The Caribbean is synonymous with tropical tranquillity, balmy beaches and for its colourful culture, but did you know that the islands aren’t the only place where you can experience this? In fact, Nicaragua’s eastern coastline, also known as the Miskito Coast, can offer everything that the likes of Jamaica and Grenada do; an authentic Caribbean experience but one you can twin with an exploration of the rest of the country or enjoy simply as a standalone exotic escape. Here’s why you should make for Nicaragua for your next Caribbean adventure…
The Caribbean Coast is able to offer something different to the rest of Nicaragua. Never fully conquered by the Spanish, the result is a charming mix of British (who did manage to get a foothold in the area), indigenous and Creole cultures. Still a semi-autonomous region in Nicaragua today, the Caribbean Coast remains off-the-beaten track and therein lies much of its appeal.
The main town of Bluefields is the entry point to the region, reached via a direct flight from the Nicaraguan capital of Managua. Named after the Dutch pirate Abraham Blauvelt, the town has an endearing tropical charm, with colourful Victorian buildings and reggae beats throbbing from bars. Bluefields makes for a handy central base from which to head out and explore the wider Miskito coastline.
Look out to sea from its port and on a clear day you might be able to spot the Corn Islands, a classic slice of the Caribbean with palm-flecked beaches and vibrant Creole culture. To the north, Pearl Lagoon is a friendly fishing community living among mangrove-filled jungle, while a little further out into the ocean, the Pearl Cays are tiny palm-topped islands promising clear waters and sandy beaches.
Further north lies Bilwi, a captivating mix of cultures where you can hear locals speak everything from Spanish to English and tribal languages like Miskito. It’s a town that’s still pleasantly stuck in time, with old wooden churches and ramshackle houses interspersed with fruit trees.
Venture south from Bluefields and you’ll reach San Juan de Nicaragua (formerly known as Greytown), one of the earliest European settlements in the Americas, founded by the Spanish in 1539. Life lives at a languid pace, with the town encased by rivers, jungle and lagoons.
Caribbean cuisine is well-known for its tantalising mix of flavours and, with a strong Creole population along the Miskito coastline, many of its dishes can be found on Nicaragua’s shores.
Towns such as Bluefields and Bilwi are home to plenty of locally run restaurants and eateries. Rondón (derived from ‘run down’) is the Caribbean’s answer to the British ‘bubble and squeak’; a sumptuous stew made from whatever locals have to hand. Since it’s a Caribbean dish and Bluefields is on the coast, seafood and coconut are often the ingredients, along with root vegetables.
Coconuts, taken straight from the trees that surround Bilwi and Pearl Lagoon, can also be found in the local food, with coconut baked into the bread, fried with fish, and simmered into the rice. Similarly, the banana plantations which dot along the Miskito Coast have also found their way into the dishes, and a sweet treat of banana bread comes recommended.
Don’t just stick to the mainland to tuck into tasty cuisine; every August the Corn Islands celebrate the Crab Soup Festival. Held to mark the end of slavery, there’s many fresh-from-the-ocean crab dishes you can try, as well as street parades and sporting competitions.
Speaking of sensational seafood, with the bounty of the ocean set before Nicaragua’s shores, be sure not to pass up on the opportunity to also tuck into Caribbean spiny lobster, sumptuous shrimp and freshly-prepared prawns.
You’ll need something to wash all that delicious food down with and Nicaragua delivers, with its rum Flor de Caña (this is the Caribbean, after all), which has won a string of worldwide awards.
In contrast to the rest of Nicaragua, the Caribbean Coast’s relative remoteness and its various tribal communities meant that it was never colonised by the Spanish, who instead focused on claiming the Pacific Coast. A rich mix of ethnic groups were left alone to cultivate their own traditions over centuries, the four most prominent being Miskito, Garifuna, Mayangna and Rama. Most of the country’s indigenous population live along the Caribbean Coast, developing a unique sense of cultural identity and whose ways of life and languages are now protected by national law. Add in British colonists, who brought with them West Indians and Africans, whose descendants formed an English-speaking Creole community which is thriving today.
The locals enjoy a charming laid-back way of life best seen through the region’s festivals and the most famous (and perhaps most curious) is the Palo de Mayo Festival held in Bluefields each May.
Brought over by European colonists, it has become a month-long explosion of Creole culture, with brightly dressed dancers, colourful reggae beats booming over loudspeakers and dishes like rondón sizzling from roadside stalls.
The maypole may have died out across much of Europe, but it’s well and truly alive here. For a peek into more Caribbean traditions, the annual Garifuna Festival in November is full of dancing, drumming and an assortment of cultural activities.
If you’re seeking the classic Caribbean ingredients of sun, sea and sand, then Nicaragua doesn’t disappoint. The Corn Islands are the poster child in this respect. Big Corn, unsurprisingly, is the larger of the two, home to a vibrant Creole community living in colourful homes and tiny jungle trails to trace. Little Corn, once a haven for pirates and buccaneers, is car-free, so it’s not hard to find peace and quiet wherever you are on the island. There’s snorkelling and diving off its shores too, with myriad tropical fish, rays and reef sharks to swim alongside.
White sands, swaying palms, warm waters and an unhurried lifestyle feature on much of Nicaragua’s coastline, but with the competitive advantage that they’re free from large-scale hotel developments and are a quieter alternative to many of the Caribbean’s headline isles. In Nicaragua, most accommodation options are boutique and unique hotels and many of the locals mingle with travellers in a natural way, making this destination something of a tropical treat.
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