Corn Islands, Nicaragua
I’d say I’ve been super lucky so far – throughout the last two years of on-and-off travelling, I never had any notable weather-related problems.
Things seemed to move like clockwork on Saturday: 6:30 ferry back to San Jorge, 8:30 direct bus to Managua, enough time to take the cheap public bus to the airport instead of a taxi, 2:15 flight to Big Corn Island. Four days in the Caribbean, finally get to relax on the beach, go diving again…right?
Nope. Upon arrival, things seemed a bit off. Well, for one thing, the luggage people got all confused and took longer unloading our bags (which we could see, because this runway only supports one plane at a time) than the entire duration of our flight (under 1 hour)! But as we were all waiting for our luggage to come back, we noticed the wind…
Most of us passengers made a beeline to the pier to catch the panga (a small boat) to Little Corn Island. But by the time we had gotten there, the panga, which usually waits for the plane’s passengers before departing, had already left! Turns out those heavy winds caused the police to tell the operators to either leave without us or not leave at all, and they chose the more obvious option.
The islanders are completely different than the people from the rest of Nicaragua – they’re black rather than Hispanic. They also speak English, although a heavily accented creole version, due to being a former British colony. (Yes, it’s true, they do say “Ya man!”) There was a cluster of us at the pier and some chaos with residents and our taxi drivers alike trying to explain everything to each other. Some random guy came up and tried to offer us an illegal boat ride, then ran off when the police showed up, then came back again after they left. Shady.
Being that no one really understood their English, I switched to Spanish (which they speak much clearer) and managed to get all the information I needed – no boats leaving until further notice. But well…there was a group of 4 deaf Americans travelling by themselves without a single speaker also stuck in the chaos. Using a mix of awkward not-ASL hand signals and their iPhone’s notepad application, I explained everything to them and tried to get their taxi driver to take them to a place to stay for the night. Whew.
Well then. That meant waiting… and waiting… and waiting. I wandered around town that evening, to the north side of the island. Winds as strong as I’ve ever felt, waves crashing over the roads. As much as I would’ve liked to get to Little Corn Island, I certainly wouldn’t want to be risking my life to get there in a tiny little boat. With such terrible weather, there wouldn’t be anything to do there either, given that Little Corn has even less infrastructure than Big Corn.
No boats the next day. I wandered around and bought some coconut bread (super delicious), sharing it with other plane passengers that I ran into around town and where I stayed for the night. Shady guy tried to offer me the illegal boat ride again, as long as I could round up 15 or so passengers. Meh.
Without being able to do anything beach-related, I took the opportunity to wander around the island to see what else went on, what locals were up to. I suppose it’s a glimpse of a different type of Caribbean culture, one unaffected by tourism! The population is largely poor, living in colourful but dilapidated houses or even corrugated steel shacks. Many people were just sitting on a rocking chair on their porch, watching people go by (well, me particularly, being the foreigner wandering around parts of the island with no tourists). And it’s really not all just rasta and reggae – sure, it’s there, but I heard just as much random country music playing. On the coasts, despite the weather, locals were launching their fishing boats, even trying to free one that was lodged into the sand by the wind.
After wandering to the north of the island and finding the wind too strong, I opted to cut down south. The island’s got one road that’s a loop, which would be a pain to walk all the way around. So…how?
The airport runway, of course! I asked a local for directions and he told me to just enter. Bewildered, I still followed his instructions and indeed saw figures, many figures, in the distance. With only two flights a day and the airport runway taking up almost the entire length of the island, the only feasible way for locals to get around is via or through the runway. No sense in walking all the way around it! And not only were there people trying to get places, but the runway seemed to be like a town square of sorts – kids playing catch, biking around, chasing each other, while families seem to just stroll around. Two locals told me that the runway has only gotten larger – apparently in a few months, there’ll be direct flights from Miami. All flights currently come from Managua and Bluefields, two very short domestic routes.
