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SPECIAL ISSUE: Mexico / Latin America

Nicaragua: It's Not What You Think

With calm returned, the country's steamy jungles and sweeping shores beckon the adventurous.

October 13, 1996|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Katz is a Times national correspondent based in Houston

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — For much of its recent history, revolution has been Nicaragua's top tourist draw.

After the Sandinista insurrection toppled the regime of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, travelers tended to be either sandal-clad leftists, CIA-backed mercenaries or a fact-finding medley of politicians and clergy. Not exactly a typical vacation crowd. The country was turbulent enough to earn a chapter in P.J. O'Rourke's gonzo travelogue, "Holidays in Hell."

As a college student in the mid-1980s, I was among those curious visitors, ignoring what was then a U.S. ban on direct travel to the newly socialist republic. Although it was remarkable watching a revolution (and, as it turned out, a counterrevolution) in progress, I kept wanting to bail out of my official Sandinista tour bus and savor the natural Nicaragua. There was a rich, sensual quality to the place, an almost primeval beauty that no political upheaval could quash.

This summer, I finally got my chance, returning to Nicaragua for a family vacation with my wife, Raynelda, and our 3-year-old son, Max. Raynelda is from Nicaragua (although she was living in Los Angeles when we met) and we did plan to spend several days in Managua visiting my in-laws. But beyond that, our goal remained essentially the same as any other tourist's in the tropics: take in the beaches, the forests and the island-studded lakes.

Our reward was a splendidly exotic trek across Central America's largest country, one of the wildest, steamiest, earthiest places I've ever been. While Costa Rica has become an eco-tourist haven and Belize a diver's mecca, Nicaragua is less tamed--an overgrown place that is impossibly green, a psychedelic verdure that runs from electric cucumber to dusky jade.

Nicaragua spans the Central American isthmus, from the Pacific Coast to the Caribbean. It includes tropical jungle and crisp, rugged highlands. Managua, the confounding capital city that served as our base for touring the country, is sandwiched between two mammoth lakes. Volcanoes sprout by the dozens. There are two seasons, dry and rainy, which roughly correspond to our winter and summer, but you can expect it to be hot and humid most of the time.

Butterflies stormed us on the road, dragonflies buzzed us in the pool and fireflies twirled around us at night. We picked mangoes, coconuts and almonds right off the trees. We worked up a sweat dancing to a Latin-Caribbean orchestra and cooled down with Nicaragua's prized Flor de Can~a rum--a sweet and insanely cheap concoction, served by the bottle with a bucket of ice and a plate of limes.

"I feel like I'm seeing my own homeland for the first time," Raynelda sighed one vnight.

Roaming the countryside in a rented car for two weeks was both an affirmation of the pleasure to be found in Nicaragua and a reminder of the inequities that keep most Nicaraguans from sharing in it.

Navigating these contradictions requires a certain pioneering spirit. Although the days of food rationing are over, don't count on finding your favorite U.S.-made products here. Phone numbers and addresses are often unhelpful. The bathrooms, as Max put it, tend toward the "yucky." While English is spoken at large hotels and upscale restaurants, some rudimentary knowledge of Spanish is crucial to getting by.

The Sandinistas were voted out of power in 1990, effectively ending the U.S.-backed Contra war, which claimed 30,000 lives. Since then, a moderate government has been struggling to rebuild and promote investment. (Next week the country is set to elect a new president; polls give the edge to an even more conservative, pro-business candidate.) The warfare is over; the travel advisories have been lifted. But Nicaragua is still poor--per capita income is only $400--and too preoccupied with its own survival to worry much about the comfort of guests.

That's not to say that it's unfriendly or dangerous. Nicaragua felt placid, even sleepy at times. The only precautions we took were common-sense things, such as steering clear of rural roads after dark, storing cash in a money belt and keeping a tight grip on our camcorder.

Still, we saw disparities everywhere we went. Our first night in Managua, for instance, we stayed at the Hotel Estrella, a clean but unadorned businessman's sort of a place. Outside our window, there was a giant parabolic antenna; in its shadow, a maid was hanging towels on a clothesline. Satellite TV, but no dryer for the linens.

*

All around the city, there were sleek, new 24-hour gas stations and minimarts. Nicaragua's elite can now gas up their tinted Land Cruisers while buying a six-pack of Budweiser. But on the same streets, we saw old men still pushing crude handcarts filled with firewood, the only method of cooking for Managua's swelling masses of poor.

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