The Miskito Cays were strongly affected by the devestating Hurricane Felix. Currently, tourism in this area is hardly possible, as the local community is still recovering. More about Hurricane Felix.
Imagine the striking, turquoise-colored Caribbean Sea, 45 kilometers offshore, speckled with more than 70 marine formations including islands and mangrove forests that provide shelter to a stunning variety of plant and animal life. Imagine small fishermen communities residing in houses built above the water, isolated from the outside world and dedicated to artisanal fishery. Imagine an area, only accessible by an 80-kilometers private boat ride, that lacks virtually all tourism infrastructure but that offers one of Nicaragua's most interesting destinations for adventurous visitors. Imagine the Miskito Cays.
In one of the least explored corners of Nicaragua, in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (Región Autonomo Atlantico Norte or RAAN), tourists have yet to discover many spectacular attractions. Besides housing the largest natural reserve in Central America (the Bosawás Biosphere Reserve), this region also offers a great variety of cultural attractions, most of them related to the indigenous cultures that still dominate certain areas. This Special, however, is dedicated to a hidden treasure located 80 kilometers northeast of Bilwi (formerly called Puerto Cabezas). Continue reading to learn more about the natural beauty, the history, and the interesting cultural aspects of the Miskito Cays.
Nature and geography
The Miskito Cays Archipelago is composed of 76 formations that include estuaries, coral reefs, cays, seagrass beds, and islets. In total, twelve of these formations are covered with vegetation and consequently form islands. The archipelago measures 27 km² and forms part of a larger area that was declared Biological Marine Reserve and Coastal Fringe in 1991. This reserve encompasses an area with a radius of 40 km around the largest cay. The complex marine-coastal ecosystem that exists within this area also includes a 20-kilometer wide coastal fringe that extends from Cabo Gracias a Dios to Wouhnta. This intricate network of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems is considered one of the most productive habitats on the planed due to the diverse characteristics.
The most important cay is Miskito Cay (Cayo Miskito), also known as Cayo Mayor, located in the center of the archipelago and measuring more than three times the size of Big Corn Island. Other main islands are Maras Cay, Nasa Cay, and Morrison Denis Cay. The archipelago is characterized by shallow waters that, due to the penetration of sunlight, have a turquoise color and that are clear enough to see the bottom. At the bottom large rocks – sometimes measuring more than 10 meters in height and estimated to be more than 300 years old – form a major part of the barrier reef positioned parallel to the coastline.
The soil at Miskito Cay consists of shell sediments and organic materials, and the vegetation includes some coconut palms but primarily mangrove forests. There are eight different mangrove varieties in the area. The local fishermen sometimes use the wood as pillars for their houses. This area furthermore provides shelter and food to a large variety of both residential and neotropic migratory birds. Among the species that can be found here are Frigate Birds (Fregata sp.), Cormorants (Phalacrocorax olivaceus), Herons (Casmerodus albus), as well as the Mangrove Warbler (Dendroica petechia erithachorides) and the Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularia). Some of these species are threatened with extinction or protected under some kind of conservation program.
The Cays are uninhabited because of the lack of firm soil and the abundance of mangrove forests and mosquitoes which do not favor living conditions either. However, fishermen houses can be found above the water, constructed on wooden posts, in close proximity of the Cays. Fishermen inhabit these houses during the fishing season. Sometimes they live here for periods of up to six months uninterruptedly. That is, this region is used by the Miskito population as a center of operations to commercialize marine products like turtle flesh (Chelonia midas), lobster (Panulirus argus), and fish (Antipates sp.) that are abundant in numbers yet not highly varied in types of species.
Fishing of marine turtles dates back to ancient times when turtle meat formed an important part of the diet of indigenous communities. With the arrival of the buccaneers in the zone, turtle fishing acquired a more commercial character and at some point large quantities of turtle meat were exported to Europe. Later, exportation of conches took place as well. Currently, artisanal turtle fishing is mostly done for local consumption.
