The Atlantic coast never appealed to the Spanish conquistadors, and repelled by disease, endless jungle, dangerous snakes and persistent biting insects, they quickly made tracks for the more hospitable Pacific zone. As a result, Spanish influence was never as great along this seaboard as elsewhere. English, French and Dutch buccaneers had been plying the coast since the late 1500s, and it was they who first made contact with the Miskito, Sumu and Rama peoples who populated the area. Today the ethnicity of the region is complex, and the east can feel like another country. The indigenous peoples mixed with slaves brought from Africa and Jamaica to work in the region’s fruit plantations, and while many inhabitants are Afro-American in appearance, others have Amerindian features, and some combine both with European traits. Creole English is still widely spoken.
During the years of the Revolution and the Sandinista government, the FSLN met with suspicion on the Atlantic coast, which had never really trusted the government in Managua. The region was hit hard by conflict, and half the Miskito population went into exile in Honduras, while a much smaller number made their way to Costa Rica. In 1985 the Sandinistas tried to repair relations by granting the region political and administrative autonomy, creating the territories RAAN (Región Autonomista Atlántico Norte) and RAAS (Región Autonomista Atlántico Sur), though this only served to stir up further discontent, being widely seen as an attempt to split the Atlantic coast as a political force. Improvements to infrastructure (notably the resurfacing of the road to El Rama and the extension of the route right the way to Pearl Lagoon) show that the government has not forgotten the east coast, and tourism offers a route out, of sorts, but its profits remain focused on a handful of accessible destinations. As the jungles of the northeast are sacrificed for farmland and more Spanish-speakers from the west move to the Atlantic, this damp, diverse region is losing some of the qualities that make it so distinctive and appealing – but for now, this great, troubled region remains a land apart.