Bee Says: The Corn Islands are a pair of ex-pirate islands, approximately 70km into the Caribbean sea off the Nicaraguan mainland. In fact, Big Corn (La Isla) and Little Corn (La Islita) were the starting point for planning the rest of our Central America leg, with everything else shifting into shape around the fact we both knew that we HAD to see these islands. There are two ways of travelling to Big Corn from Managua (best up to date reference on options is here) :
1. The Easy Way (90 minute flight from Mangaua: $100)
2. The Hard Way (Bus to El Rama, Cargo Boat to Big Corn: $30)
And I am sure you can guess exactly which route we opted for. We set off from Granada on a Monday morning, getting to the rather sketchy capital city Managua at about 11am and headed to the Costa Atlantica bus station. Our night bus to El Rama wasn’t actually leaving until 9pm but we needed to be on it to meet our boat, so didn’t want to risk it getting sold out (an annoyingly frequent occurrence). Queue a long, hot, sticky day of waiting. And waiting. And waiting! We played a LOT of “20 questions” but we’ve been travelling together so long we are verging on psychic and just kept guessing straight away, however obscure the item eg. A monkeys hut. We also tried to order some soft drinks, but they came in a plastic bag with no straw…
At 9pm we boarded our bus, a battered old American school bus, so not exactly comfortable for our night on the road. We knew the bus arrived into El Rama at 3am, a dreadful time to arrive anywhere, but the blogs we had read ASSURED us that people are then allowed to sleep onboard until daybreak. So imagine our slight panic when at 3am we arrived and were immediately booted off into the thick night. El Rama only has a one line deception in the Lonely Planet. “Not as seedy as it once was… But it was pretty damn seedy”. Based on this we didn’t fancy a stroll in the dark, and luckily there was a hotel next to the bus stop which had some benches laid out in the car park, and a tv playing a Latin American version of Judge Judy on repeat, where everyone from the bus seemed to slope off to wait for morning. So we followed suit. We tried to ask for a room at the hotel but they were full. By 8am we were nearly delirious, and also getting increasingly anxious as we know the boats to the Big Corn are notoriously unreliable, hard to get information on and likely to change routes/days if they have to pick up extra cargo. Despite the fact I’d spoken to “Capitan D” on the phone, we still had an increasing fear that he wouldn’t actually be there, which was compounded by the fact the locals I asked kept telling me he left “ayer” – yesterday.
A second entire day of waiting for transport that may or may not arrive stretched out in front of us, and a second disheartening discovery was that using my tired Spanish I’d found out that IF Capitan D was there, he’d be at a port 2km away! Not the handy little dock that our hotel was next to. Darkness fell once more, and at 7pm we had to find a Tuk-Tuk and head off into the unknown. I was sick with tired and worry, as if the boat wasn’t there we would either have to wait in El Rama for it to come (once a week.. and El Rama is not a place you want to spend a day, let alone a week) or give up our Corn Island dreams and retreat forlornly to Managua. We arrived at the port and a nice security man (carrying a machete but we have got used to this “normal” Latin America accessory by now) walked us to the dock and YEAH! There in all his glory… the Capitan D! The boat was real AND there! We practically skipped on and were greeted with our first glimpse of life on deck: a group of weathered looking sailors hosing down three PIGS! Not exactly our luxury Galapagos cruise anymore. The lower deck of the boat was all cargo (mainly food, sandbags, 3 pigs, 2 cows and postal deliveries) The upper deck was amazing, no cabins but an open plan room full of triple decker bunk beds!
We set sail, after hours of loading up, at 10.30pm. The first 12 hours were river sailing (ahh Amazon boat memories!) and only about 7 passengers sleeping in the “dorm”. We thought we’d hit jackpot and had a lovely nights sleep and I could see a gorgeous sunrise from my bed. Then at 10am we docked in Bluefields (named after a pirate who ran his smuggling trade there, obviously) and all hell broke loose! We waited 4 hours while the boat loaded more animals and cargo, and every single bunk became full, often with families of 5 sharing one bed. It soon became very hot and cramped but it was fun with a typical fiesta atmosphere of people singing, chatting in Spanish and our first taste of the amazingly accented Caribbean English patois that is spoken in the Corn Islands. We set off again and called in at El Bluff for a final cargo stock and more passengers. We were fit to bursting, Departing at 6pm and headed out to open water, we had braced ourselves for a rough crossing so could hardly believe it when it was so calm there was barely any difference between the river and ocean… we had no idea at the time but it turns out we were experiencing a first-hand dose of “the calm before the storm”. Capitan D creaked into Big Corn docks at 11pm, by which point we had been travelling non-stop for 3 days and spent 26 hours on board. As a result, we sacked off all future plans and decided we needed 2.5 weeks on the islands to recover.