In the center of the Miskito Cay there is a shallow, circular lagoon that is connected to the sea through a natural canal. This lagoon is connected to areas that include swamps with fresh/brackish water and mangrove forests. Around the cays there are also important areas where large seagrass beds provide feeding grounds for marine turtles like the Hawksbill Turtle and the Green Turtle who generally nest in Costa Rica but feed in this area. The cays furthermore provide shelter to mammals like monkeys (Aluatta spp.) and reptiles like iguanas (Ctensaura similis) and geckos (Gonatodes albogularis).
Few studies have been undertaken regarding the fauna of the Miskito Cays. The most recent investigations date back to more than a decade ago. The information that is available is mostly related to species that are commercially interesting like shrimp, lobster, and fish. Animal populations have significantly declined due to human intervention of the local inhabitants since these studies took place.
The population of the RAAN area is predominantly Miskito (45%), followed by Spanish-speaking mestizos (38%), English-speaking Creoles (14%) and the Mayagnas that speak Twahka and Panamahka (3%). In the municipality of Bilwi, the Miskitos represent 43% of the population and in the municipality of Waspam this percentage is 40%. These two municipalities, located along the coastline and along the shores of the Wankí River (Coco River), house in total 83.8% of the Miskito people living the RAAN area. Smaller populations reside in Rosita (9.3%), Siuna (3.1%), Prinzapolka (2.3%) and Bonanza (1.5%). Generally speaking, the mestizos prevail in the mining region whereas the Miskitos predominate the Bilwi area.
Being one of the most important native cultures at the Caribbean Coast, the Miskito culture has a significant influence on the mestizo society.
Among the traditional Miskito traditions that have survived during hundreds of years is the fact that there is no such thing as private property; all the land is collectively owned and work on it is often done in groups. There are also Miskito communities that govern themselves, which is legitimate and recognized by authorities of the local government. A form of this self-governance can be seen in the Council of Elders (Consejo de Ancianos). This council includes a communal judge who is in charge of penalizing offenses that take place within the community, as well as a syndic who focuses at regulating property tenancy. Other members include the reverend and the professors. The Miskitos feel this Council is the highest authority in their communities, but in reality it is often merely an ancestral figure.
Due to the interethnic contact but also because of the necessity and the astuteness of the Miskito people most of them have learned Spanish from the mestizos and English from the Creoles. Consequently – as opposed to what some might think – language barriers at Miskito areas of RAAN, including the Cays, should not be a problem.
Life above the water
Far away from the mainland, when the firm soil is out of sight, there is a peculiar community with wooden houses erected above the Caribbean waters. Coral reefs and seaweed instead of soil and grass, and a garden of mangroves and the Atlantic Ocean as a backyard patio. The houses are close together and to move from one to another it is possible to take a canoe or even to get there swimming. These are the Miskito Cays, where the absence of the mainland and the immensity of the sea impact whoever arrives for the first time at this amazing place.
Two of the inhabitants of the Cays are the fishermen Martín and Diego. Where people on the mainland have a car or a bike they have Titanic: an old, wooden canoe that has clearly been undergoing its share of surgery judging from the many metal patches that cover the rugged exterior. The duo uses Titanic in search for what they call their gold; the lobsters that reside around the cays and that are among the most expensive catch. They sometimes spend days and days on sea, fishing by day and resting in the canoe or in the sand of a deserted island at night.
The fishermen community that resides around the cays comes in its majority from nearby coastal communities and most people, like Diego and Martín, spend year after year part of their time at the cays. During the fishing season they reside here for periods of up to six months, and they bring furniture, utensils, family members, and even pets along with them. Once the fishing season ends the fishermen all return to their communities and try to survive with the money that they earned at the cays. The ambience therefore changes dramatically, and the cays turn into a quiet, deserted area.
At the cays there is no potable water or electricity. The water that is consumed by the inhabitants is brought from Bilwi in boats or occasionally when they run out of water the fishermen visit the Miskito Cay where there are wells that provide drinking or washing water. Very few houses have generators and because of the consequential lack of cooling possibilities most fishermen dry the fish in the sun when they await the companies from Bluefields that buy their catch. In addition to purchasing the fish these companies also bring water and fuel. The most important product, however, is not the fish but the lobster catch. The animals are sold at high prices to companies that export them. Due to the high prices, a fisherman can earn as much in a day as a worker at the Pacific side earns in a month, according to the fishermen themselves.
