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Nicaragua, Eco Hot Spot

I'm talking to my daughter.

Even better, she doesn't have that annoyed don't-nag-me-mom tone in her voice. It's one of those vacation afternoons I wish would last forever—sunny skies, no place to be, no arguing, and best of all, my youngest daughter all to myself. That hasn't happened in the months since Melanie graduated from college. In fact, this is the first talk (beyond Skype) we've had since she came to Nicaragua for an internship—building an organic garden at Morgan's Rock, the eco resort that launched this country as an eco destination a decade ago.

After years of Taking the Kids, on this trip we've followed our 22-year-old daughter Melanie here to Nicaragua, which many say is fast becoming the next eco tourist's must-see destination, offering volcanoes, cloud forests, rain forests, pristine beaches, and a growing number of eco resorts. Jicaro Island Ecolodge, with just nine casitas on a private island, is ideal for a visit with older kids (as long as they're over 12) and kid-friendly Morgan's Rock is situated on one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. (Think treetop casitas with swinging hammocks on the decks that kids told me made them feel like they were staying in a treehouse.)

Nicaragua, considered the safest country in Central America, is, many say, where Costa Rica was two decades ago: pristine, with lots of beautiful beaches, friendly people, and plenty of adventures to be had. Explore volcanoes (sandboard down the Cerro Negro after you climb to the top), zip-line, go fishing, go bird-watching (there are more than 750 species, including Nicaragua's national bird, the Turquoise-browed Motmot), and surf (Sleepy San Juan del Sur is famous for its 37-mile stretch of beaches).

I found Lonely Planet's Nicaragua guide very useful in our planning. Nicaragua, we learned, is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes because of its chain of 50 volcanoes. One morning, we took a four-wheel drive up to the top of the Mombacho Volcano—some 3,600 feet (some opt to hike the entire way)—and walked around the crater—some 700 steps, more uphill than down—with a guide pointing out a howler monkey in a tree, a two-toed sloth, and all varieties of flowers and plants, including orchids, birds of paradise, poisonous plants, and others used to cure headaches and tooth pain. We peered into steaming fumaroles and a tiny canyon and then stopped at a coffee plantation on the road down.

Nicaragua is a little rough around the edges. Hardly anyone speaks English, though U.S. dollars are accepted everywhere, and you won't find any major beachfront resorts. You'll wish some of the roads were better. Service can be slow. But that just makes it all more of an adventure.

"Nicaragua. It's still virgin, less touristy, and much less expensive than Costa Rica," offered Remo Pere, the Swiss manager of the 36-room Hotel Colonial. The hotel, located about an hour's drive from Managua where we landed, was built in the style of traditional houses here in the oldest colonial city in the new world.

Rooms at Pere's hotel—considered one of the best in the city—start at less than $100 a night.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega says he wants to use tourism to combat poverty, and today tourism is the country's second-largest industry, with the country now welcoming more than a million tourists annually. This is a far cry from the 1980s during the Nicaraguan Revolution, when Nicaragua was considered a place to stay away from and locals were leaving for the United States and Costa Rica.

On this sunny day, after touring Granada, with its picturesque buildings and square and stonewalled street where bulls race during the famous August festival, we're on a floating dock in Lake Nicaragua, the second-largest lake in Latin America, at Jicaro Island Ecolodge, a short boat ride offshore from the colonial city of Granada. Many famous sites—the Masaya Craft Markets, the Mombacho Volcano—are just a short distance away. "I can't think of another place like this that is so remote and where it's so easy to see so much," said Neil Agran, visiting with his wife Erica from Chicago.

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Jicaro's owner Karen Emanuel, a successful London executive, came to Morgan's Rock on vacation in 2006 and went home with an island and an idea to build an eco lodge. She fit the lodge with the little luxuries she appreciated on vacation—good food, a good bar, bathrobes, yoga classes—and just as important, the sustainable practices she believed in, from locally sourced food to products that support a local school and those who create handicrafts.

"The few things that aren't local are the yoga mats and the tea, which is from England," Emanuel says. It's been a while since I've seen so many things on a menu I want to eat: Gazpacho or pulled chicken sandwich for lunch? Chimichurri steak, fresh fish with orange sauce, or chicken cooked with local rum for dinner? There are freshly fried plantain chips, salads with local organic cheese.

Forty percent of people in Nicaragua live in poverty, and Emanuel hopes she is doing her part, not only by employing her 30-person staff and supporting local farmers but also doing what she can to change people's perceptions about this country.

When she first told friends about Nicaragua, Emanuel said, "People would say they thought it was dangerous. Now people say, 'I've always wanted to go there.'"

I'm certainly glad we did, following the kids for a change.

(c) 2014 Eileen Ogintz Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

(Photos: Dick Washburne and Morgan’s Rock)

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