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Introducing Nicaragua

Smoking Volcán Concepción and her almost perfect cinder cone rise from silvery, pure Lago de Nicaragua to pierce the cloudy sky. 'Land of Lakes and Volcanoes' indeed, you think, as the rolling waves of Cocibolca (an ancient indigenous name for this 'Sweet Sea') rock your suddenly tiny ferry into unspeakable admiration. For these symbols of the nation - wind over water, fire from the earth - convey the elemental significance of Nicaragua's most powerful passions, poetry (don't get them started, unless you want to) and revolution.

If you climb Concepción you'll look out over gorgeous colonial Granada and her hundreds of tiny tropical isletas (islets), across the slender isthmus pockmarked with crater lakes to where the Pacific breaks hollow on sandy cove beaches. Beyond, red-and-black Volcán Momotombo towers above Lago de Managua - its counterpoint is Sandino's massive iron silhouette, conscience of the nation and solemn defining feature of the Managua skyline. Proud León also beckons with its churches and museums, while the cloud forests, frothing waterfalls and incredible coffee of cool, green Northern Nicaragua may tempt you upwards. Here, in the mountains and lakes, Central America's mightiest rivers begin their journey across the autonomous, indigenous-owned rolling hills of the Caribbean Coast, to the sea.

For visitors of a certain age, just the name Nicaragua - taken from a tribal chief of such wisdom and power that he may never fade from this nation's collective memory - evokes grainy footage of camouflage-clad guerrillas, punctuated by gunfire and a 1980s soundtrack. Despite having ended more than 15 years ago, leaving Nicaragua one of the safest countries in the Americas, the Contra War is too often our collective memory of the land of Nicarao.

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