Tag Archives: Ike’s Place

If you’re going to San Francisco

Bee Says: Fresh from our dreamy road trip and life on the open tarmac, we crawled into San Francisco at a snail pace. It turned out we had accidentally timed our arrival with that of the delegates to the huge annual Game Developers Conference (GDC); so San Fran! We inched our way into the city through the gorgeous toy-town pastel painted houses of the south side. We had also timed our arrival with that great American holiday… St Patricks Day! So Nick’s first impressions of San Fran (luckily I’ve been before) were of girls dressed in barely-there green hot pants, mardi-gras beads and low cut tops, puking into doorways at 3pm! A lovelier twist of timing fate had meant that my sister Jess’s partner Paul was in San Francisco at the exact same time as us! So with no time to lose, and being so incredibly excited to see some family after so long on the road, he appeared at Anish’s door and there was a lot of squealing and epic hugs and “you’re really really here!”. We swung by a sweet little Italian joint for some stomach lining pasta, having now got a case of the St Paddy day fear, then on to an amazing cider-specialist bar called UpCider. Despite the streets and bars heaving with people wearing green and yelling, Anish had amazingly found us a nice peaceful haven where we could hear each other talk and therefore do lots of chatting. The menu had us chuckling though because amongst an epic list of US produced craft cider (and beer) there was a couple of UK/Irish imports: Magners and Strongbow. The descriptions of these ciders talked of honey blossom tinges and smooth finishes. I feel sorry for anyone who opted for one of these atrocities over the really good stuff. Imagine there being a place in the world where Strongbow is considered a classy option!

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Our first full day in San Francisco was set to be action packed, as Anish is a man who takes his tour guide duty very seriously. He had put so much effort into thinking about where we could go and when and why, and it was such a relief after 6 months of permanently planning our next move to just sit back and be told which bus to catch and where to get off! He also, very thoughtfully, had chosen to live opposite our favourite store Trader Joe’s which gave us an excuse to stock up on even more cookie butter spread and chocolate covered peanut butter filled pretzels. We kicked off the day with our first breakfast (which turned into a daily tradition) at a gorgeous cafe, just around the corner, called Flour & Co. Not only was the coffee brewed to perfection, but the treat-offerings and items they class as legitimate breakfast foods were heavenly. My personal pick was a cluster of syrup soaked cinnamon dough balls covered in cream cheese frosting.

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It was then time to separate. Nick and the gang were off to Alcatraz! I had already been on my previous visit with Craig and it had been so perfect that I thought it would be silly to pay to go again, which I had such a blast the first time. So they departed with strict instructions from me to DO THE AUDIO TOUR, which I would advise anyone else. It’s the best tour of any tourist trap that I have ever experienced. He will fill you in on that, and in the meantime I had a very important date with… my second breakfast of the day (living the American dream!) and my good friends Jean and Saul. Jean is Che’s, of our Vegas extravaganza fame, sister and Saul is her adorable husband. We met up at Toast for some eggs and nattering, then I was lucky enough to get a peek at their gorgeous apartment. It’s always so fascinating to chat to people from other countries about the main differences or the pros/cons and I think we just about covered every topic from health care to politics, to cars, to quality of life, to diets and popular culture. Looking back, someone should probably have recorded us for some sort of international debate! I then got to do a really nice local lazy weekend morning activity, which was take Jean and Saul’s pooch for a walk to the park. The park had a panoramic view out over all of the city, the bay and even Alcatraz so I could give Nick a little wave from dry land…

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Nick Says: Welcome to the Rock. Alcatraz is just one of those places isn’t it? You’ve heard all about it, the stories, legends, and myths. And you know what? It lives up to it. After a walk down from Nob Hill (Anish does NOT live in Nob Town as I kept referring to it) through Fisherman’s Wharf via some of the more lovely parts of San Fran (there are a lot of hills in this town), we arrived eager and excited at the pier. The line was full of hubbub and excitability for the trip ahead. Anish had pre-booked our ferry tickets (which also give you entrance to Alcatraz itself) days before online, so we didn’t have to sort that out when we were there. Once on, we set sail for the short hop across the bay, on which you can glimpse the Golden Gate Bridge in all its glory (except when it’s fog shrouded of course), and there, gradually looming larger, the rock itself.

