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Waspám and Río Coco

The peaceful town of Waspám lies in the heart of Miskito territory, pretty much as far off the beaten path as possible. Its name in Miskito language may come from was-pana, meaning river with trees, or from was-pam, where the water is big, and indeed, life in the area revolves around the Río Coco (named Wangky Lupia in Miskito). Incidentally, the river which flows large and brown during rainy season, forms the border with Honduras. The Río Coco - and the 114 communities scattered alongside it and in the nearby pine savannah - is also the one reason why a visitor would venture as far as Waspám. Be warend, though, that any river trip, whether to visit an indigenous community or the Bosawás reserve, is expensive.

Waspám itself, though it offers no real tourist attractions, is a pleasant one, its streets lined with hedges bursting with carmine hibiscus and raspberry-colored bougainvillea. Its inhabitants are relaxed, greet the visitor with smiling Buenos días and accept being photographed with good grace. As there are no virtually no cars here, the air is filled with the sounds of day-to-day life: chatter (in Miskito), the cries of roosters, the squawking of domesticated parrots and the clatter of carts. The town cattle, like the sacred cows of India, wanders the streets freely, sometimes to be shooed away by cyclists and street vendors. At night the men play volleyball in the central park, lined with a gaudily painted fence. Just across the street, horses graze by the decrepit white Moravian church. One block away, the Iglesia San Rafael, of Catholic denomination, is being refurbished, its twin front towers already painted the gaudy colors. The main building was destroyed during the civil war but for the bell tower, which was used as a lookout point by the Sandinistas – and until three years ago still bore bullet marks.

The only other place of mild touristic interest is the Museo Auka Tangni, on the ground floor of a peach-colored house on the western side of town. It is the baby of an elderly gentleman called Dionisio Melgara, who has dedicated his time to the preservation of Miskito culture. Give him a call (Cel: (505) 8417-8128) for a quick tour. He will show off a few artifacts which he personally gathered, including his mother’s fishing net, and a collection of his own works about the Miskito language and culture, including trilingual dictionaries and translations of the Bible in Miskito.

The main point of contact for visitors wishing to arrange a trip into the jungle or downriver is the office of MARENA, the ministry of environment, a green house behind the municipal market. Various packages can be negotiated with Homer (Cel: (505) 8431 0943), who also belongs to EMSERTA, the boat transport cooperative (E-mail: All of the packages, even just renting a motorboat for the three-hour trip to the waterfalls at Waspuk, work out to vast amounts of money, because of the high cost of gasoline (a panga uses $20-25 worth of gas for an hour trip). There are packages for 2-3 days, to visit the communities downriver all the way to Cabo de Gracias, others to the rapids eight hours upstream, as well as one with a 15-hour hike up to Cerro Moco, with a cave to see on the way, and a pick-up by panga. Packages will cost around $500 plus $250 worth of gasoline per day – you had better come as a large group and negotiate hard.

The MARENA office is also your contact to arrange excursions into the Bosawás biosphere reserve, to see parrots, monkeys, and other wildlife – or shoot it, since MARENA also can deliver hunting licenses. In all cases, plan to spend at least three or four days in the area and be prepared to negotiate things on the spot rather than in advance; the people of Waspám are a laid-back bunch and communications are unreliable. You had also better speak good Spanish (unless you happen to master Miskito or Mayangna, the other indigenous language) as very few people speak any English.

A good time to visit Waspám and the Río Coco – always hot and humid, with daytime temperatures in the mid-30 degrees C - is outside of the rainy season. Tropical downpours, as well as the episodic hurricane, come down between May and December. Otherwise, come for the Sihkru Tara dance festival, which takes place on August 5-6-7, reaching Bilwi on the August 8 and 9. Semana Santa is also a festive time, when the locals lounge about the sandy beaches left by the low waters of the Río Coco. But whenever you come, there will be malevolent mosquitoes. Take adequate precautions against malaria and dengue fever, by taking a cholorquinine or doxocycline preventive treatment, and using plenty of repellent. If you are going to travel along the river and eat with indigenous communities, be aware that they cook their food with water taken directly from the river, unfiltered. It may not be a bad idea to take anti-parasite medicine the following days. For further information about Waspám, consult the embryonic pages of

Waspám offers very little in terms of services. There is no bank, so come with a supply of cash (cordobas preferably). There is a public hospital near the publish high school, staffed with reputedly good Cuban doctors, as well as a day clinic run by English-speaking nuns (beyond the Catholic church). The police station is the blue building by the airstrip. In terms of communications, your only link to the exterior world is the Cybercafé Wankinet, at La Estancia de Rose, also by the air strip. It offers surprisingly decent Internet on its 10 computers, for $1.50/hour and phone calls from $1.50/minute. There are plenty of little shops (pulperías) wher to buy basic groceries and supplies. Street vendors offer fruit, coco bread, naka tamales (a mixture of pork, chicken and corn dough cooked in a banana leaf) and banana chips.

There is a handful of decent hotels. La Estancia de la Rose, which belongs to the leader of the local indigenous women’s movement, is the coziest. The 11 rooms, five with A/A for $20 per night and six with fans for $12.50, are set in large wooden houses. All have their own bathrooms (bucket showers but regular toilets) and TV, and there are pleasant screened-off sitting rooms with rocking chairs and couches. Across from the airstrip, Tel: (505)2792 9112. Hotelito Piloto (on the main street, a couple of blocks up from the river, Tel: (505)2792 9045, cel 8642 4405) has neat and clean rooms, with TVs and real showers, for $25-30. There is a laundry service and comedor. Traveling handymen can try scoring a bed with the priest or nuns in exchange for some construction or paintwork.

There are basic comedors all around town, offering a basic fare of rice, beans, cheese, with chicken or meat for $2.50-3.50 and all hotels have a food service. The one restaurant in town with a varied menu is Papta Watla, Barrio Emilio Amador, between the church and the docks, open Tuesday-Sunday, 11 am – noon, Tel: (505) 2792 9059. Besides beef, chicken and pork prepared in sauce, friend or with garlic, they offer shrimp, fish, as well as vegetarian fare (originally to accommodate German aid workers) and on Sundays, soups, all for $3.50 to $5, They occasionally have wilder meat, venison or guardatinaja (a type of wild pig).


Other places nearby Waspám and Río Coco: Kakabila, Corn Island, El Rama, Bluefields, Laguna de Perlas and Puerto Cabezas.

By Andrea Davoust
After more than two years of working and living out of a suitcase in Eastern Europe and in various improbable African countries that no-one has ever...
08 Dec 2009

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