As night falls over the back streets, elderly ladies drag their wooden rocking chairs out of their one-story houses onto the sidewalk. They sit, rocking and talking in the inky, warm darkness and kindly giving lost foreigners, like me and my daughter, directions to a restaurant.
As we walked back after our dinner, the ladies were still there, rocking away as a TV soap opera blared from their house and swaggering teenagers kicked a soccer ball down the street. "Did you eat well?," asked the ladies. Yes, we nodded, and chatted about where we were from, where we were going. As we left, they called out "Buen viaje" - have a good trip. That was easy in Nicaragua.
Size: The biggest country in Central America at about 50,000 square miles.
Population: About 5.7 million.
Income: Annual income is roughly $900 per person; some Nicaraguans live on a few dollars a day. The economy remains primarily agricultural, although manufacturing is increasing and tourism is growing and promoted by the government.
History: Nicaragua's Pacific coast was settled as a Spanish colony in the 1500s; cities such as Leon and Granada were founded then. Britain occupied the Caribbean coast in the early 1800s. In modern times, widespread rebellion against the long-running Somoza dictatorship resulted in a civil war in 1979 that brought the Sandinistas to power. The U.S. sponsored anti-Sandinista Contra guerrillas in the 1980s. Peace and democratic elections came by 1990.
Language: Spanish, with English spoken on the Caribbean coast. English is spoken at better hotels and restaurants in cities including the capital city of Managua, Granada, Leon and San Juan del Sur.
Religion: Roman Catholic, but evangelical Protestant churches are growing fast, with American missionaries fanning out through Nicaragua.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: Cerro Negro volcano is about 18 miles from Leon, much of it on dirt roads. A high-clearance vehicle is useful, and it's best to have a guide to explore it and Laguna del Tigre (reached via private farmland).
I went with Leon-based guide Rigo Sampson, who works with local and foreign tour companies. Among the companies offering Cerro Negro hikes:
-Tours Nicaragua, www.toursnicaragua.com, is a well-established Managua-based company that offers multiday tours throughout the country, including to Leon and Cerro Negro.
-Quetzaltrekkersis a nonprofit group based in Leon that offers day hikes of Cerro Negro and other volcanoes; its earnings support street kids, www.quetzaltrekkers.com/nichome.html.
-REI Adventures offers a 10-day, outdoors-oriented tour of Nicaragua that includes hiking Cerro Negro and other volcanoes, www.reiadventures.com or 800-622-2236.
-Las Pilas-El Hoyo Rural Tourism Cooperative manages the Cerro Negro natural reserve. With advance notice, guided hikes and horseback trips can be arranged through the group. Email: email@example.com
-Other tour companies can be contacted through Leon hotels (some hikers use wood boards for "surfing" Cerro Negro).
WHERE TO STAY: In Leon, lodging ranges from backpacker hostels to hotels in restored Spanish-colonial style buildings. One of the nicest hotels is El Convento, a reconstruction of a former convent that adjoins a 17th-century church. The one-story hotel's simple but comfortable rooms surround a courtyard garden, and its tile-floored corridors are lined with Nicaraguan art, from centuries-old ceramics to contemporary paintings. A double room is about $85 a night, including breakfast in the hotel's patio restaurant. www.hotelelconvento.com.ni/english/ or phone (011-505) 311 7053.
-The U.S. dollar is widely used in Nicaragua, although the official currency is the cordoba.
-Travelers should take precautions against mosquitoes, which can transmit malaria.
-While Nicaragua's crime rate is low compared to nearby El Salvador, travelers should beware of street crime in the capital of Managua, particularly in markets, and aboard crowded buses.
WHEN TO GO: Nicaragua is a tropical climate and hot year-round. Temperatures along the Pacific side - where the major cities and popular beaches are located - are in the 80s and 90s. The rainy season ("winter" in Nicaragua) goes from roughly May to October; the dry summer season is November to April. During my July visit, there were only brief rainstorms.
MORE INFORMATION: The Web site www.vianica.com, run in cooperation with Nicaraguan tourism offices, has extensive information on visiting Nicaragua.
The U.S. State Department has advice on traveling in Nicaragua at www.travel.state.gov.
CERRO NEGRO VIDEOS
Daredevil Eric Barone catapulted down the volcano on his mountain bike in 2001, exceeding 80 mph. A year later, the Frenchman did it again and topped 100 mph before a spectacular crash (he survived his broken bones). For videos of his Cerro Negro descents, see this story online at seattletimes.com/travel.