Don't let its reputation fool you. Nicaragua's Caribbean coast is not entirely the whirlpool of turquoise postcard images you may have heard about or seen. Most of this steaming 520km (323 miles) of Atlantic coast is a dense and inhospitable plain of tropical forest -- impenetrable and very wet. Much of it is unexplored swamps and mangrove estuaries, and towns such as Bilwi and Bluefields have an edgy, lawless feel.
Its spotty weather is one of the reasons La Costa is a world apart from the rest of Nicaragua. The Spanish never actually got around to conquering it. Though Columbus brushed along its shores, the coast's unwelcoming geography and fierce Indian resistance meant the conquistadors did very little conquering, especially when the Miskito tribe killed and ate the first governor in 1545. It was the British who first established a toehold, finding the coves and bays invaluable ports-of-call during the many wars of the period. They also traded with the Miskitos and backed a Miskito king to rule over the neighboring tribes. German Protestant missionaries in the 1800s added to the heady cultural mix, and their legacy can be seen in the stark Moravian churches that dominate each town. In 1894, Nicaraguan president Zelaya marched his army into Bluefields to finally lay claim to the region, but for many years, it was joined in name only with the rest of Nicaragua. American timber and banana companies stepped in, and there was a brisk steamship trade with North America for much of the 20th century. This receded with the advent of the Sandinistas, who tried in vain to strong-arm the region into being ruled from Managua. Eventually, a political settlement in 1987 saw the entire coast gain a limited level of autonomy and self-policing under the name RAAN, the North Atlantic Autonomous Region.
The Caribbean still remains very much isolated from the rest of Nicaragua, and its main town, Bluefields, is accessible only by sea or air. Little tourist infrastructure, be it visitor centers or shopping spots, exists here. Yet there are signs that the coast is opening up, and tropical paradises, such as the Pearl Lagoon outside Bluefields, are attracting more and more visitors. The Corn Islands, 80km (50 miles) off the coast, are particularly becoming more popular, as they do offer a postcard-perfect white-beach paradise. Another great attraction is the region's rich mix of Miskito Indian culture, pirate heritage, English legacy, and African roots. This means its people are more like West Indians than Nicaraguans, and they generally speak a lilting form of English Creole rather than Spanish. They are also the most laid-back population in the country, with a fondness for late-night partying and music. This is all the more evident in the month of May, when cities such as Bluefields rock to the calypso sounds of the Palo de Mayo festival.
Nicaragua's Creole people practice a form of voodoo called Obeah. Practitioners use herbal infusions, bath salts, and chanting to cure, curse, and heal, and are influential shamans in the Miskito and Afro-Caribbean community.
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