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Nicaragua In the News

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This lush, coffee-growing Central American nation - once the proposed site for what would become the Panama Canal - was the flashpoint of the nefarious Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980s. After the Marxist Sandinistas deposed a decades-old dictatorship in 1979, the Reagan administration began funding right-wing counterrevolutionaries, or "contras," setting off a bloody struggle that didn't end until 1990, when the Sandinistas declared open elections (which they lost). For decades the nation was a morass of poverty, land mines, gunfire, and drug smuggling. If you were traveling here, you were either working for the CIA or at risk of getting caught in the Cold War crossfire. But, as democratization came with the 1990 elections, so did tourists seeking secluded beaches, surf breaks, and highland hideaways. Nicaragua is now the most intriguing nation to visit in Central America; think Costa Rica without all the gringos, their overcrowded surf camps, and booming beachfront real estate.

- Adventures

For a soothing day trip, kayak out to Las Isletas, the 365 islands strewn across Lake Nicaragua outside of Granada, to watch flights of tropical birds and explore an old Spanish fort with views across the lake. It's all just a prelude to a journey to Lake Nicaragua's Isla de Ometepe, an island composed of two linked volcanoes worth a few days' visit with a mandatory hike to the picturesque San Ramon waterfall. North of Granada the burbling Masaya caldera is the keystone of Nicaragua's largest national park, Parque Nacional Volcan Masaya - a wonderland of fumaroles and crumbled lava rock.

Nicaragua's Atlantic coast shelters one of its most famous outdoor destinations - the sleepy beaches and the tranquil coral reefs of the Corn Islands - but the Pacific coast is also the spot for surfing, and a slowly growing host of surf camps. Locals will haul surfers out to hidden breaks. To really explore off the beaten path, head inland to the coffee farms and the misty green hills of the Matagalpa highlands. Eco-minded travelers should stop at the Finca Esperanza Verde, a bucolic lodge surrounded by organic coffee plants, waterfalls, and butterflies.

- Tours

Tours Nicaragua offers the widest and "greenest" range of trips in the country, which include expeditions into the rain forest, hiking and kayaking excursions, beach adventures, and the mandatory zipline outings. In the highlands Matagalpa Tours creates customized itineraries with adventures that include caving and multiday hikes with overnight stays in the houses of local campesinos. (www.toursnicaragua.com; www.matagalpatours.com)

- Required reading

Moon Nicaragua by Joshua Berman and Randall Wood (Avalon Travel, 2008). Also check out Berman and Wood's Nicaragua travel website and forum (www.gotonicaragua.com). The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War by Gioconda Belli (Anchor, 2003) is the gripping memoir of an upper-class Nicaraguan woman who fights with the Sandinistas.