Paradise found (again), Nicaragua’s spectacular Pearl Keys

The Pearl Keys are sublime, like being in a dream: perfect crescents of white sand, backed by swaying palms and coconut trees, hammocks slung between them; warm turquoise waters to snorkel and swim in while your boat driver cooks up the traditional seafood stew of Rondon on the beach for lunch. Thankfully, this is no dream this is the perfect Pearl Keys, an hour by boat from Pearl Lagoon off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

As we motored through the calm waters of Pearl Lagoon towards the open waters of the Caribbean the weather looked like it might spoil our Caribbean fantasy. Large rain clouds gathered in the distance and at one point we got soaking wet as we passed through a torrential downpour in the middle of the ocean. Thankfully, on the other side the sun was shining bright and clear and we spotted the Pearl Keys dotted in the ocean.

We were lucky enough to see turtles swimming past our boat as we made our way east. This area is critically important as both a nesting site for several types of turtle, including a couple of highly endangered species, and as a prime feeding ground for them as well.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Passing a couple of the larger Keys we were headed to Crawl Key, so absolutely perfect with its crescent beach and turquoise waters that it beggars belief. So few tourists make it to this part of Nicaragua that we had Crawl Key to ourselves – just us and our boat’s captain, a lobster fisherman during the season and a tour guide in the off season. Called Dane, he was also an excellent cook and knew everything there was to know about the Pearl Keys and this region.

There’s a reef off one end of Crawl Key, which has been badly damaged by rising sea levels and increased destruction from stormy weather. It still retains patches of living coral and its possible to snorkel out and spot quite a lot of fish, anemones and starfish, but it does leave you wondering what the reef might have looked like before the destruction.

Palm tree shadow, Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Palm tree shadow, Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Other than snorkelling and swimming, Crawl Key offers little but swinging in the hammock while waiting for the Rondon to be cooked. Part stew, part soup, Rondon, or Rundown as it is sometimes known, is a speciality of the region. Slow cooked fish, prawns, crab and (in season) lobster, mixed with vegetables and steamed with coconut milk. Its absolutely delicious, especially eaten overlooking the magical turquoise waters of the Pearl Keys.

Like several of the Pearl Keys, Crawl Key has been bought under circumstances locals claim as suspicious by a wealthy American, who has started construction of a monstrously ugly house overlooking a beach that was an important Hawksbill Turtle nesting site. Community pressure seems to have ended the construction and the house is slowly decaying hidden from sight by the towering palm trees.

At least the owner allows people to spend time on the island, two others owned by British people are completely out-of-bounds.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

The indigenous Miskitos communities of this region are trying to wrest control of the Pearl Keys back for use by the community, but it may be some time before they are successful. Until then some of the most spectacular islands in the Caribbean will be off limits to both them and any travellers who make it this far.

Sunset returning from the Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Sunset returning from the Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

The seductive charms of Pearl Lagoon

Pearl Lagoon, or Languna de Perlas in Spanish, is just about as authentic, non-touristy and undeveloped Caribbean as it is possible to get without dropping off the map altogether. Time seems to slow to a standstill, the delicious seafood is cheap and plentiful and the rum flows freely. Within a matter of hours we’d fallen under its spell and instead of the two days we’d planned for, finally dragged ourselves away six days later and only then reluctantly.

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Fishing with a hand net, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Fishing with a hand net, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

A small, traditional Creole and Miskito fishing community on the edge of a large and tranquil lagoon on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, Pearl Lagoon is just waking up to the possibility of tourism. While the spectacular Pearl Keys are reasonably well known (although difficult and expensive to get to), community tourism to Miskito and Garifuna villages around the lagoon is definitely about to make its mark. Visit now, because things will have changed in a few years.

This part of Nicaragua is chronically underdeveloped. There is little infrastructure – regular water shortages and power cuts, no paved roads – but its friendly, easy-going people and its beauty have a seductive charm that captured our hearts. Plus, no roads means you get to spend a lot of time in boats zipping from one place to another.

Reggae music is the norm here, and you can almost forget that you’re technically in a Spanish-speaking country – Creole and English predominate.

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

This region was controlled for decades by an alliance of the British Government and the indigenous Miskito people, who were the regional superpower before Europeans arrived. This alliance effectively kept the Spanish out of the whole region, which, with the importation of Afro-Caribbean slaves and Jamaican migrants, developed an entirely different Creole-Miskito culture to ‘Spanish’ Nicaragua.

The area is also home to a sizeable Garifuna community. The Garifuna can be found all along the Caribbean coast, from Belize to Costa Rica, and were either escaped slaves who rebelled, freed themselves and established free communities on the coast; or, as some anthropologists believe, made their way independently from Africa two centuries before the slavers.

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Small fishing boat, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Moravian Church, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Moravian Church, Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

The British ceded the region to Nicaragua when it gained independence from Spain in 1821, but Nicaraguan control was non-existent until they took it by military force in 1894. The region overwhelming opposed the Sandinistas, and with US support launched an armed uprising against the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Which explains the government’s lack of investment in the region.

The lack of government interest in the ‘English’ part of Nicaragua has, in part, been filled by Colombian drug runners. Once-upon-a-time it was rum runners, times change but things stay the same. Drug boats bound for the United States frequently take refuge in the islands off the coast in bad weather or when being chased by law enforcement. To maintain local support they have invested more money in the region’s infrastructure than the government.

This includes a ‘donation’ of the region’s only high-speed internet cafe on Pearl Lagoon’s main street. Sadly, you still need electricity to have the internet and when we were there the electricity barely functioned. Still, you’re unlikely to win a ‘war on drugs’ when the drug runners are more philanthropic than the government.

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Let me just say it once more, “We loved Pearl Lagoon.” If you go there, try to stay in one of the stilted cabanas at the Queen Lobster restaurant. Owned by a young local woman and her Spanish husband, this is one of the friendliest and most pleasant places to stay imaginable. Plus, the restaurant serves some of the best seafood in town – although for the very best food try Warner’s Place a block or so behind the Moravian Church. Delicious.

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Cabana at the Queen Lobster Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

The owners of the Queen Lobster will also arrange trips to other parts of the area, including to the fabulous Pearl Keys. We went only for a day trip, but wished we’d spent the extra cash to stay overnight on one of the keys. Next time.

In the meantime, if you go to Pearl Lagoon for no other reason, go for the sunsets…

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua

Sunset over Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua