"What time you leavin' in the mornin' then?" she asks matter-of factly, handing back my passport and a key to room #14.

"I thought I might stay for a couple of nights?" I mutter a tad sheepishly - This is obviously an unusual request. Getting to Bluefields has been a slog. Seven hours by bus from Managua then 3 hours up the river in a packed open panga, (bending the propeller doubled the travel time).

"Oh, so you'll be findin' youself a girlfriend then? Hey honey if you stand on the corner and holler loud enough you'll be gittin' youself married afore you knows it. Why in this town good men get trampled in the rush," she adds in a delicious Creole lilt, giving my ageing 6' 3' frame a mischievous once over. Welcome to 'The Hotel Caribbean Dream!'

Nicaragua is a beautiful, gritty country with minimal infrastructure. In the regional poverty stakes it runs a close 2nd to Haiti. Aid workers are essential to the economy both as suppliers and as consumers.

Most tourists gather in the Pacific coast towns of San Juan del Sur and Las Penitas where the surf rides high and pristine beaches run to infinity. They also stop along the way for a bit of culture in the delightful colonial cities of Granada and Leon. The young and fit will climb a volcano or two in between.

But this is an adventurer's paradise. I am off to the mystical, and relatively untamed, Caribbean coast. Garifuna country!

Bluefields, Nicaragua's main Atlantic port and transportation hub, was named after Dutch pirate Abraham Blauvelt. His spirit is alive and well.

Today's buccaneers are Colombian drug runners who find the maze of tiny waterways around picture-perfect Pearl Lagoon an ideal cover for their lucrative trade. Busy casinos, bristling with machine-gun toting guards, are proof that some of the wealth seeps through.

(Note: Pearl Lagoon is both the name of the town and the lagoon).

After a day in town I head, unscathed - and unhitched! - to the dock. Plantains, cassavas, oranges, sacks of shellfish, even piglets are being unloaded from hand-hewn canoes. People here are generally black - with the occasional set of inherited blue eyes!

Two boatloads of West Africans escaped their foundering slave ships off the coast of St Vincent in the mid 1600's. They "cohabited" with local Caribs and their offspring became known as Garifunas. People who eat Cassava!

British colonists deported them to Honduras in 1797. Today around 5000 Garifunas call the East coast of Nicaragua home. The use of Creole English, and place names such as "Haulover" "Set Net" and "Smokey Lane Lagoon" are a throw back to two centuries of British rule.

I find a seat in the crowded waiting room. Pangas, open fibreglass boats of around 9 meters in length, are like buses in this area where connecting roads are often non-existent or impassable - Especially in this, the rainy season! They leave when full.

The TV is playing an old black and white English video, complete with plummy accents and uniformed maids! Hucksters round up passengers. One boat pulls out, another arrives. I hear "Pearl Lagoon" and take my place on the row of wooden seats.

Soon we are skimming, flat out, through waterways barely wide enough to notice. No wonder the drug runners love this place!

Augusto has an office right on the dock. Smooth and charming he is determined to snag the only tourist in these parts - Me! He begins by showing me around the rather seedy little town and finds me a bed for the night. The choice is thin.

He confesses to having sired 9 children by 9 different ladies. However, at 57, he claims to have seen the light. His latest amour is about to graduate back in Bluefields - A mature student I'm told! The tourist business is bad and to prove his undying love and devotion he needs money to buy a graduation ring and a pair of blue high-heels - by the weekend!

Yes, he has a panga and his partner will take me on a 3 day tour of Garifuna villages that ring the lagoon for a mere US$200, including food and fuel. As he seems to be the only game in town, we shake hands!

Orton is a bright-eyed likeable 24 year old. I tell him the rules. We must have fun and I must live to tell the tale! Wind has brought waves. The fibreglass under my feet has all the resilience of dental dam. Loose stringers dance a jig over each pounding wave. "The woods comin' away but the bottom's good, 'sides I been praying for us and the lord says we'll be OK." Very reassuring! We slow down just as the rain hits.

Our first stop, Marshall point, is around 30 kilometres across the lagoon. There are no vehicles, roads or power for that matter. A few horses nibble at the grass between shacks, along with goats, ducks, sheep, chickens, pigs and the odd cow. A sign by the dock advertises a "Hurricane Refuge." The last hurricane hit two weeks ago but apart from tearing out a few trees and peeling back some tin roofs, damage appears minimal.

