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Nicaragua tourism: the next Costa Rica?

The sun shines down on lush orange mangos hanging from trees that line the road for miles, as farmers sit behind small wooden stands, selling fresh fruit to passersby.  Children can be heard laughing and playing in a nearby schoolyard.

Its like a picturesque postcard, but its definitely not the way I imagined the country of Nicaragua, a rugged place torn apart by a rampant civil war that lasted for decades.  Where were the gun-toting, camouflage wearing rebels I remember seeing on grainy television news footage years ago?

Apparently its the same image still in the minds of many Americans. "Isn't Nicaragua really dangerous?"  one woman asked me.  "Are you crazy? You could get attacked, or kidnapped" said another, after learning I was headed to the Central American country for a visit.

While crime and corruption are still a bit of concern in some parts, according to the U.S. State Department, the Nicaraguan tourism bureau is trying to change that perception, and spreading the word that its now a very different country.  "This is the safest country in the Americas" local tour guide Ernesto Ramirez told me, on a recent excursion to this rustic land.   "The police here are tough, so everyone's afraid to commit a crime" he explained.

In the years since the revolutionary war of the 70's and 80's ended, something of a democracy has developed in Nicaragua. Presidential elections were held and many of the restraints on citizens were lifted. Capitalism is now slowly invading the economy, as more businesses risk development and more services become available.

As a result, curious world travelers are gradually starting to seek out this formerly menacing place. It's no surprise, as word spreads about the miles of white sandy beaches, rain forests and mountains that have become a major draw for hikers and climbers. Unique geologic rock formations left by volcanic eruptions of the past have become sought out tourist attractions.

The climate is typically warm and tropical. Dry in the summer months of November through April and rainy in the winter months of May through October.

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The Nicaraguan scenery is not so different from the one to the south, in its neighboring country, Costa Rica. The difference is, Costa Rica has become one of the most popular destinations for globetrotters in the world. Visitors flock to its lush terrain, surfers brag about catching the best waves along the coast. Dozens of surf schools and other businesses catering to tourists have cropped up throughout the country and the Costa Rican economy has thrived because of it.

Nicaragua wants that, too. Its leaders are working with travel agencies, looking for ways to make that boon spread over the border.

Since flying to Nicaragua is not on a lot of people's agendas, tour companies try to entice people who are visiting Costa Rica to take day trips over the border. Small buses carrying sightseers travel back and forth across the border everyday. Once there, many surprised visitors want to stay for more than a day.

The effort seems to be working. Travel agents claim tourism in Nicaragua is growing at about 15 percent every year. Part of the reason might be the fact that everything is so inexpensive, especially compared to Costa Rica.

Also the Nicaraguan Tourism Board just announced a partnership with the travel company Orbitz Worldwide to offer great deals on flights and hotels. With three and four star hotels in the $80-$150 a night range, and flights from the U.S. as low as $449, deals are to be had.

While the national language is Spanish, many people in the Central American country speak fluent English. In fact, they learn it in school, often beginning when they are just five years old. New hotels, resorts, restaurants and bars are opening up on the coasts and around the colonial cities, like Granada, which at first glance looks like a pretty but faded postcard. Older Spanish style buildings border the city's center square and decorated horse drawn buggies can be hired for travel around the area.

During the time I visited Granada, dozens of artists from around the country were there, hoping to sell their paintings or sculptures or wooden carvings at the city's cultural festival. Haggling was the exercise of the day.

Local music could be heard from large speakers propped up on benches, and food carts selling things like freshly made empanadas or chicken burritos were all around.

"I'm so surprised.  I didn't know what to expect here," said Elsie Freeting, who was visiting from Canada. Freeting's husband Jim agreed. "My friends all thought I was crazy to come here, but I wanted to see it. Now I wish we could stay here longer."

Outside of the cities, the terrain is an outdoorsman's paradise. Nicaragua is home to the largest lake in Central America. A tour in a boat ride across the lake water includes passing of dozens of small islands, each one hosting a large home with a front yard, back yard and boat launch. Many of these homes are owned by people from the United States, my tour guide tells me.

Volcanoes and volcanic craters are the main attraction at the national park, which is well maintained by local geologists. Adventurous people can actually drive up toward the top of the mountains for a spectacular, breathtaking view across the valley. Up at the top, a protective metal barrier crowns the edge of one large crater, which still spews noxious gases from the lava churning deep below. A sign nearby posted in both Spanish and English warns visitors not to linger for more than 20 minutes at a time, for fear of ill effects from the fumes.

"In ancient times, people believed the volcanoes erupted because the gods were angry" one of the park's guides told us. "Animals and young virgins were sacrificed to keep the gods calm."

Apparently since that ritual ended, a lot more people have decided to visit.

Now travel agencies are designing duo country trips that combine visits to both Costa Rica and Nicaragua, and plans are being made for a cooperative marketing campaign to encourage tourism between the countries.

Nicaragua as a tourist mecca is still hard for many to imagine, but since those days of rebels ravishing the country, it seems to have come a long way.