"I love it down here," said Ruth Krumbhaar as the tang of food stalls rode the rollicking salsa music yesterday afternoon above Columbia Road NW. "It's really colorful, and it smells like Mexico. That's great."

Not only Mexico, but also El Salvador, Peru, Nicaragua, Argentina, Colombia -- the smells and tastes and sounds of more than a dozen Latin countries drew throngs of city dwellers and suburbanites to Adams-Morgan for the 16th annual Hispanic American Festival.

Festival organizers estimate that 50,000 people showed up yesterday at what has become one of the area's most popular "block parties."

Even at that, it was just a warmup for today's main event, a parade down Columbia Road, starting at noon, from 16th Street to Kalorama. Food and festivities will continue until nightfall.

"This is an opportunity to share our culture and express our presence here," said Alberto Gomez, a member of the festival organizing committee. "We are the Hispanic community, and this is a way to contribute to the city and show we are growing."

But in the best melting-pot tradition, other ethnic groups were represented: Lebanese and Vietnamese vendors hawking native delicacies, a masked African dancer on stilts, and a Baltimorean selling Polish sausages.

"You can rent the booth if you come up with the bread," said John Ostrowski, whose family has been making and selling sausages in Baltimore since 1919. "We go to a lot of fairs."

Veteran festival-goer Glenn Washington sported a large Mexican sombrero, a $1 souvenir of the 1981 event, and cheerfully spoke to other strollers in Spanish. But Washington noted that he is black and was reared in the District. "It's a celebration of their heritage, but it's wonderful for others, too."

The Hispanic community, which has swelled with Central American immigrants in the past five years, is still centered in Adams-Morgan, with its churches, stores and cultural institutions, even though most Hispanics have settled in the suburbs.

Lucy Hernandez, vice president of the festival committee, lives in Falls Church, but "we just sleep there," she said. "The community is here." Hernandez owns El Tazumal Restaurant on 18th Street NW.

Sonia Aparicio, resplendent in a yellow and black suit with bright yellow flame-fin sunglasses, said she walked to the festival from her apartment. She came with two friends, dressed in similar costumes. All three said they are immigrants from El Salvador and attend the District's multicultural high school program at Lincoln Junior High on 16th Street NW.

"It's very hot today, but it's very nice," Aparicio said, before sauntering off as music blared from one of the festival's four stages.

In fact, the official temperature at National Airport peaked at 89, and many people at the festival dressed in shorts, T-shirts and flip-flops.

Since 1979, according to coordinator Antonio Montes, the festival budget has grown from less than $15,000 to more than $200,000. Its events have expanded from a one-day fair to an array of exhibits, dances and performances throughout July.

But its very success has caused some problems, says Steve McKevitt, who lives in the Beverly Court apartments on Columbia Road NW.

"It was a neighborhood festival," McKevitt said, "but over the years every vendor in the city comes and it becomes a real mess. It belongs on the Mall or in Rock Creek Park."

D.C. Police Capt. William B. Riley said 280 officers were assigned to the festival, but he said there was little disorder. "The crowd is in a festive mood. We get reports of lost children and lost wallets, but very, very few crimes."

Staff writer Krystal Quinn contributed to this report.