The new frontier of Nicaraguan tourism

Some local children getting into the festival spirit with a gambling game for kids.

Some local children getting into the festival spirit with a gambling game for kids.

“Deh are naa boats tomorrow; it bruk down,” said one of the Big Corn Island locals.

“But surely there’s another boat to replace it,” I replied stupidly. “We really need to get to the mainland.”

“Naaa, tomorrow is Ma’der’s Day. Dey won’ be working. Dat’s why dere’s naa boat tomorrow, man, cos it’s Ma’der’s Day. Ya can git de cargo ship on Saturday. Is a’right, man; dis is paradise!”

It’s a very ‘first world problem’ to complain about being stranded on a Caribbean Island, but there we were – 9 first-world tourists moaning about the inadequacies of transportation in Nicaragua. Some of us were trying to get to Bluefields for the end of the Maypole Festival, while others had to get across to the mainland to catch flights from Costa Rica.

After much scrambling, bargaining, bribing, and bureaucracy, we managed to pay a local fisherman to take 20 of us over to the mainland on his little panga. It isn’t known as the safest or driest form of transportation, but it got us to our destination in one piece and in time for the end of Maypole celebrations.

Few people have heard of Maypole or Bluefields. The fishing port city is on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, which remains largely undiscovered by travellers. But what the city lacks in beauty is more than made up for by the friendliness of the locals.

Maypole lasts throughout the month of May and its history is a little unclear. The festival is a hybrid of celebration centring around English May Day rites, worship of the fertility goddess, Mayaya, and the start of the rainy season. One thing is for certain, though: locals in Bluefields know how to throw a great party.

Throughout the month each different neighbourhood in Bluefields hosts small festivals of their own. It culminates on the last weekend of the month with a large street party complete with costumes and the Maypole dance in the style of carnival. The Tulululu march from one end of the city to the other is a sight to be seen. Locals lead the parade holding the Maypole tree with a large procession following, tunnels are formed and the people at the back run through to the front – only for it to be done all over again.

The festival is a celebration of the unique culture found on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, which was an English protectorate until 1796, when the British Government recognised the sovereignty of Spain in Nicaragua. Many of the locals on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua are African descendants, whose ancestors were slaves being transported into the area during the 1600s.

“We identify more closely with our English history than our Spanish one,” Spencer ‘Rocco’ Hodgson, a Bluefields local, told me on the panga ride. “The Spanish Nicaraguans started arriving here during the revolution as refugees, and the population blew-out from 18,000 to over 50,000.”

“I worked on cruise ships for five years, and when I came back I didn’t even recognise the place.”

It’s because of this chequered history that locals in Bluefields feel so strongly about Maypole.

“We are Creole and so we dance the Maypole; that’s our cultural dance,” Jacqui Brown, from a group called Immortal Star told me. “When we dance, we represent our minority and it’s important that we keep our culture alive.”

“We’re very proud of this group. We do this with love and it comes from our heart. It’s important for the young people in the community to continue the traditions of our culture. Today we dance the Tulululu and we are so happy when tourists come to see us dance and celebrate our culture with us.”

The Government recognised the differences in culture between the Caribbean and Pacific in 2008. In an effort to unite the two sides, the Government decided to bring Maypole to Managua, the country’s capital. There has also been an inevitable commercialisation of the festival which some locals believe has affected the celebrations and changed its meaning.

“It’s changed a lot to what it was; it used to be better,” said Georgina Caseavanea. “Everyone used to be dancing in the streets when I was a child, and now I don’t see that.”

“You never used to be able to buy anything at Maypole, now everyone says ‘you can buy this and that’. To me it has a lot to do with the Government taking it to Managua. Them Managua people don’t know nothing about the dancing or the culture, you know.”

Not all the locals think this way, though. Many are happy with the attention and tourism.

“We are glad to have you all here. The people they come to join us and show us love right here in our home, so we are very thankful to have you all here,” Joanne Wilson told me during the festival.

“It has changed a lot because back in my days it wasn’t a business-pole, it was a real Maypole.”

“I really love it, though, because it is a tradition and I just like to see the culture continue. What we do here, they carry it to Managua and it’s beautiful to see our culture spreading to the rest of Nicaragua,” she said.

“What I love to see is that we are being united. I love to see you [tourists] come down here to teach us and for us to teach you. Because you know we don’t get to go to you, so I hope if you like it you will take it back to your home and tell people about our culture.”

Maypole is an important event for tourism in Bluefields. Few visitors to Nicaragua make the effort to visit the Caribbean side of the country. If they do, it is usually to the Corn Islands via an airplane. It’s a combination of difficulty and travel tales about the danger of the city which is widely known to be the drop-off point for cocaine in the Columbian drug-trade. But for some it isn’t a concern.

“I wanted to know about the whole culture of Nicaragua. I heard it was different on the Caribbean side, so I wanted to see that part of the culture too. I think the best way to do that is the Maypole Festival,” said Fabian Bracher, a Swiss tourist.

“I loved everything: the music, the people dancing on the street. I expected to see more people in colourful costume dancing, but it was great to see all the locals out having a good time.”

“I’d heard that Bluefields was a bit dangerous because it is part of the drug highway but I just thought the people were really friendly. Yesterday we met some local boys who took us to a restaurant and invited us to church with them. They were all saying thank-you for being here and seemed really happy to see us.”

It’s tourists like Fabian who locals in Bluefields are hoping to attract. The Nicaraguan Government has paved a road across the country so the journey is no longer as arduous as it once was. But Bluefields needs to shake it’s reputation before it will become an integral part of the tourist trail in Central America. However, the city’s proximity to the Corn Islands, another favourite amongst intrepid travellers, is a bonus – along with its unique culture and Maypole festivities. In recent years, word of Maypole has gotten out and there were a surprisingly large – 20 or so – number of tourists joining the party this year. Hopefully for the city this number will swell as backpackers share the information among their circles.

*You can take a listen to a bad recording of the Tulululu song here*

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