GRANADA, Nicaragua — I came to Nicaragua to climb a volcano, to listen to howler monkeys scream in the trees of a rain forest and to walk along a deserted beach, watching the sun flame out at the end of day, turning the sea and sky ablaze.
I did all those things and more in this star-crossed Central American nation, a place where culture, history and nature combine to offer visitors some of the hemisphere's most diverse experiences.
Nicaragua, which calls itself "the next Costa Rica," has much to commend it: large tracts of nature reserves; sleepy surf towns; dozens of volcanic peaks; rain forests rich with biodiversity; seemingly endless, undeveloped beaches; and charming colonial cities alive with culture.
There's just one catch: Nicaragua has an image problem. People either haven't heard of its, or they associate it with decades of political turbulence. And, indeed, during the 20th century, it saw civil war, foreign intervention, dictatorship and revolution. More recently, it was buffeted by pro-Marxist Sandinistas.
The fighting ended nearly 15 years ago, and now the country's tourism bureau is bullish on development. Officials want the world to know Nicaragua is safe and open for business.
"Crime isn't an issue here," said Victor Gonzalez of the nation's INTUR tourism board. "Unfortunately, people around the world don't know that."
I'd been hearing about the "new Costa Rica" for a couple of years and finally wanted to see for myself. A friend and I had traveled to Costa Rica 20 years ago, when it was beginning to develop a tourist infrastructure. Could Nicaragua, its neighbor to the north, match it? I called my friend Marty and suggested a return trip to the region.
Full disclosure: I'm hooked on Central America. I love the culture and crafts of Guatemala, the undersea treasures of Belize, the cloud and rain forests of Costa Rica. Best of all, I love the hard-working, friendly people of the region.
Nicaragua didn't disappoint. If anything, my love affair only deepened when I met the Nicas, the nickname for Nicaraguans. People such as Don Cristóbal, whose lumbering oxen and cart had been headed south on the Pan-American Highway when he saw me taking pictures. He smiled and pulled to the side of the road, with semi-trucks whizzing by us, to tell me about his load of rice and to pose for a photo.
Then I met the Rubio Lopez family, whose small home on the side of the Mombacho volcano seemed a good spot to take a break after the hike to the top. I met their six children, three dogs and a burro. They showed me around their garden and offered me sweets.
I loved the interaction. I also appreciated a chance to rest for a few moments.
We had arrived in Nicaragua late the night before and gotten up just after dawn for the trip to the volcano. The 4,400-foot peak, which looms over the colonial city of Granada, sits at the edge of vast Lake Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America and the 19th largest in the world.
Mombacho is active, but not to worry — it hasn't erupted in more than 500 years. Like most visitors, we'd caught a ride part way up the mountain, then taken a loop trail that circles one of the volcano's four craters, eventually entering a mist-clouded forest filled with fallen, moss-covered trees.
A thick forest canopy overhead blocked the sun's direct rays. Orchids and ferns grew wild, small monarch butterflies fluttered across our path, and howler monkeys bayed like Arthur Conan Doyle's hounds of the Baskervilles.
The trail eventually moved into the open, and we passed steamy fumaroles — vents where hot smoke and gases emerged from the side of the volcano. Then we came across lookouts with awesome views of Lake Nicaragua, Granada and Las Isletas, a group of 365 tiny islands in the lake.
We'd been hiking in the heat all morning. Now, with the sun almost directly overhead, we began to wilt. Someone had told me that Mombacho was home to 127 varieties of orchids; I felt like one that had been picked and left out in the noonday sun to shrivel and die.
"So happy to have done this," Marty said as we left the volcano. "So happy not to be doing it again tomorrow."
We headed toward Granada, one of the oldest cities in Central America, founded in 1524 by Spanish explorer and slave trader Francisco de Córdoba. Like many Nicaraguan travelers, we purposely avoided Managua, the noisy capital city, in favor of this colonial gem.
Granada was everything I had heard it would be. Much of its Spanish-era architecture is intact, and postcard-like scenes can be found everywhere: in the square, where well-dressed horses pull taxis filled with visitors; in the narrow streets lined with the colorful facades of homes that open into inner courtyards; and at the bright yellow Granada Cathedral, the city's iconic landmark.
In the Costa Rica versus Nicaragua race, score one for Nicaragua. Costa Rica doesn't have cities like Granada, where the past is alive and has become the present. Or, as a guide said disdainfully, "Costa Rica doesn't have history. We have history."