Electrical blackouts are common because of the desperately overloaded power grid; on my 10-day July visit, the power went out almost every other day, sometimes for hours (some hotels and restaurants have their own generators). Public transport is on jammed, rattling buses, most of them old American school buses, still the familiar bright yellow, but with religious sayings - "God is with us" - and portraits of the Virgin Mary emblazoned on the windshields. Only a foolhardy tourist would drink the tap water.
The upside? As long as you bring your patience, a sense of humor and a good flashlight, Nicaragua is an enticing place to travel, with remarkably courteous locals who aren't yet jaded by too many tourists. And it's inexpensive. A (very basic) room can be found for $10-$15 a night almost anywhere. A comfortable beachside cabin on the idyllic island of Ometepe is $50. A sprawling, luxurious two-bedroom vacation house (with giant TVs, American-style kitchen, icy air conditioning and pools and gardens all around) at the Piedras y Olas resort in San Juan del Sur starts at about $170 a night. The San Juan del Sur area is where the Americans are; glorious Pacific beaches lure surfers, retirees and property investors, with for-sale real-estate signs everywhere.
Hot and dusty after surfing down Cerro Negro volcano, we would have welcomed a cold shower. Instead, we drove deserted, rutted dirt roads, passing a few tiny farms and men on horseback, and hiked for a half-hour to something far better - a hidden, tranquil lake in the crater of another volcano.
Called Laguna de Asososca, the bathtub-warm lake sits hundreds of feet down in a crater, encircled by steep slopes cloaked in trees. There wasn't a building for miles or a sound except our laughter as we swam in the half-mile-wide lake, nicknamed Laguna del Tigre after the jaguars that once prowled its shores. Another volcano loomed above, vapor drifting from a rift high on its greenery-coated flank.
"It's beautiful. I swam about halfway across and just floated around in the middle with no one around me," said Andrea Dudek, a 40-year-old hiker from Austin, Texas.
Sampson, our guide, has been coming to the lake since he was a child. His father was born on a small farm in the area; the family sheltered there at times when fierce fighting between Sandinistas and the Somoza regime racked the streets of their hometown Leon. "I remember 1978 in Leon, the sound of bombs and heavy machine guns, barricades in every street," said Sampson, a man for all seasons who's an outdoors guide, a medical doctor and is running for the Leon city council.
Leon is peaceful now, a city of almost 200,000 with a university, colleges and a centuries-long tradition of liberal politics, including support of the Sandinistas. It was home to Ruben Dario, a beloved 19th-century poet who's a national hero in literary-minded Nicaragua.
Small museums and murals in Leon honor the Sandinistas and the poet Dario. But one of the true pleasures of the city is to wander the narrow streets or sit in the square in front of the ornate 18th-century cathedral, the largest in Central America, after the torrid heat of the day passes. High up in the church tower, a cassocked bell ringer tugs on a rope, clanging the massive bell for Mass. Down in the square, an ice-cream vendor slowly pedals his bicycle cart among the local families, ringing his tiny handlebar bell. Kids clamor for ice cream; their mothers sip another street vendor's product, fresh-squeezed fruit juice and ice served in a plastic bag with a straw.