A trip to Nicaragua at this time is a decision not to be made lightly. Because of the contra war, the U.S. State Department has issued an official travel advisory recommending against visiting Nicaragua.

The war is confined mostly to rural areas, so visiting cities such as Managua, Esteli, Masaya, Le'on and Granada usually poses slight risk. Travel between some cities, however, can be dangerous, depending on current conditions.

Read about Nicaragua past and present before going. The climate is so political that it is almost impossible to carry on a conversation without politics and U.S. involvement coming up.

Never take pictures of military installations (such as the maximum-security prison El Chipote, behind the Intercontinental Hotel) or disobey signs that restrict access. Even photographing some public buildings can be dangerous.

It is not a good idea to wear military-style clothing. The authorities may become suspicious and the contras, if you blunder into them, may mistake you for a government agent.

GETTING THERE: There are no direct flights from Washington (or anywhere in the United States) to Nicaragua because of the U.S. trade embargo. The best route is via a discount tour-based fare on a U.S. airline to Miami, connecting there with TACA, the Salvadoran airline. Round-trip fares from Washington start at $577 via Eastern and TACA.

Other Central American airlines serve Managua, but their usefulness to U.S. travelers depends on route, origin and destination.

It is also possible to enter Nicaragua overland on the Pan-American Highway. While this may be more colorful, it is time-consuming and far less comfortable. Given the war, it can also be risky. Not recommended.

Despite the strained relations between Managua and Washington, there are no legal restrictions on travel to Nicaragua. U.S. citizens need a valid passport. Airline passengers must exchange $60 in U.S. currency or traveler's checks at the airport. They must also pay $10 in U.S. currency or traveler's checks to leave the country via the airport. Stays longer than 30 days require permission from the immigration office in Managua.

TOURS: Witness for Peace, a nondenominational U.S. church organization opposed to U.S. policy in Central America, sponsors two-week tours three times a month for those seeking more than a vacation. Tour size is about 20 people. Accommodations and amenities are austere, with travelers staying in group homes or with poor families. Activities are heavy on politics. Participants must agree to abide by "group consensus" in decision-making, embody a "nonviolent philosophy" and attend orientation sessions. Cost is about $1,000, plus air fare. For more information, contact Witness for Peace, P.O. Box 567, Durham, N.C. 27702, (919) 688-5049.

Marazul Tours of New York offers more traditional group tours to Nicaragua: 250 W. 57th St., Suite 1311, New York, N.Y. 10107, (212) 586-3847. Recommended by the Nicaraguan Consulate.

CURRENCY: U.S. dollars are not legal currency for most transactions. Change money legally at hotel desks or Casas de Cambio (change houses). The rates at both are higher than the official exchange rate established by the government, but less than the illegal black market rate. (The government takes a dim view of black market transactions.)

Some major U.S. credit cards are acceptable at major hotels, airlines and car rental agencies. Ask your travel agent to check if yours are accepted by your hotel.

GETTING AROUND: Transportation is slow but tolerable. Buses or, in remote areas, open trucks are affordable means of getting around, but they are often crowded and filled with exhaust fumes and the occasional pickpocket. But violent crime anywhere in Nicaragua is rare, especially involving foreigners.

Taxis rarely cruise. You have to call them by phone, find a taxi stand or arrange for pickup at a scheduled time. Fares, like almost everything else in Nicaragua, are cheap by American standards.

Rental cars are available at the Intercontinental Hotel in Managua. However, prices for this luxury are steep, averaging about $400 a week. Make sure they give you plenty of gas ration coupons.

WHERE TO STAY: If the choice is up to you, I recommend either the Intercontinental or the Camino Real in Managua. Known as "the Intercon" or simply "the Hotel," the Intercontinental is not as well appointed as the Camino Real (though it has phones, bathrooms and toilet paper in each room), but is much better situated for wandering the city. Rates at both hotels are in the $65-to-$85 range.

By law, all nonresidents' hotel bills (exclusive of food, drink, laundry, etc.) must be paid in U.S. dollars at the official exchange rate, which is far below the rate obtainable from Casas de Cambio, hotel desks and on the black market. The bill for charges other than the cost of the room is presented separately and can be paid in cordobas.

Had the innkeeper in Jinotega observed this law, my 800-cordoba hotel room would have cost about $11 at the time, instead of 40 cents. But in rural areas, where foreigners are less common, this law often seems unknown or ignored.

WHERE TO EAT: Recommended restaurants in Managua, for those who eschew solidarity cuisine: Los Ranchos, Los Gauchos, Tucan, the Lobster Inn, La Marseillaise, Antojitos (which has some great pre-earthquake photos of what was once downtown Managua), the Hotel Camino Real, and breakfast and lunch buffets at the Hotel Intercontinental.

WHERE TO SHOP: If desperate for something American, from Cheez Whiz to bottled water from Miami, try getting into the Diplomatic Store, also known more accurately as the Dollar Store. Here, despite a U.S. trade embargo, one can find anything from American packaged food to GE refrigerators, bedroom suites, VCRs and even model U.S. Air Force airplanes of the type the Sandinistas keep saying are ready to lead the invasion. The purpose of such a bounteous anomaly in a land of austerity is to get dollars for foreign trade. All purchases must be made in U.S. currency. It's technically open only to diplomats and foreign journalists, but it depends on who's watching the door.

For more indigenous wares, go to Managua's Mercado Oriental, a traditional Latin America-style marketplace.

HEALTH: Vaccinations are not required for entry to Nicaragua or reentry to the United States. However, it is a good idea to check with your doctor or Georgetown Medical Center's International Health Center for guidelines.

Malaria is present in some areas. Malaria prophylaxis requires taking preventive medication before entering a malaria area and for some time after leaving, so plan ahead.

Hepatitis and parasites are common afflictions. Stick to bottled water, soda and beer when available. Avoid untreated tap water (consider taking along some water purification tablets), ice, uncooked fruits and vegetables, relish trays and food from street vendors. If bottled drinks are not available, you may have to choose between dehydration and possible disease.

INFORMATION: Contact the Nicaraguan Consulate at 1627 New Hampshire Ave. NW, Washington, D.C. 20009, 939-6532 or 939-6534.

Inturismo, the government travel agency, operates in-country guided bus tours and can provide information and assistance with accommodations. However, it does not have offices in the United States, so start with the Nicaraguan consulate or a travel agent.

A recommended tourist guide: Rand McNally's "South American Handbook."