Nick Says: Tiredly hauling our packs with us, we stepped off the boat and breathed in the sea air. We had made it. Even in the darkness you could see how crystal clear the water was. Life here was going to be good. But first we had one more little adventure before we could reach Ike’s Place, our final destination. We jumped in a little taxi, asked for Ike’s and set off. To a completely different place. The taxi driver, after failing to get us to a ‘great hostel’ he knew about, dumped us next to the nearest hotel on the road and assured us it was Ike’s, before taking our money and disappearing into the night. This presented a slight problem, as it was fast approaching midnight, we were exhausted and near delirious, and had nowhere to sleep. Luckily we found a slightly grumpy night-watchman at this random hotel. Despite the fact he only spoke Spanish, we managed to explain our predicament to him, and waited as he disappeared. And waited. And waited. Hmmm. But then success! He came back with a very groggy looking manager, who we were able to press our tattered post-it note on which Dr Dru (my American chiropractor who helped me in Panama, and had put us in contact with Ike) had scrawled down phone numbers. Our sleepy saviour managed to get hold of Ike, and then put us in the hotel van before driving us all the way across the island (our legit taxi man had gone completely the wrong way) to Ike’s Place. After rousing Ike, he then refused any money and wished us well, with the seemingly grumpy night-watchmen all smiles and shaking hands. Big Corn, what a first impression.
About 10sq km in area, Big Corn is a world away from the Spanish speaking Central American mainland. A former British protectorate, English is still the main language here (although you’ll also hear Spanish and Miskito), and the relaxed Caribbean way of life prevails. It’s an island surrounded by clear turquoise seas, and a place where you can jump in a shared taxi and most likely know the other person sitting in it after only a few weeks. A place where sometimes you can’t get anything from the nearby bakery because Ingrid the baker is asleep in her rocking chair, but when she’s awake you’ll be there hours chatting. It’s a place which feels lived in, real, and seductive. A place where we were promised the Caribbean dream. It was also a place where a tropical storm crashed it’s way into hours after we arrived.
While we could have been forgiven for not picking up on the whole calm before the storm thing, maybe we should have paid more attention to the guy running around the Captain D telling everyone there was a hurricane on the way. But to be honest he seemed pretty mad, and I was sleepy so ignored him. What I couldn’t ignore the first day we woke up on the island was the howling wind and lack of water or electricity. But it takes more than a giant storm to put our amazing host Ike in a bad mood. Apologising to us for us waking him up (I know), he greeted us all smiles despite the wind. I’m not sure if words can ever do Ike justice. He’s one of the most welcoming and friendly people I have ever met. A quick look at his glowing Trip Advisor reviews show just what an impression he has made on people. Nothing is ever too much trouble for him, and he was always there for a chat. And boy he has interesting things to say. He told us all about the 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, about hoping for a brighter future, about being forced to flee the country, and about finally returning to his home. He told us that despite what some of the histories say, the revolution wasn’t the black and white struggle between a dictator and the people it’s sometimes portrayed as, or in Ike’s words, ‘you don’t know what it’s like unless you live through it’. He told us all about the corruption he faces on the island, with some authorities always trying to get a bigger slice of the pie, or local people being swindled by a few rogues. But despite all this, he always has a smile and a positive view of life. For an insight into what type of man he is, I snuck a look at his shopping list one day as we drove about the island. Ike is a man who has jelly and beans as his top two items. I think that sums up him and the island.
Bee Says: Our first five days of tropical paradise, mostly consisted of gale force winds and sheet rain. Oh and occasional losses in power and water supply, so one day we had to use the very glamorous method of bucket-showering in rain water.
In Nicaragua the storm season finishes in November and restarts in May, so the “weather coming down” (as the locals refer to it) was a total freak occurrence that had everyone on the island chatting and swapping predictions and rumours. Everyone we passed on the street wanted to share the latest storm-gossip, and we felt very British and at home sharing the thrill of permanent weather small talk. The main information we gathered was that after the extreme cold spell in East Coast USA, this storm was that same weather front, heading down Central America towards Panama. We didn’t let a little bluster dampen our spirits, and even managed a 12k walk one day, returning drowned but happy rats. The irony wasn’t lost on us that the place we have worn our raincoats the most is a Caribbean island! No boats arrived to the mainland since we did, and on the last few days of the storm we experienced rationing at some of the shops. This is an island after all, which relies entirely on cargo boats and planes bringing in supplies. We also had high hopes for a fun (if still damp) day as we had tickets to the local baseball game! There are 4 teams on the island, and the number one social activity is to gather at the stadium and cheer on your faves. I donned my $5 fangirl shirt, and headed over ready for a day of beer, frito (BBQ chicken) and ball. However we watched about 4 boys bat… before the heavens opened and after 15mins the pitch was waterlogged and the game was cancelled! We shuffled home in the rain. It was fun while it lasted.