Orton greets everyone with a general, "How your all is goin' on?"

Two men clear grass around the little Moravian Church using machetes. Inside, the roof leaks. The Catholic Church is a pitcher's toss away. The Evangelists are planning new premises this year. There is much competition for the souls of 200 laid back Garifunas who reside here!!

Orinoco is a half-hour walk along the beach. Less by boat. The self-styled Garifuna capital of Nicaragua is home to 2000 people. It is well organized and clean, thanks to activists like Kensy Sambola who started the highly successful Garifuna week to showcase drummers, dancers and some fine home-brew rum with cure-all qualities! She is also proprietor of the comfortable Hotel Garifuna, the only hostelry around and a steal at US$7.50 a night!

We nudge gently onto the dock, between the swimmers and divers, and pay a man to watch our boat for a couple of days. Horses, used to haul crops from outlying farms, roam lazily between the shacks.

In the general store an American Evangelist preacher is belting out his message from a TV screen placed next to the cash register. It seems that the proprietor is also the local pastor! Orton says he just hits the rewind button and runs it all day! Wanna buy rice? Then you'd better repent!

I'd kill for an ice cream? Sorry but the town's generator only runs between noon and 10pm - Besides no one has the cash for such luxuries. I settle for a handful of chocolate eggs!

A man puts the finishing touches to a canoe, carved from a massive log. A freshly slaughtered cow is being chopped up and sold off in bits to a waiting crowd. (I get to try the liver for breakfast!) The Disco opens at 8pm. I admire the new baseball diamond - "A gift from a man who 'found' cocaine", says Orton.

"Finding cocaine" is like winning the lottery. Drug runners ditch their stash when the cops are onto them, marking the spot with a GPS. Wily fishermen 'rescue' the booty and sell it back to Mr Big, getting $5000 for a 2-kilo package.

Orton's father, a successful 'cocaine finder', gave each of his children a new home. Cocaine money has built schools, hospitals and even Internet cafes in a remote area generally ignored by the government.

The Garifuna have interwoven their West African culture with Catholicism. A recent 'Walagallo' cured Winston's aunt of incurable cancer. The ritual, overseen by the suquia, or shaman, took several days and involved much drumming, dancing and the sacrifice of many chickens. This, I am told, relates to Psalms 150 in the bible: "A call to praise god with musical instruments!"

We visit two more Garifuna villages, La Fe and Kakabila, before returning to Pearl Lagoon.

I head to the empty palm-thatched waterfront restaurant. Water gently laps against the stilts. I am still deep in thought when the pretty waitress arrives. How lucky I am to have spent 3 fabulous days in this remote, picture-perfect paradise, meeting and learning about these simple, open, beautiful people.

"I'll have the lobster in coconut milk please and a very cold beer."



GETTING THERE: To avoid connecting through the US, Fly Air Transat (check schedule) to Liberia Costa Rica and take the comfortable Tica bus North to Granada.

SECURITY: Locals consider Managua a war zone for crime. There is nothing to hold you there. Head straight to laid back colonial Granada or Leon and plan your life from there.

There is much over the top fear mongering from local ex-pats and government websites. This is a poor country. Always hide your valuables. Cabs are cheap. Use them, especially at night. People are generally helpful and warm hearted.

WHY WOULD YOU GO? Nicaragua has great destination resorts at bargain prices. It is also a budget/backpackers dream with lots of eco-lodges in remote nature reserves and excellent programmes for staying with local families Great Pacific beaches and fine diving in The Corn Islands too. Oh, and lakes and islands and volcanoes - Not to forget wild festivals!

GUIDE BOOKS: Lonely Planet does an excellent job.

COSTS: Two/three star hotels run from US$10/ $25. A fine colonial 5 star hotel in Granada a mere US$80/$100. My lobster feed in Pearl Lagoon ran $9. US Dollars are interchangeable with Cordobas - The local currency. Banks and ATMs are in most places.

WRITER'S NOTE: Nicaragua has suffered a tough past. 20 years of civil war ousted a corrupt US backed government. An earthquake in 1972 levelled the capital Managua. An unemployment rate of maybe 50% means low wages. It will be a while before the country catches up with it's well developed neighbour Costa Rica.

Go with an open heart and mind, and you too will fall in love with the place. AR



Copyright © 2010 Andrew G.P. Renton All rights reserved.