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There are dangerous intersections, trucks traveling lightless at night, bicyclists darting out from behind top-heavy buses. But it isn't the traffic that gives the Old Highway to Leon its nickname. The "Crazy Men" are lovers, on their way to often-illicit rendezvous at one of the no-tell motels that dot the highway. They can be seen at all hours, driving along and jabbering away, apparently to no one in particular.
But the Crazy Men aren't alone. Their female companions are hiding, doubled over on a front seat or crouched in the back, determined not to be seen. Nicaragua's love motels aren't unique in Central America, but their prevalence and popularity are considered unmatched.
The best ones offer king-size beds, mini-bars, mirrors on the ceilings, condoms in the ash trays and, if one desires, porn flicks. That's up from a dozen or so motels only a few years ago, when Sandinista leaders dominated the business, said Ernesto Gomez, a year veteran of the trade and president of the Nicaraguan Association of Auto Hotels. The group's slogan is Developing Tourism in Nicaragua with Love. Actually, Gomez said, the market is glutted. There just aren't enough furtive lovers to go around, and Nicaragua's economic problems are cutting into the romance budget.
Despite the current slowdown, the love business remains lucrative. Room rates exceed a week's grocery bill for most Nicaraguans, padding the bottom line for Gomez and giving his motels, "a select clientele.
About a year ago the rumor circulated in Managua that Joaquin Villalobos, a former leader of the communist rebels in neighboring El Salvador, owned Las Arcadas, one of Gomez's motels. No one makes any attempt to disguise the fact that many of these men are cheating on their wives. That's why so many Latina women want to marry gringos.