During the fishing season there is quite some activity around the cays; not only because of the fishing activities but also because everybody’s daily life takes place in these communities. It is estimated that the archipelago has around 1,400 inhabitants, and besides the fishermen’s houses there are also small stores and even a discotheque.
Churches are part of the Caribbean society. The Moravian Church, present in the area since the 19th century, is the most important one, followed by the Catholic Church that arrived here in the 20th century. The cays also have their own church, as an interesting Moravian Church similar to the church in Bilwi arises above the water in the community of Miskito Cay.
Also part of the community of Miskito Cay is the Military Base of the National Army. With large boats and powerful engines these marines aim to protect the natural environment and control the drug traffickers and illegal fishing. The base is an important element with respect to the safety of the cays. Visitors should report their presence here.
Activities at the Miskito Cays
Despite the fact that tourism infrastructure is virtually non-existent at the Cays, the large variety of natural settings provide plenty options for different types of visitors. Below follows an overview of the different possibilities.
Exploring the Cays
The Cays themselves are one of the most important attractions in the area. Their natural splendor can be enjoyed by cruising around them in a boat, or by hiking one of the few Cays that actually possess a sandy base. The largest Cay of all, Miskito Cay, offers a wide variety of natural environments. A large inner lagoon surrounded by mangrove forest provides spectacular views and can be easily accessed by boat. The mangrove forest itself can be explored as well. Visitors can enter the Cay and hike to another lagoon that is closed off from the sea, accessible only by foot. Hiking Miskito Cay provides visitors with a possibility to observe the interesting flora and fauna that is present at this site.
A boat trip can be undertaken from any of the communities surrounding Miskito Cay. As houses are built close to the Cay, reaching the forest does not take long. A local guide will be able to show the way and give a tour on the island. Other Cays can also be visited, and although these are smaller than Miskito Cay they also generally offer a pristine mangrove forest and sometimes a sandy part that allows for exploration by foot.
Surrounded by the Caribbean Sea the Miskito Cays are an excellent site for swimming. The water is calm and never cold, and it does not require much effort to reach a nice swimming site. In fact, swimming can often be done right off the deck of the houses. The aforementioned lagoons located at Miskito Cay can also be used for swimming.
The shallow, clear waters around the Cays are great for snorkeling. Colorful reefs and beautiful fish can be easily seen when exploring this interesting underwater world. Not the complete area around the Cays offers this kind of submarine setting, though. The seagrass beds that are present throughout the region do not offer the same colorful scenery. The fact that these areas form feeding grounds for sea turtles does make them an interesting place to explore, though.
Animals that can be seen include the common, colorful reef fish like butterflyfish, snappers, and damselfish. Lobster and crabs inhabiting the reef can also be spotted. Among the larger animals that frequent the area are barracudas and sharks. These larger fish do not act aggressively but rather shun people as fishermen generally try to catch them.
A snorkeling trip can be undertaken from one of the fishermen communities. Snorkeling spots are generally located close to the communities themselves and can be easily reached by boat or canoe. Taking own gear to the Cays can be convenient, but the equipment can also be rented from the fishermen.
Being rich feeding grounds for all kinds of fish, the Miskito Cays also offer various options to practice sport fishing. Fishing is done using the same methods as local fishermen: by trolling bait behind the boat, or by angling while anchored above certain spots. Trolling is the preferred method when catching larger fish like barracuda. Larger, fresh bait is used to attract these predators. When angling, smaller fish like snapper or porgy is caught.
Obviously the best guides are the fishermen living at the Cays. It is therefore recommended to hire one of the local people to discover the best fishing spots. These areas are generally located close to the communities, so boat rides do not need to be long. Fish can be taken back to the Cays where a fresh meal can prove to be a true reward for the effort!