One of my favourite things about the island is; where else in the world would the directions to get to the ATM be “You just walk down the airfield runway if nothings coming”. The airstrip runs down the length of the island, and planes only land twice a day so the rest of the time it becomes a vital connection between the north and south. It also seems to be where all the cool teen girls hang around gossiping, people of all ages gather to play barefoot baseball… and the occasional goat races take place.
We definitely had our best/weirdest dining experience of the trip on Big Corn. One night, ducking in from another downpour, we visited Comedor Maris. Officially classed a restaurant… it is actually just a couple of coffee tables set up in Mari’s living room! With wide eyes taking in all the family photos, trinkets, jumble and décor, we sat down next to this ladies sofa and she offered us fish or shrimp. We got both, along with fried plantain and rice & beans (traditional Nicaraguan side dishes) oh and a nice cold beer from her fridge. From our table we could watch as she cooked right there in her little kitchen, served us, then sat back on her sofa and completely ignored us, instead watching “The Shawshank Redemption” on her TV whilst we ate. After so long on the road, we really missed being in someone’s actual home, so long after finishing our food we stayed to watch the end of the movie then trotted home. Frogs were ribbiting from the puddles in the dark.
I can’t deny, that even with the wild, wet, windy start, I lost my heart to Big Corn within days of arriving. The sea view alone is enough to steal your breath, even under grey skies. Vast coral reefs slice dark patches into the bright turquoise waters and white sandy bays, backed by dense green wilds, stretch as far as the eye can sea. Tin roofed shacks, pastel painted bakeries, selling fresh coconut bread & pumpkin pie, and palm thatched bars dot the road, along with “killer crab” road signs and arrows pointing to “the swamp”. Everyone you pass acknowledges you, with either a bellow or a wave or a subtle head nod. Country music blares from unseen speakers and the smell of the salty ocean mixes with the hot heavy smell from the jungle. Big Corn is rough around the edges, but that is what makes it magical. This isn’t a Disney-version of a desert island, this is an authentic Caribbean community living and breathing and existing in the middle of the sea and their unique laid back way of life sucks you immediately in.
Nick Says: As the rain showed no signs of abating, we decided to keep our heads down and drink rum. These were former pirate islands after all. Heading back to dock, we settled ourselves in to Fisher’s Cave, the locals choice for seafood places. Breaded lobster for $10? Shrimp in jalapeno sauce? YUM! And the most fabulous waiter we’ve ever met. Plus of course a bottle of Flor de Cana dark rum to wash it all down with. So good we had to drink it again the next night while we hid out in our room.
But then the next day dawned bright and clear, and the sun had returned to the Corn Islands. The power was working, and so was the water. We went down for our morning routine of breakfast – a traditional Nica breakfast of gallo pinto (rice and beans), scrambled egg, and cheese, together with coffee and fresh star fruit juice, all lovingly prepared by Eva, Ike’s helper. Ike himself would greet us every morning for a chat, and this sunny day announced he was going to take us on a tour of the island. So we jumped in his 4×4 and set off. Seeing as Ike grew up on Big Corn, it was as much reminisces about his youth (here’s where I learnt to swim) as sight-seeing tour. He also knows EVERYONE on the island, and every 10 metres or so we would stop to greet yet another passer-by. The tour also took in some more unusual sights of the Big Corn. At one place we pulled up, and Ike pointed at a man sat by a bar, ‘That there is the black Santa Claus’. The man looked up, waved and called out, ‘It’s true. I’m just like him. But black’. He did have a magnificent white beard, but I’m not sure if Santa sits around in his underwear drinking rum at 10am in the morning.
We also drove down a secluded part of the island to reach a $4 million house. Built by Morgan, the richest man on the island (he runs all the seafood export business), this home was designed to be a dream weekend retreat for him and his wife. There was only workmen there when we arrived, but Ike had been there many times and let us in to have a look. The place was spectacular, hand-carved dark wood pillars, a huge master bedroom, and the best view on the island. But it had taken Morgan 10 years to build, and now he was an old man who couldn’t live in an isolated location, nor allow his wife to live there either in case something happened. So the dream house stands empty, but still requiring a full-time staff to maintain it and a watchman to guard it, while Morgan stays in his former house in the main town of Brig Bay. A lesson if ever that the money to build yourself whatever you want isn’t always worth it.
After a week on the island, and with the beautiful weather continuing, we decided to seize our chance to make the 7 mile crossing to Little Corn. I had been wanting to see this island for years, and now it stood less than an hour away. It was also the place where I’d been planning on asking Bee something very special, but feared the weather might put paid too. For now the sun shone, and we set off for the docks to catch the boat…