our pizzeria in Tamarindo. We bought three jewelry sets from the artist. It was already a better day of shopping than the day before.
The store we went to check out in Plaza Inter was called Close Out. We discovered it was a used clothing store. We’re not above used clothes, but we could buy them in Costa Rica. Plus, the store smelled funny.
There were a couple of discount shoe stores and a toy store in the Plaza Inter, but nothing more for our needs.
Thronging open-air market with tons of everything.
For the record, we did not stop at the Mercado Oriental, but we accidentally drove near it when my navigation skills lapsed. One minute we were en route to the next mall, the next we were surrounded by vendors and shoppers on all sides. The streets were lined with makeshift bamboo overhangs, covered in whatever the seller could find to cover his “store.” Brand name athletic wear and other fashion on the first block gave way to larger items like furniture. We were driving into the mouth of madness.
“Crap,” I said, looking for a way out.
“We don’t want to be here. This could get hairy.”
“What should I do?”
“Don’t panic and don’t hit that pedestrian.”
“Whoa!” Cristina slammed the brakes, but the pedestrian continued unfazed.
“Just follow my directions,” I said, pulling out my phone. “I’ll get us outta here.”
For a minute we were lost, but I rerouted us until we made it out.
“Next time we’ll go there, but with a little more planning,” I said.
“What was that?”
“That was the market I told you we weren’t going to conquer this trip.”
Our next mall was the Multicentro Las Americas. According to my research it was full of shops.
Multicentro Las Americas
Dank, aged mall with a couple of discount shops far from the commercial center.
“This is not what I expected,” I said, approaching the central section of the mall. “It looks like a swap meet.”
It was big, yes, but the walls were dingy, the lighting dim and the storefronts haggard. There was a large Christmas tree in the middle of the mall, with concentric circles of vendors selling random junk.
Cristina grabbed my arm. “Give it a minute. We came all the way here… Does that sign say ‘casino’?”
“Yes, and there is a Carrion over there. If I wanted to shop Carrion we could have stayed in San Jose.”
In case you’re not familiar, Carrion is a department store in San Jose where you can find good prices on clothes that last about a month.
We gave this mall many minutes. Most of the stores were less appealing on closer inspection, but one store was okay.
“Sorry for taking so long,” I said to Cristina, walking out with my bag of gifts for her.
“I didn’t find anything,” she confessed.
By this time I’d figured out my mistake.
“We’re getting outta this depressing mall. We’re going to the right one.”
“On the other side of town: Metrocentro Mall.”
Large modern mall, slightly older than Galerías but being upgraded.
This shopping center, after the ones we’d visited so far, was the Goldilocks mall. It was just up the 4 from the Galerías. In fact, we drove right by it the day before. At the time, I had the Metro and Multi flipped around. As far as our needs were concerned, the Metrocenter Mall was where we’d stop if there were extra time.
“They have a Siman here too,” said Cristina as we pulled into the parking lot. “Think they’ll have the same stuff as the one at Galerías?”
“Hope so, there were thing I would’ve bought yesterday had I only known what I know today.”
What we would eventually learn was that the two Siman locations do in fact sell many of the same things, but price breaks may vary. The Siman at the Galerías also had more room, so they carried a larger selection. The mall was expansive. In fact, there were construction crews working to extend it. What this mall reminded me of was that mall back home that they upgrade every 10 years or so. It never looks bad, but sometimes it looks more modern than other times. In this case, it seemed Metrocenter was at the edge of a more modern upgrade.
To maximize our time, Cristina and I split up, assigning sections of the mall with meet-up times. Since we have Costa Rican cellphones, we couldn’t call or text, not without WiFi, which was hard to coordinate. As such, after a cup of coffee, we spent little time together.
If I had to recommend one mall, this would be it. Metrocenter had the largest variety of store types, but all well-groomed locations. There was no funky developing world crumbled walls or peeling paint. Lighting was modern but tasteful. We spent several hours there without a hitch.
As we climbed back into the rental I cursed to myself, “Dang it.”
“I didn’t think you would hear me, sorry. I just remembered that I forgot about Christmas Eve.”
We always gift each other pajamas Christmas Eve.
“Oh no,” she whined.
Cristina had forgotten too.
“No problem. We can hit the Siman at the Galerías on the way home in the morning.”
“Perfect,” replied Cristina, turning over the engine. “Can we also go to that kitchenware place we passed?”
Large kitchenware outlet with quality cooking and baking gear, professional and personal.
To own quality cooking tools in Costa Rica, you can mule them in yourself or shop at Tips. There are Tips locations in Liberia and San Jose. You’ll pay for it, but you can find what you need. In Nicaragua, Alke is like Tips, but more affordable.
“I can’t find a new pala,” groaned Cristina.
Pala means peel, the tool for removing pizzas from an oven.
“We’ll have to go to Tips.”
Alke, as it turned out, was not as robust as Tips. Cristina grabbed a few more things for the pizzeria, then we checked out.
We stopped at the Galerías for Christmas Eve gifts, and then scooted home. The roads were still open. We were home in Tamarindo before sunset.
A note on consumerism: As much as we have no interest in accumulating the mountain of possessions from our formers lives, we do like to shop. To offset things, we donate clothes to CEPIA, an organization in Guanacaste dedicated to educating and helping families. We don’t buy kitsch, nor do we buy things that don’t have a regular function … unless we’re talking about my Christmas decorations. You can rip my humble box of holiday decorations from my cold, dead fingers.
We’ve shopped in Panama City, San José and now Managua. Nicaragua was an easy trip from Guanacaste the way we did it. Leave early. Rent a car from Alamo on the Nicaragua side in advance. Know where you’re going.
For our money, we preferred Panama City. Prices weren’t much better, but there were more options. In Nicaragua, once you leave the mall you know you’re in a developing country. There is no metropolis. Panama City offers so much more, not just in the malls, but also on the streets. That said flights to Panama City start around $350 per person.
We have something like 10 months to figure out the 2017 plan. Meanwhile, you know where to shop in Managua. You’re welcome.
Contact Damon Mitchell at email@example.com.