Nicaragua’s low-lying Atlantic coast makes up more than half the country’s total landmass. It’s mostly composed of impenetrable mangrove swamps and jungle, and as such only a few places in the region attract visitors in any number: Bluefields, a raffish port town, the idyllic Pearl Lagoon just to the north, and the Corn Islands, which boast sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and a distinctly Caribbean atmosphere. Outside these areas, the coast remains an untouristed tangle of waterways and rainforests, and should be approached with caution and negotiated only with the aid of experienced locals and good supplies of food, water and insect repellent. Indeed, there is only one actual town in the northern half of the coast – Puerto Cabezas. Few travellers make the trip (flying is the only real transport option), but the impoverished town has a unique feel and is the best access point for the Miskito-speaking wildernesses of the northeast.
The possibilities for ecotourism in this vast, isolated coastal region are obvious, though a scarcity of resources and a lack of cooperation between central and local government have so far stymied all progress, while the long-discussed highway linking Managua and Bluefields has failed to leave the drawing board.
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.
The northern reaches of Nicaraguan Mosquitia – the famous Mosquito Coast – is one of the most impenetrable and underdeveloped areas of the Americas. No roads connect the area with the rest of the country, and the many snaking, difficult-to-navigate rivers and lagoons, separated by thick slabs of jungle, prevent the casual traveller – or any non-local, for that matter – from visiting the area. Bordered at its northern extent by the Río Coco, Nicaragua’s frontier with Honduras, La Mosquitia is dotted by small settlements of the indigenous – mainly Miskito – peoples. The area was highly sensitive during the war years of the 1980s, when Contra bases in Honduras sent guerrilla parties over the long river border to attack Sandinista army posts and civilian communities in La Mosquitia and beyond. The Sandinistas forcibly evacuated many Miskitos from their homes, ostensibly to protect them from Contra attacks, but also to prevent them from going over to the other side.
Few travellers come to Bilwi/Puerto Cabezas, the only town of any size and importance in the area. Heading out beyond Cabezas is difficult, but with determination, a good guide, a water purification kit and a good mozzie net, you can use it as a springboard to get even further from the tourist routes and into isolated Miskito communities – Waspám, near the Honduran border, is the biggest.
There are no fields, blue or otherwise, near steamy BLUEFIELDS, the only town of any size on the country’s southern Atlantic Coast. It acquired its name from a Dutch pirate, Abraham Blauvelt, who holed up here regularly in the seventeenth century, and it still has something of the fugitive charm of a pirate town, perched on the side of a lagoon at the mouth of the Río Escondido, though this is about the only allure it holds. Indeed, listen to some travellers’ tales of constant rainfall, murderous mozzies and menacing streets, and you might never come here at all.
But despite being undoubtedly poor, frequently wet and utterly beachless, Bluefields can be an intriguing place to stop over on your travels around the area. Fine river views and a hospitable, partly Creole-speaking population reward those who do visit. Avoid the portside “hotels” and hustlers and get a taxi if you head out of the small central area, and you should be just fine – indeed, Bluefields’ karaoke-country- and reggae-based nightlife can be pretty engaging if you keep half an eye out.
The few streets in Bluefields are named, though locals resort to the usual method of directing from landmarks: the Moravian church, the mercado at the end of Avenida Aberdeen and the parque to the west of town are the most popular ones.
Take a panga from behind the market to El Bluff. There are few amenities here, but there is a beach on the far side and a comedor. Bluefields Museum on Calle Central has an interesting collection around the history of the indigenous communities on the Atlantic coast, as well as a library and bookshop.
During the month of May, particularly in the last week, the streets of Bluefields are taken over by ¡Mayo Ya! or Palo de Mayo, one of the most exciting fiestas in the country. Derived from the traditional May Day celebrations of northern Europe and celebrating the arrival of spring, ¡Mayo Ya! features a mixture of reggae, folklore and indigenous dance that young Blufileños pair ingeniously with the latest moves from Jamaica. The celebrations wrap up with the election of the Mayaya Goddess, the queen of the festivities.
