Nicaragua // The Atlantic coast //

Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas)

Small and scruffy PUERTO CABEZAS, or BILWI, as it’s been officially named in defiance of central governmental control (the name means “snake leaf” in the Mayangna-Sumo indigenous tongue), is the most important town north of Bluefields and south of La Ceiba in Honduras. Everyone seems to have come to this town of thirty thousand people in order to do some kind of business, whether it be a Miskito fisherman walking the streets with a day’s catch of fish dangling from his hand, a lumber merchant selling planks to foreign mills, or the government surveyors working on the all-season paved road through the jungle that may one day link the town with Managua. The people are mostly welcoming, and more used to foreigners than you might expect, thanks to a relatively heavy NGO presence.

The town’s amenities are all scattered within a few blocks of the Parque Central, a few hundred metres west of the seafront. The water at the small local beach below the hotels can be clear and blue if the wind is blowing from the northeast, although the townspeople usually head to Bocana beach a few kilometres north of town; taxis can take you here. The river water is not safe to bathe in and you need to watch your belongings as there are often a few dodgy characters around.

The southern horizon is broken by the atmospheric outline of the muelle viejo (old pier), a twenty-minute walk through the barrios (take a taxi), where you’ll find fishermen and rusting ships. It was built in 1924 and saw guns delivered for the civil war and trussed-up turtles pulled in for their meat; now access is limited by a wire fence.

Puerto Cabezas is also the headquarters for YATAMA (Yapti Tasba Masraka Nanih Aslatakanka, which translates roughly as “Children of the Mother Earth”), a political party which fights for the rights of the indigenous Atlantic Coast peoples, and which is fiercely opposed to central government, whether Conservative, Liberal or Sandinista.

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