BY LARRY BLEIBERG
The Dallas Morning News
January 8th, 2006
LEON, Nicaragua - I was roaming through an art gallery on a spring afternoon when a brass band shattered the silence.
Outside, six men bore a platform supporting a papier-maché Virgin Mary praying over a fallen Jesus. All faced a priest, who recited Bible verses into a megaphone.
I abandoned the gallery and for the next hour joined hundreds of residents -- old women, fathers with toddlers on their shoulders, cotton-candy salesmen, musicians and others -- who waved palm fronds and wound through the streets of this colonial city. Together we marked the Stations of the Cross.
Similar scenes were unfolding throughout Central America in the weeks leading up to Easter, but here's the difference: I was one of three foreigners I spotted in the crowd.
We were part of a growing stream of travelers to Nicaragua. Once known as the land of Contras, Sandinistas and civil war, this nation of 5.1 million has quietly reverted to its more familiar status as a peaceful backwater. And tourists are starting to respond.
Some have called it the new Costa Rica, but that's misleading. Visitors won't find the vast national parks or rich wildlife of its neighbor. Instead, Nicaragua offers something else: a traditional Central American country that's relatively easy for Americans to visit.
Fifteen years ago, Nicaragua voted the Communist Sandinistas out of power. The civil war ended, and the country began to rebuild. There still is political intrigue, but nothing that should worry the traveler.
EASY TO VISIT
Although it's still one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, visitors who stick to popular tourist areas and take basic precautions can avoid problems with crime.
During a week, I traveled a few hundred miles along the western coast. In the university town of Leon, history and geography were on display. From the roof of its massive cathedral, I counted 13 volcanoes, four active.
To the south, I spent several days in Granada, a pastel-painted colonial town undergoing a real-estate boom as residents who fled during the civil war return to rebuild. On a kayak trip winding among tiny islands in nearby Lake Nicaragua, I paddled through waterways shimmering with fallen orange blossoms.
Other journeys took me on a creaky ferry to the island of Ometepe. It's home to two active volcanoes, banana plantations and native Indians. During the civil war, it remained a sanctuary from the violence that tore the rest of the country. It still feels like part of another world.
And I wandered through San Juan de Oriente, one of the country's several craft villages, where potters dig clay behind their homes and fashion platters, plates and bowls they offer for sale.
I ended my visit at a new Pacific coast ecoresort. It's a place where troops of monkeys howl from trees and flocks of parrots swirl overhead, yet the open-air restaurant serves fresh French bread.
The hotel, Morgan's Rock, has quite a back story. The area was once destined for international fame. But Washington politics and fear of volcanoes killed the plan in the late 1800s. Instead, Panama got the canal.
It might have been a blessing. Except for its civil war, the country has been spared most of the past century's hustle. What visitors find now is an overlooked destination ripe for exploring.
• Getting there: Most travelers will enter Nicaragua at its international airport in Managua. Taca International and American Airlines fly nonstop from Miami, with round-trip airfare starting around $465. It's possible to journey on your own with rental car or by bus, but it can be rough travel. Organized trips can be arranged by tour agencies, listed at www.visit-nicaragua.com.
Alternatively, many visitors are adding Nicaragua to a Costa Rica trip. Travel firms such as the established Costa Rica Expeditions are now offering Nicaragua itineraries too. Contact: www.nicaraguaexpeditions.com.
• Safety: Although it's tempting to call Nicaragua a peaceful paradise, travelers should be wary of crime. Managua's market and downtown area have had problems with petty crime.
• Where to stay: In Leon, I stayed in a converted convent, Hotel El Convento. Double rooms run $87, with breakfast. Contact: (011-505) 311-7053; www.hotelelconvento.com.ni.
Granada has several colonial-era hotels, which center around interior courtyards. I stayed at Hotel la Casona de los Estrada. Like others in the city, it had an occasional power outage, but was comfortable, furnished with antiques. Double rooms run $70 to $80, with breakfast. Contact: (011-505) 552-7393; www.casonalosestrada.com.
Morgan's Rock, about two hours south of Granada, near the town of Rivas, offers eco-luxury on the Pacific. Rooms are $195-$220, per person per night, and include all meals and local drinks. Contact: (011-506) 296-9442; www.morgansrock.com.
• Information: (011-505) 254-5191; www.visit-nicaragua.com.