Lying 70km off the country’s Atlantic coast, the CORN ISLANDS (Las Islas de Maíz) offer white beaches, warm, clear water and a Caribbean vibe – the kind of place you come to intending to stay for a couple of days and end up hanging around for a week or more.
Like many parts of the Caribbean coast, during the nineteenth century both larger Corn Island and tiny Little Corn were a haven for buccaneers, who used them as a base for raiding other ships in the area or attacking the inland towns on Lago de Nicaragua. These days it’s drug-runners who use the islands, unfortunately, as part of the transportation route for US- and Europe-bound cocaine.
Big Corn is home to virtually all the islands’ services, has a reasonable selection of hotels and restaurants, and is large enough to ensure that – if you’re prepared to head far enough – you can get your own patch of beach. More backpackers head straight to idyllic Little Corn, though if you have time you might want to try them both out. Reached by a quick but bouncy panga from the bigger island, “La Islita” is extremely quiet, with rustic tourist amenities – bring sunscreen, mosquito repellent, a torch and money. Set on just three largely undeveloped square kilometres, with a population of just over a thousand, the island boasts lush palm trees and beautiful white-sand beaches, great snorkelling and diving, good swimming and, above all, plenty of peace and quiet – with no cars on the island, traffic consists of bikes, dogs and wheelbarrows.
It’s possible to walk round the entire island of BIG CORN in about three hours. Brig Bay stretches south from the dock and main town past shacks and perfectly serviceable sands. Long Bay, across the airstrip heading east, is quieter and less populated and there are plenty of places to swim in either direction. North of Long Bay is South End, where there’s some coral reef good for snorkelling – there’s more on the northeast corner near the village of Sally Peachy. The southwest bay, Picnic Center, is a fine stretch of sand near a loading dock – there’s a huge party here during Semana Santa, when crowds of people come over from Bluefields and the locals set up stalls to sell food and drink.
About 1.5km offshore to the southeast, in about 20m of clear water, is the wreck of a Spanish galleon, while the beach in front of Paraíso Beach Hotel boasts three newer wrecks, lacking the historical excitement of the galleon but with excellent marine life within wading distance of the shore.
If you’re going to work up the energy to do anything at all on LITTLE CORN, it’s likely to be diving or snorkelling; the island has around nine square kilometres of glorious, healthy reef to explore. Little Corn is even easier to navigate than its larger neighbour; all pangas arrive at and depart from Pelican Beach, while most backpackers stay on Cocal Beach on the east side of the island. The north end is even more remote and quieter than the rest of the island, and best suited to couples or families. There’s great snorkelling both here and off Iguana Beach, just south of Cocal Beach – ask your accommodation for advice, as some reefs are a fair swim away.
Downtrodden EL RAMA is a major transit point to the Atlantic coast – beyond here roads are limited, and you’ll mostly travel by boat or plane. Most travellers only stop long enough to change from the Managua bus to a boat for Bluefields, or vice versa. The bus station sits in the town’s low-key centre, and pangas leave from the small jetty two blocks south and one block west of here. The river curves northeast towards the Atlantic from the dock, enclosing the rest of El Rama – if you fancy a wander, Año Santo church is a pleasant enough destination, just two blocks east of the bus station.
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.
Mellow, manageable and just a short hop from Bluefields, PEARL LAGOON (Laguna de Perlas) is a slowly growing spot on Nicaragua’s tourist map. It’s connected to El Rama and thence Managua by road, but most visitors arrive on a bouncy but magical boat ride that takes you through tangled mangroves into a vast, shallow lagoon. In its southern corner, the village of Pearl Lagoon has sandy streets, quality seafood and a friendly Creole populace who make their living from fishing and tourism. Once you’ve seen the big gun that looks out over Pearl Lagoon’s small wharf, you’ve seen the sights, but it makes a fine base for fishing trips, longer excursions and sitting happily on your backside, sinking beer and lobster and watching the sun set.
Those who fancy exploring can head out to the remote Pearl Cayes where the water really is crystal clear (for all its charms, Pearl Lagoon is a little more silty), or walk/cycle inland to Awas, a Miskito village about 3km west with a small beach and a decent restaurant. (It’s best to head back before dark.)