The capital of Nicaragua's southern Caribbean coast, Bluefields, generally doesn't hold visitors' attention for long – it's a gritty, ramshackle city and the white sand wonders of Corn Island and laid-back charm of Pearl Lagoon are just boat rides away. But Bluefields comes into its own as the region's cultural hub when it hosts Maypole, a month-long festival featuring one of Central America's most vibrant street carnivals.
If the concept of Maypole summons images of little girls in frilly dresses dancing merrily around a tree covered in ribbons, you may be in for a bit of a surprise when you arrive at the festival in Bluefields. Sure, the tree and the ribbons are there, but Bluefields has taken the fertility theme and run with it, throwing copious amounts of alcohol, loud music and steamy Caribbean dancing into the mix.
Maypole celebrations, which traditionally celebrated fertile harvests, were brought to Bluefields by the British during their unofficial occupation of the Moskitia. The celebrations have become so integral to Bluefields culture that they have even spawned their own genre of music: classic maypole (or palo de mayo in Spanish) music has upbeat Caribbean rhythms with lyrics describing notable events around town.
Maypole festivities in Bluefields warm up with a series of block parties around the city's colorful neighborhoods. The most exuberant parties are held in the sectors with strong Creole traditions including Cotton Tree, Beholden and Old Bank. The bigger parties are usually on weekends, but there are sometimes midweek events too. A schedule of events is usually available around town by the beginning of May but programming is very fluid and sometimes extra parties are added just for the heck of it.
Early in the morning a freshly cut tree is erected in one of the neighborhood’s main thoroughfares and decorated with colored ribbons. Prizes ranging from fruit to bottles of rum are hung from the highest branches. Local residents set up beer stands around the tree while others prepare huge pots of mixed soup and other traditional dishes to serve to the crowd.
Although the tree and catering is important, the most integral factor of whether a party is a winner or a flop is the sound system; a good event will have stacks of mismatched, worn-out speaker boxes being overworked by an old industrial amplifier to produce a loud and distorted soundtrack. Expect the whole system to collapse on several occasions during the night, giving sweaty dancers a chance to cool off and grab some refreshments.
For visitors, there's no need to bring a partner – just grab someone nearby and lead them into the pack beneath the branches. If close proximity to dancing strangers is not your thing, it's perfectly legit to go solo under the tree; the more outrageous your moves the better.
Some neighborhoods set up traditional games in the afternoon including 'kitty alley', a kind of artisanal bowling, and 'greasy pole', where a wooden telegraph pole is greased up with pig lard and agile locals attempt to clamber up it to claim a prize – usually cash or booze – that is attached to the top.
The biggest and most colorful event during Maypole is Carnival, a parade in the last week of May through the streets held by competing dance groups from different neighborhoods. Each troupe, decked out in elaborate costumes, is accompanied by their own neighborhood band as they dance their way past crowds of onlookers.
Once all the dance groups arrive at the end point of the route, there is a concert and the winning neighborhood is declared.
While many visitors take a roadside perch to watch the parade, many choose to follow it around town. Independent party-goers are known to join the tail of the parade, drinking and dancing their way through narrow streets led by a mobile sound system blasting dancehall tracks.
Keep your eye out for locals drinking beer through straws from chamber pots – a Bluefields party tradition. If you get passed the pot, rest assured that it's probably new having been freshly purchased for the event.
An antidote to the debauchery of Carnival, Tulululu is the final Maypole event that takes place on May 31 just before midnight. It's a very traditional, family oriented affair where the entire town marches from one side of the city to the other, accompanied by a brass band and fireworks. It usually runs from Old Bank to Cotton Tree or vice versa.
Participants run through a long tunnel formed by pairs in the crowd clasping hands. The tunnel sometimes runs for more than a block and upon emerging at the far end, participants form another pair at the front extending the arch.
Revelers usually carry a couple of decorated maypole trees within the parade, regularly setting them down along the route for spontaneous dance sessions.
At the march's final destination, attendees will find a stage where local artists bands belt out classic reggae and maypole tunes for one final party, which goes on until the hardiest partiers call it quits, usually around first light.