I’d never really given the lyrics of The Clash’s Rudie Can’t Fail much thought before coming to Bluefields, but a day and a night in the city and a couple of transits through it helped lend perspective. A few cold beers for breakfast seems pretty normal in Bluefields…and it helps explain the number of drunks weaving their way through the commercial district and port area.
Bluefields, the major city on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, is a seedy introduction to the eastern side of the country…and as a hard working but impoverished port town, its as far from most people’s idealised vision of the Caribbean as possible. Since it connects the rest of Nicaragua to the Caribbean coast and the Atlantic, if you want to explore some of this region Bluefields is pretty much unavoidable.
I don’t want to be unkind to Bluefields because for decades it, and the rest of the Nicaraguan Caribbean coast, have been treated with contempt and neglect by the Nicaraguan government. It is the least developed part of a country that is second only to Haiti in poverty terms in the Americas, which is all you need to know about the state of things. Unemployment and underemployment are seemingly entrenched, little is being done to improve things.
More positively, Bluefields has one of the most interesting histories in the region – its named after a Dutch pirate and was a centre of British activity in the Caribbean. Which is why many of its inhabitants are of Afro-Caribbean descent and English is spoken as often as Spanish. There is a museum in town that is supposed to tell this history, but doesn’t really get to grips with it.
The city also has a magical location, situated on a series of headlands that jut out into Bluefields Bay, a vast tract of water that sparkles a brilliant blue in the morning sunshine. It is also the gateway to the intriguing expanse of the Nicaraguan Caribbean, but none of this seems to matter when confronted with so much seediness.
Bluefields’ cause wasn’t helped when, in 1988, Hurricane Juana swept in from the ocean and literally destroyed 90% of the city. Miraculously only a small number of people died, but most of its historic wooden, Victorian-era houses were little more than matchsticks after the hurricane passed on. The city has been rebuilt with concrete houses which lack any charm what-so-ever, but which tend to perform better than wooden houses during a hurricane.
Fending off the advances of several people intent on parting me from my money, I went for a walk around town one afternoon. Once away from the seedy commercial and dock area the town becomes a lot more open and friendly. People smile and say hello, the central park was full of families and young people enjoying themselves, and no one tried to shake me down.
Given enough time Bluefields is probably the sort of place that would grow on me, even then I wouldn’t walk around at night. Still, the rewards of visiting this remarkable part of Nicaragua…Pearl Lagoon, the Pearl Keys and the Corn Islands – far outweigh the perils of spending a bit of time in Bluefields.