Despite far from beach-worthy weather, I decided to wander over to the beach anyway just for a glimpse…and then got lost. I ended up wandering through a neighbourhood, with friendly locals bewildered but smiling and greeting me nonetheless as I passed through. After about 45 minutes of uphill climbing through Queen Hill (the downhill portion, which I never found, was supposed to lead me to the beach), I ended up with a decent view of Brig Bay, the island’s most inhabited area and also where I was staying. Rather than continue, I decided to turn back due to hunger and a clear lack of vendors or restaurants or anything up ahead. Luckily for me, I managed to hitch a ride on a policeman’s motorbike.
After lunch, on the correct road to Long Bay beach, I found the island’s baseball stadium and decided to watch for a bit. Teams are from different neighbourhoods of the island. National sport, can’t miss it! Though very very sparsely attended, I enjoyed the banter and heckling two locals were dishing out in a weird mix of Miskito, English, and Spanish. The players seemed to appreciate too.
The beach was really nice, but again, the weather was too miserable to do any sort of activity, so I just decided to walk back and call it a day… well, not before some weird drunk local started chatting with me. “Pateo, pateo!” he said while making kicking motions. I didn’t get it. “Bruce Lee!” Sigh. Friendly, but…drunk. He followed me down the road for awhile, waxing philosophical about how Nicaragua is the “center country” of Central America. I don’t even know. Then he thanked me for visiting Nicaragua. I’ll take that! Though, seeing as I encountered locals drinking even at 6 in the morning, I wonder if there’s some sort of alcohol problem here.
No boats the next day at 7 am or 10…but they finally started running one in the afternoon, without warning. I took one at 4.
While the waves were a lot calmer, the weather was still terrible. The panga ride was very rough, a rollercoaster of waves and genuinely treacherous conditions — a local on the boat even mentioned that the wind was coming back and that we probably shouldn’t have gone. Still, as we flew into the air and banged into our seats every few seconds, another local mentioned that her worst ride was so bad that they all had to stand in order to not hurt themselves from the bum impact. As for the boat’s co-captain/navigator? He had fun with the whole thing, standing up at the bow and holding onto a rope, never once flinching. We all got extremely soaked over the course of one never-ending, nauseous hour.
Upon arrival on Little Corn, I chose to find a place to stay at the east coast of the island, more secluded and away from the main village. It was the windier side, but I was assured that the weather would improve the next day.
Hungry, I got myself a large dinner… of lobster! 3 lobster tails, wonderfully cooked, for just 230 córdobas – that’s just shy of $10! That meal was worth all the trouble of the last three days. I headed to bed and fell asleep almost immediately to the sound of waves.
Waking up in my cabaña directly on the beach is a great feeling. (But it’s still a lot less luxurious than it sounds: sleeping under a mosquito net, on-and-off electricity, walking outside to the non-functioning shared toilet, shower, and sink whenever I needed them, seeing snake tracks in the sand…) It’s the sound of waves that rocks you in and out of sleep, the soft sand waiting for you the moment you step out of your room, and the beautiful sunrise that really tops it all off. Reminds me of Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, with less than 24 hours before my flight back to Managua, I couldn’t risk going diving – the reason I came to the islands in the first place. I chose to spend the day hopping from beach to beach, wandering the island, and getting sunburnt like crazy. Ah well, still relaxing. The food on the island is also really something — rondón, the regional stew of lobster, vegetables, and coconut milk, was incredibly delicious.
Little Corn Island has no roads and is entirely car-free, which has made it a larger tourist draw than Big Corn. I ended up seeing far more tourists and expats (many Canadians!) than locals. But of course, Little Corn’s inherent quaintness has its charms: there’s nothing taking in a beautiful sunset, then looking up at the stars and fireflies amongst the palm trees, all without any sounds of motors ruining the moment.
I only wish I had longer. I met many foreigners (retirees especially) who made a point of coming every year. While I probably won’t be doing that, I’d definitely come back – mainly to try that famous diving that I sadly missed out on. (You know, even if the weather had been better… turns out I had left my license in Boston by accident!) The islanders seem self-conscious about not allowing big development, and while I do hope for their success in business, I’m still hoping that this place will remain a hidden jewel!
I took the panga back early the next day (6:30), just in time for my flight back to Managua (7:30). I don’t think I’ve ever sat on a plane soaking wet before.