LEON, Nicaragua -- With a grin and quick pace, guide Rigo Sampson led a small group of hikers up a steep trail to the top of Cerro Negro, a stark 1,300-foot-tall volcano of black cinders, sulphur-stained rock and steaming vents.
The dark volcanic cone thrusts ominously, without a speck of vegetation, out of the lush Nicaraguan plains near the city of Leon. In this Central American country laced with dozens of volcanoes, it's one of the most active: The fierce, small volcano erupted in the 1990s, spewing rocks, ash and lava and sending farmers fleeing from nearby villages and fields.
These days, Cerro Negro has become an offbeat destination for adventurous hikers who take a steep trail to the top and then "volcano-surf" to the bottom, leaping and sliding on their feet down a very steep side of the volcano.
Standing at the summit and peering down what seemed like an almost vertical slope, I was among eight hikers who took off, one by one, to surf on our feet through the small black cinders. "Lean back, lean back," hollered Sampson as we struggled at first to find our balance, sometimes sinking shin-deep in the cinders in what felt like a wacky, tropical version of snowboarding.
It had taken us an hour to hike up to the crater's barren, windswept summit; in 10 minutes of exhilarating volcano-surfing we bounded and slid back to the bottom. Sampson, a 38-year-old avid outdoorsman (and medical doctor, handy when one "surfer" tumbled and scraped her leg), zoomed down in less than five minutes.
"Volcano-surfing" isn't what most Americans associate with Nicaragua. Instead, what lingers are images of poverty and civil war, and of the left-wing Sandinistas battling the U.S.-funded Contra insurgents in the 1980s.
Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who led Nicaragua through the overthrow of the Somoza military dictatorship and the war against the Contras, is back in power, elected last year as president. He's now 61 and much less of a revolutionary Marxist: Since a 1990 peace deal, impoverished Nicaragua has opened its doors to capitalism, foreign investment and tourism, spurring economic development that Ortega doesn't want to lose.
Tourism is growing fast, thanks to Nicaragua's dramatic landscape of verdant jungle, steaming volcanoes, white-sand beaches and Spanish-colonial cities dotted with centuries-old churches. With the neighboring, and prosperous, country of Costa Rica an example of how lucrative eco-tourism can be, Nicaragua is trying hard to protect its natural beauty, creating national parks and nature reserves and struggling to curb the logging of tropical forests.
Latin Americans and Western Europeans have been visiting Nicaragua for years, lured by a more-adventurous and less-touristy experience than Costa Rica. Americans were slower to arrive, but about 60,000 now visit each year, according to the U.S. State Department. U.S. investors are snapping up beachfront land on Pacific beaches and colonial-style homes in the cities of Granada and Leon.
It's tourism in the rough, however, outside the major cities and the sun-and-rum beach town of San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua, one of the poorer countries in the Western Hemisphere, doesn't have the efficient infrastructure of Costa Rica, its southern neighbor and Central America's tourism giant.
Roads, with the exception of the relatively well-maintained Pan-American Highway that traverses Nicaragua, can be riddled with axle-busting potholes and wandering livestock. Oxen, pigs, horses and chickens saunter among cars and the tiny tin-roofed, dirt-floored homes that edge the roads.