Although the reefs and marine life in the area are spectacular, diving options are currently limited. There are no diving schools whatsoever in Bilwi, let alone at the Cays. Lobster fishermen are expert divers and frequently do multiple dives per day. However, their equipment lacks maintenance and the implementation of the PADI regulations is far from reality. Despite the attractiveness, it is therefore not recommended to rent diving equipment and explore the reefs from below.
With the large variety of bird species that occur in this region there is another interesting activity that can be practiced: birdwatching. This activity is becoming more popular throughout the world, and Nicaragua is positioning itself as one of the new birdwatching destinations in the region (for more information about this topic see our Birdwatching Special).
Among the migratory and residential bird species are some rare species that can not be seen at many other sites. For birders, the Mangrove Warbler ((Dendroica petechia erithachorides) is one of the most interesting species that can be spotted around the Cays. Large colonies of frigate birds that nest at the largest cay (Miskito Cay) are spectacular to see as well. Birding is probably done best around this same Cay, where the large size and diverse vegetation shelters many species.
Birding can be done by cruising around the cays and by exploring the lagoon by boat, but the preferred method is to hire a canoe and silently close in on the birds without having the noise disturb the animals. Similarly, the Miskito Cay can also be explored by foot which allows visitors to see other species than the ones nesting at the water’s edge. Again fishermen can serve as guide.
The Miskito Cays are not a destination for all types of travelers. It takes some time and effort to reach this unexplored place, and the costs are relatively high. However, more adventurous travelers that do not require the ease or the luxury that characterize more developed tourism destinations will find the Cays a unique alternative that provide a great variety of interesting facets.
Arranging transportation is the most important step in preparing a visit to the Cays. There is no public transportation so a private boat should be hired in order to get there. The best way to prepare this trip is to contact the INTUR office at Bilwi (see contact information below). In addition to finding a boat they can also assist in contracting a guide and arranging lodging at the Cays. A simple hotel is about to be completed at Miskito Cay, but until this place is completely furnished visitors will encounter rather basic lodging options. Fishermen can alternatively provide a sleeping place at their house, which is certainly a rare opportunity to see how these people live. Learning more about the interesting life of these fishermen and actually experiencing their daily routine makes this a unique experience. One should not expect any luxury, though. Sleeping is normally done in hammocks and there is no running water, electricity, or even a bathroom.
The boat trip to the Cays can take between two and five hours from Bilwi, depending on several factors. Weather conditions strongly influence travel time and conditions. If there are strong winds and high waves the ride will be rough and lengthy. The other important factor is the point of departure. The most strategic location is the principal wharf at Bilwi, but depending on the location of the boat it is also possible to depart from another wharf situated along the shores of the Lamlaya River. This river is located at the other side of the town, and the boats consequently need to go down the river first to reach the sea. Although superb scenery along this tranquil part of the boat ride is guaranteed, this different point of departure does lengthen the trip with more than one hour.
Because of the travel time and the high fuel costs, it is recommended to spend at least more than one day at the Cays. A visit of two nights, three days, will give most visitors sufficient time to get to know the area and undertake several activities. When traveling outside the fishing season it is important to take enough supplies as only few fishermen will be present in the communities and supplies will be scarce. Most importantly, visitors should take enough water and food. On-site the fishermen will be able to prepare delicious meals of fresh fish and lobster, but besides seafood there will be few other options available. Other supplies that are useful to bring to the Cays include sun block, sleeping materials (sleeping bag, pillow, hammock, etc.), and snorkeling equipment.
The costs for a trip to the Miskito Cays are highly influenced by the fuel prices. Boat rental and fuel for a three-day trip will cost around US$500. Such a boat can hold 8 people. Additionally, a guide and a boat captain should be hired, which will cost another US$200 for three days. Lodging and food for three days will total US$100 for these same three days, which makes the total about US$100 per person when traveling with a group of eight.
INTUR Bilwi (Puerto Cabezas)
Barrio Pedro Joaquín Chamorro,
Esquina Opuesta a Carnicería "Río Blanco",
Puerto Cabezas, RAAN
The Miskito Cays were strongly affected by the devestating Hurricane Felix. Currently, tourism in this area is hardly possible, as the local community is still recovering. More about Hurricane Felix.