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.
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.
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.
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.
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.