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.
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.
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.