We left Bluefields with the goal of partying in Puerta Cabezas for New Year’s Eve. We left just after Christmas on a commercial panga direct to Tasbapauni, a creole/miskito community located about 1/3 of the way. Surely it would be plenty of time reach Port (as the locals call it) to see how the coast’s second-largest town rings in the New Year.
Tasbapauni is a medium-sized village made up of several long rows of wooden shacks with the occasional gaudy, two-story cement mansion gleaming like a gold tooth in a mouth of cavities. Drug money. The community is en route to points north for Columbian traffickers coming from the south and a few locals have gotten rich along the way.
There was a lot going on in Tasba. We watched fisherman bring in their catch of turtles and a big tiger shark, saw a parade go by, cheered on an impromptu boxing match between several sets of local kids and caught a women’s softball game where, apparently, it didn’t matter which way they ran around the bases. Getting to Tasbapauni was easy. Leaving Tasba was anything but. We spent two days waiting for a ride as far north as we could get, and had to settle on a panga going to Desembucadura de Rio Grande, a village just 30 minutes away.
The Rio Grande is one of the bigger rivers in the country and acts as sort of a highway for boats heading to the interior. We first stopped in Kara, a miskito community on the opposite bank as our destination, where we had fried fish for lunch. Late in the evening our ride dropped us off in Desembocadura.
There really isn’t anything there…not one little place to find food, a place to sleep or even a store. I asked the military where we might find a ride to the next village and they led me to an old creole guy who was headed to Karawala. We hitched a canoe ride with him, arrived shortly after dark and found a room.
The next morning we walked around the village, which is quite big, asking for directions on how to get north. Someone suggested we walk to Sandy Bay, and conveniently offered to guide us. We accepted. Our guide was a gingerly old man, probably the whitest person in the village, and spoke Ulwa, Spanish and English. He asked us if we were with the gringa who passed by there a few days prior. We didn’t know anything about that, but he explained that she was walking alone which everyone agreed was a bad idea. Thieves patrol these roads, he said. Glad we brought a guide!
We walked for several hours down dirt roads, shoddy cement paths and a few rabbit trails until we popped out in another small village called Walpa. Walpa was little more than a stop where the path to Sandy Bay ends and the maze of brackish rivers begin. The three of us joined a canoe filled with other locals on the last leg to the last outpost in the RAAS, Sandy Bay Sirpe. There, we were told, we wouldn’t have any trouble getting a boat directly to Puerta Cabezas.
We spent three days pulling our hair out waiting for a boat to leave Sandy Bay. In that time we were visited by the old mayor who made a point to introduce himself to the few international travelers who passed through his village. He pulled us aside and asked us if we knew the gringa who had passed by there a few days prior. She had arrived walking from the south and left walking to the north. The old mayor had advised her against it, but she assured him she would be fine and continued on. Apparently we were on the trail of someone a bit more intrepid (stupid?) than we were.
When finally we got a ride north, it was with a panga that was to leave out at 6am. It didn’t leave until three hours after, and it carried a family moving to Puerta Cabezas, a business man who was returning home, a young couple headed north in search of work and a few others going north for whatever reason. Within 2 minutes of launching into the sea, everybody was soaked to the bone. The swells were 3-5 feet with a pretty good chop…imagine being doused with a bucket of seawater every 15 seconds. For 5 hours. It was a slow ride, but time flies when you are constantly bailing water to keep the boat from sinking.
We stopped to have a late lunch in a beautiful village called Wountna. Few of the villagers we met spoke Spanish and I really believe some of them had never seen white people. The panga driver picked up some gas and after an hour, we continued north again.
It is hard to say how far we got before the motor quit, but I can tell you it was nearly 9pm on New Year’s Eve when it rode the waves into shore and left us on the beach. Out of gas, the panguero said. I turned to my traveling buddy and made some comment about us finally being able to define the middle of nowhere. The panga driver told us there was a village about an hour’s walk. He had sent a young kid running toward the village with the empty gas can, but we weren’t going to wait around for him to return. By the light of the moon we started hoofing it, and that was the last we saw of anybody from that panga.
It was a beautiful night, well lit, thankfully, for two completely out of place travelers trying to make their way up a desolate stretch of coast. We weren’t sure if we would even see the village in the dark; many of them are set back a good distance from the shore. At one point we wondered about the possibility of having passed it and spending our NYE lost on an empty stretch of Nicaraguan shoreline.
After more than an hour at a pretty brisk clip, we started seeing fireworks in the distance. Not much, but enough to help us pinpoint the village we were headed to. I can’t imagine what the locals thought when they saw these two gringos walking into Wawa about 10:30pm on New Year’s Eve. I think that if we had been small and green with antennas poking out of our heads they would have been less surprised. We would ask people where we could get food and they would just point. We asked where we could stay and they would shrug their shoulders. We asked the name of the village and they looked at us blankly. Finally one jolly older fellah approached us speaking Spanish and claimed to be the local judge. We explained where we came from and he listened excitedly… he seemed very happy to have foreign visitors to his village on this special day.
“Welcome to Wawa Bar,” he said excitedly. “You can stay at my mother’s house. I will tell her to make you a place to sleep!”
And she did. She gave us buckets and pointed us to the well to bathe. He found us a hot meal and we happily ate. He then offered us beer with a caveat saying sternly, “We here in Wawa don’t like to drink. We are Christian people and alcohol is the drink of the devil.” I understood what our gracious host was saying and declined the beer. My travel buddy was very thankful and drank two.
It wasn’t easy sleeping that night. I kept thinking about the party going on in Puerta Cabezas that we were missing. I kept hearing the intermittent pop of rockets going off throughout the village. And our host’s son, the Christian judge, spent half the night heaving up whatever that devil’s poison was that he had been drinking after we went to bed.
The next morning we didn’t see the judge. He had finally stopped vomiting and was out like a light for the rest of the day. We did get our clothes washed and put the word around town that we were trying to get to Puerta Cabezas. Toward the end of the afternoon, someone informed us of a panga making the final leg of the journey, and we rushed to get on it.
Puerta Cabezas is a dirty, lively, brown looking town. It has a long beach and a long pier that comes off of it. I was expecting more of a Bluefields feel, but the big difference is that Puerta Cabezas has a road out. It is a pipeline to “mainland” culture, goods and lots of dust.
It was January 1. The town was pretty quiet…the parties we had come looking for happened the night before and now everyone was sleeping it off. That night we visited about half a dozen bars and clubs determined to find out where everyone was hiding, but after running into only spittingly-drunk characters and underage prostitutes, we decided to give it up for that evening and crashed out.
To be continued in part 2/3…