Founded in 1690 by three English pirates who called it Bragman’s Bluff, the port was always referred to by indigenous Miskito and Mayangna people as Bilwi (Mayangna for ‘Snake Leaf’). Then, in 1894, General Rigoberto Cabezas invaded and flew the Nicaraguan flag over an area that had been ruled by an English-indigenous alliance for two centuries. In 1925 the Nicaraguan government honored Cabezas by naming the port after him. Spanish-speaking locals still refer to the capital of Nicaragua’s enormous RAAN (Región Autónoma Atlántico Norte; North Atlantic Autonomous Region) as Puerto Cabezas, or just Puerto.
Yet even after the English were forced out, English-speaking companies such as the banana giant Standard Fruit, which built the dock, helped keep federal interference in the region minimal as the corporation siphoned fruit from the Caribbean coast. It wasn’t all bad for the locals. Old-timers still reminisce about the good old days of high-paying jobs and a thriving middle class. Which is why it was such a tragedy when Standard Fruit pulled out, just before its dock was used in the 1960s to launch Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
There are still plenty of international pirates and profiteers today, smuggling cocaine from Colombia, some of which is off-loaded in the area before heading north to Mexico and the US.
Mother Nature has roughed up Bilwi too. Her most recent assault came in the form of Hurricane Felix in 2007, which decimated the Miskito Keys and wreaked havoc in local communities. Emergency relief efforts sparked a new wave of NGO involvement, and aid workers and missionaries still far outnumber tourists here.