“Dis is where all a dem wan to be,” said the rasta chipping coconuts on the beach. His creole accent was thick, but it wasn’t hard to understand what he was saying. “Dis” is the Caribbean coast. “All a dem” is everybody who isn’t on the Caribbean coast.
Finding your way off the tourist trail in Nicaragua can be more rewarding than following it. Most travelers to Central America will agree that they would want to stretch their horizons by interacting more with locals but face a myriad of difficulties, usually starting with language. Fortunately for the intrepid traveler, there is an alternative to the Spanish-speaking, fried food, taxi and bus culture that makes up the majority of the country. The journey may start in worn-out Managua, but ends in a Caribbean paradise.
Flashback to August, 2008
Four months of Spanish classes had given me a shaky foundation, but I didn’t even have a leg to stand on when a local food vendor began screaming in my face in Granada, Nicaragua.
I was certain I had asked for 2 buñelos and a fresco, but she began laying into me about cursed gringos coming and going and something about her daughter. I stumbled out something about mistaken identity, but to no avail. I decided I wasn’t that hungry.
But there I was in one of the prettiest cities, as well as one of the touristy, in Nicaragua. I loved walking through the old parks and in front of the colonial cathedrals. I was staying in a hostel and had met up with a few other travelers, but never really connected with any of the locals, save the buñelera with the bad attitude. Perhaps I wasn’t outgoing enough, but locals didn’t seem interested in meeting yet another American speaking broken Spanish. And I think I understood. After all, I was one of hundreds passing through the same areas of the town that day, following the guidebooks’ recommendations, considering myself a traveler, not a tourist.
I was in Nicaragua because I had been accepted for a volunteer position in Bluefields, located clear across the country. The guidebooks had described the Caribbean port of Bluefields as a serious jaunt East from the popular North-South backpacker route on the Pacific side. It sounded intriguing…there are cars but you cannot drive there because there is no road. They speak Spanish but only when they have to because most of the people speak English. It isn’t located in a department named after a national hero or political figure, it is in one of the two Atlantic autonomous regions.
And it is not only autonomous in name. The mix of six ethnicities, four languages, the food, cultures and dancing are all so different than the rest of the country. And yet, as I have discovered in the years that I have been here, the Caribbean coast remains largely undiscovered by the tourist/traveler/backpacker population.
English is the preferred tongue
For someone who does not have a good grasp of the Spanish language, the Caribbean coast is perfect. English is the preferred tongue with some locals not speaking a lick of Spanish, either.
In the capital of the Nicaraguan Garifuna culture, Orinoco, you can make your own drum and learn to dance punta, eat stewed armadillo and make coconut bread, learn about the Walagallo ritual used to purge evil from a sick person and find out what bush medicine will help purge the evil that has you running to the toilet every hour.
In Monkey Point you can go horseback riding in the bush, miles away from any modern convenience. You can swim in the bay at night, surrounded by phosphorescence, explore duck creek and walk the jungle path to the next village, visit the ancient pirate grave or even go fishing from a homemade dugout canoe with some of the locals.
Rama Cay offers the intrepid traveler a unique insight into how one of the last remaining indigenous cultures lives in Nicaragua. Local boatmen can take you to Mission Cay for an authentic Rama cookout on the beach and show you how to cook up the best rondon on the coast. They can take you to the village of Tiktik Kaanu, set deep in the Kukra river, where they still hunt with bow and arrows and shoot iguanas from the trees with slingshots. And perhaps they will teach you a few words from their dying mother language that gives them their name.
From Orinoco to Rama Cay to Monkey Point, all of these destinations and activities have three things in common. First, English will get you much farther than Spanish. Second, the locals seem to get friendlier with each village you pass through. Lastly, a trip through these magnificent locales will be far more memorable than bouncing from hostel to hostel, associating mainly with other tourists.
What about the Corn Islands?
If there is one destination on the Caribbean coast that travelers have heard of, it’s Big Corn Island and its smaller, more laid-back brother, Little Corn Island. Talk to most of the visitor and they will tell you that they make a bee-line for Little island, and that is good for those wanting to explore a little deeper to find the hidden gems on one of the last Caribbean paradises untouched by hi-rises and cruise ships.
Big Corn Island has whiter sand, prettier beaches and more amenities. People love Little Corn for its no-car, no noise, forgotten island feel, but Big Corn offers much more opportunity for discovering the coast culture. Make your way around the beach through Waula Point to see how the Miskito Indians live. Head out to Niko’s on a Sunday night and let the locals show you how to shake it. Visit the culture museum and don’t miss a baseball game if they happen to be playing. Stop and ask any local where the best beach/place to swim/bar/restaurant is and you might find yourself being led back to their house on the beach where they may just happen to be boiling up a run down and cracking open a bottle of Extra Lite.
And that is Caribbean paradise.