Only in Nicaragua and living as a cheap volunteer would I travel for more than 8 hours by multiple busses and sketchy boat rides to spend just two days somewhere. But, it was worth it to experience all the many wonders of Bluefields, the city on the island off the Atlantic Coast. A group of volunteers and I traveled from our sites Thursday to spend last weekend at Bluefields for the much anticipated “Palo de Mayo” celebration and to just check out the other side of Nicaragua.
Bluefields has a rich history and continues to proudly celebrate its culture everywhere in the city, but especially during the month of May. This month represents the welcoming of the rainy season after a long dry winter on the island. Palo de Mayo, or Maypole Dance, is Bluefield’s May Day celebration that continues all month, and this past weekend is considered the biggest party. It signifies reawakening and fertility with hopes of happiness and good harvests as many people dance around a pole or part of a tree decorated with flowers and ribbons. The Maypole celebrations originated somewhere in England and transformed over the years in Bluefields to have a more Caribbean flavor.
The city is considered more Caribbean than the Nicaraguan culture I know, including its music, food, religion and even languages the locals speak. I was confused the entire time as to what language I should use when talking to people there, as many people speak Creole, Miskito, Spanish and even English. The city is part of the county, but is drastically different in many ways. Despite historical conflicts with other parts of Nicaragua, Bluefields has maintained its indigenous traditions throughout the years while welcoming the mixture of other incoming cultures from the Americas and Caribbean islands.
As for the adventures, I’ll start with our travels to the island. My sitemate Cassie and I decided to leave Thursday afternoon to catch the bus to El Rama, the port town on the east coast where everyone catches the pangas (small motorized rowboats) to get to Bluefields. We knew it would take about six hours just to get to El Rama in the bus and then about another two hours by boat to reach our destination. We didn’t want to waste all day Friday traveling, so we broke up the trip. It sounded like a good idea until we realized we missed the 3 p.m. bus to El Rama and had to wait in Juigalpa, a town about two hours from Camoapa, for the next bus to pass at 8:30 p.m. We waited in Juigalpa for about three hours, but took advantage of the amazing milkshakes and air conditioning in a “batido” spot.
We arrived in El Rama at midnight to sleep in a hostel for only five hours. The pangas leave from the dock when they are full and we really didn’t want to waste more time, so we hopped on the first panga that left at 8 a.m., but had to get there early to reserve our spots. It had already started raining the night before and didn’t look like it was going to let up any time soon.
After going through a very inefficient and long process to load the boat, we were handed a large plastic tarp to protect us from the rain, and that was it. I was sitting in the last row in front of the driver and realizing that my row was practically under the wake of the waves from the boat but the front of the boat wasn’t even touching the water. We were flying through the waterways when it started pouring only about a half hour into the bumpy ride. Our group of twenty people somehow coordinated the tarp maneuvers so many times I lost count and even through holding the tarp by hand against the wind and nearly hail, we were soaked. That may be one of the most hilarious boat rides I’ve ever taken with us battling the weather conditions and laughing at the drunken guy in front of me sipping rum, handing out candy and waving to no one from the boat.
We finally arrived to the island looking like we were in the middle of a hurricane, but super excited to be there. We spent the rest of the day eating the local food and exploring the city with my friend, Caroline, a TEFL volunteer living in Bluefields. Sadly, I didn’t try the pan de coco (coconut bread) that everyone raves about, but it is everywhere. There are also street vendors selling pati (biscuits stuffed with meat) and coconuts they cut open after drinking the water. I did enjoy a delicious grilled shrimp and vegetable dinner that night to make up for missing out on the other local food.
The next day were the big Palo de Mayo festivities starting with a parade throughout the main streets and ending at the park to continue the dancing and music. The parade consisted of groups of men, women and children from each barrio dancing to a local song the “Bluefields way”, or with a lot of hip and booty shaking! I loved the reggae music with the main song and dance called the Tulululu that groups dance to in a line. Each group also wore brightly colored dresses or some other slightly provocative attire, but still proudly flaunted their cultural heritage. We watched the parade on a balcony of a restaurant in one of the dry spots.
Following the masses, we ended up at the park in front of the stage to watch each barrio perform their specific dance. We didn’t last too long as the rain continued throughout the performances. I wish we could have stayed to see the crowning of the Miss May, but found a Mexican restaurant more appealing at that time. Cassie and I went back to our hostel after dinner knowing we were too exhausted to stay out and had to wake up at 5 a.m. for the trip back the next morning. We left Bluefields in the rain, again, but luckily had a rain-free panga ride back to El Rama. After about an eight hour trip with a few transfers and waits in between, we made it back to Camoapa in the afternoon.
After hearing so much about the Atlantic Coast and Bluefields, I’m thrilled I had the chance to experience the vibrant and laid-back culture myself. Despite the crazy traveling for such a short time, I had a great time with the random adventures and haven’t stopped talking about the island and my trip to people in my site who may never get a chance to visit for themselves.