This article appeared in ìBetween The Wavesî,  Nicaragua's visitor magazine
edition 2, volume1, March-April-May 2003. It is definitely dated, but gives an interesting synopsis of early history.

Nicaragua's Far East

     The area was first settled in 1690 by three English buccaneers and its reputation was established from the beginning. The first reference to the settlement in the early 1700s stated that the founders came with "forty" wild Indian slaves and harlots to attend them.The name Bilwi comes from the Mayagna Indian words Snake (bil) and Leaves (wi). In 1925 the town was named by the national government to honor General Rigoberto Cabezas. He led the 1894 military takeover of the Miskito territory that ended the Indian's previously legally guaranteed independence. Many Costenos consider the name an insult.

     In the mid-1700s the region around Bilwi had 24 residents, eleven of whom were whites. Today the town has 50,000 residents, about five of who are white. Until 1970 the population was less than 8000. With a major hurricane in the early 1970s and war in the 1980s Indians migrated from their isolated villages to Puerto Cabezas and built barrios reminicscent of the communities they left behind. Today Puerto Cabezas has many neighborhoods of randomly place wooden stilt houses laced with footpaths and devoid of roads, where animals range freely, women cook over open fires and water is drawn from common wells.

     The entire Miskito Coast has been strongly influenced by outsiders, originally from England and for the last 100 years from the USA. Frequently "gringos" (miriki in Miskito) are better received than are people from the rest of Nicaragua whom locals refer to disparagingly as "Spaniards". Many Costenos look fondly on gringos for throughout the past 500 years, including the 1980 war years, they have befriended and protected them from those they call "Spaniards".

     Beginning with the arrival of Standard Fruit Company in 1921 the commerce of banana cultivation and lumber gave Puerto Cabezas its glory days. During a 40-year boom period, the town's dock was built a mile into the sea, sawmills and plantations dotted the region and rail lines traversed the landscape. Luck Strike cigarettes, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and other American products filled the stores. Almost everyone either worked ford Standard Fruit or wished they did. With over 3000 employees, the company was Nicaragua's largest employer and Puerto Cabezas was a dynamic business center. Shifts changed to the tune of steam whistle and life moved with the rhythmic efficiency of a company town anywhere in the USA. Americans, generally from the south, managed the operations with a style that is fondly remembered to this day. Local radio stations still play the country and western songs from this era.

     Puerto Cabezas is surrounded by pine savannas and sits on a high bluff overlooking the Atlantic. The town's center is its city park and the area surrounding it. The municipal Market is located immediately to the north and the San Jeronimo Market is located three blocks south. The baseball stadium is a block south of the park across the street from the townís only supermarket. The airport is about ten blocks north of the park.

     The economic heart of Bilwi is its decrepit wooden dock extending some 2000 feet into the open ocean. At one time the dock contained a double rail line and extended twice as far from land. Container ships bring goods here from the USA and ship out the regionís natural resource, mahogany, fish, shrimp, and lobsters. From here boats take hundreds of the town's young men out to the open to risk their lives lobster diving. Everyday small sailboats arrive from outlying villages and some mornings you can find piles of large green sea turtles waiting to be butchered. Lamlaya some six miles to the sough of Puerto Cabezas is a commercial port for smaller boats generally from communities to the south. 

     The easiest way to get to Puerto Cabezas is by air. Three airlines (La Costena, Atlantic and Aero Segovia) run a total of six round trips a day between Managua and Puerto Cabezas. The flight takes 3/4 to 1 1/2 hours depending on the type of plane and a round trip ticket costs 1259 Cordobas.
      In the dry season and when road conditions are acceptable traveling to Puerto Cabezas as the locals do, by old school bus, is a tough but interesting and scenic option. Buses leave twice a day from Managuaís Mayoreo Market and cost 200 Cordobas each way. Under good conditions the trip takes about 24 hours. It is highly recommended that you check conditions before departing since the trip sometimes takes over a week.

     Nothing in Puerto Cabezas has been created for tourists and you may not even see another foreigner during your entire trip. With the number of visitors too small to have changed the community, everything that you find here is refreshingly authentic and unadulterated.
     To avoid problems it is highly recommended that first time visitors find a reliable person to guide them around. This should cost about 100 Cordobas a day. Walking anywhere at night is not recommended.

     Twapi: Tale a taxi and enjoy swimming in fresh water and spending time in a Miskito community.
     Beaches: Bocana Beach north of the Kabu Payasku is not safe unless you go with a large group. Bocanita Beach south of the dock is a bit safer particularly near Gilleys Landing. The safest place to swim in the ocean is below the Malecon and there is a fresh water spring nearby.
     Wawa: Catch a boat from Lamlaya just outside of Puerto Cabezas. The round trip takes most of the day and is highly recommended. Remember to make return arrangement before you leave. The town of Wawa sits on the ocean at the mouth of a large river and is a pretty Miskito coastal community.
     Explore Puerto Cabezas: Enjoy the flavor in the barrios away from the main roads or search around the San Jeronimo Market for remnants of ìStandard Fruitís operations. The public is allowed on the dock.
     Miskito Cays and Remote Communities: For more adventurous travelers, trips to the nearby Miskito Cays or coastal communities can be arranged although you will have to make your own arrangement, which can proceed slowly.


return to sister city home page