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Home to Al Capone, the Birdman of Alcatraz, and hundreds more of the most dangerous men who ever lived, Alcatraz is the most famous prison there has ever been. A federal prison between 1933-63, it saw more than its fair share of incidents, including housing the most feared gangster of all time, a siege, and several escape attempts. The island itself has also played host to a Civil War fort, and was the scene of an Indian occupation, which has left its graffiti daubed slogans over most of the facilities to this day. But it was the 30 years of hard time which we were interested in, and if you want to get the best out of your day on Alcatraz, then 100% go and do the audio tour. It is absolutely incredible. Narrated by both ex-guards and ex-prisoners of the Rock, you receive a tour of the facilities, much of which remains exactly as it was during its prison days. The cells are tiny, the wind howls through the place, and you can glimpse the freedom of San Francisco just over a mile away. It’s heartbreaking to hear the prisoners recount how they could hear New Year’s Eve celebrations every 31st December, and then chilling to hear what it was like to serve time with hardened killers – men who scared even the other jailbirds. The sound design of the audio tour is superb, and you really believe you could be there over 50 years ago experiencing life behind bars. The tour takes you to pock marks in the ground where marines dropped grenades during the siege, and to the service tunnels which were used in a successful escape attempt. As living history goes, it is one of the most immersive tours I have ever been on.

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After emerging blinking back into the light, it was time take a tour of San Fran’s other big tourist draw – the Golden Gate. We picked up Bee and drove up to the Presido near the entrance to the bridge. After spending about 4 days looking for a space (Anish just had to get the perfect one), we finally leapt out, trotted up to the entrance and got to see the bridge in all it’s glory. Now, while I am unashamed to say I prefer L.A. to San Fran (which was somewhat of a surprise to me, I must admit), there is no denying that San Fran is one of the best looking cities in the world, and the Golden Gate Bridge really is the cherry on top. Belonging to that same era of post-recession public works as the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge is magnificent to behold. But even better to walk across. One side is for cycling, the other for pedestrians. While next time I’d love to cycle across, walking allowed us time to stop and take photos, marvel at the sheer spectacle of what we were seeing, and peer over the bridge to look at the sailing boats underneath, the surfers barrelling along, or the the kite-surfers jumping in the wake of powerboats. All in all, it was pretty idyllic.

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But why do I prefer L.A. to San Fran I hear you cry? Well don’t get me wrong, San Fran is incredible. Anish really showed us a side of the city you couldn’t experience without living here, but maybe it’s due to the fact I’m not part of the tech scene which dominates the place almost absolutely. In L.A. I got the industry everyone was talking about, and yeah it was sometimes as shallow as you imagine it is, but it’s also a really collaborative place where you can get involved in a hundred different projects. San Francisco has been accused of being a city which feels rich, and getting richer (despite the vast majority of tech workers earning a lot less than you’d think). Demographics always change in cities, but in San Fran it feels like it’s on the edge of tipping over (much like London in some respects). Which is a shame, because it felt like an amazing place to live, and quite rightly a place where Anish would want to make his home.

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Bee Says: Anish put an awful lot of work into showing us the various areas of the city that on a quick holiday flit you may well miss. We had an epic day which started off with the BEST sandwich that I have ever eaten in my life. Paying close attention to our engagement antics, he knew that a certain Mr Ike, and Ike’s Place, had been really important parts of journey. So, he took us to another Ike’s Place! This time serving up the most magical amazingness inside a sandwich sub, head here to just drool over the menu.

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I opted for the Forty!?? which involved something called chicken fried steak. I got into “chicken fried” everything whilst in the states, and am pining for that dirty delicious flavour that is so missing from British culture. I swear, I would chicken fry everything in my life if I knew how. I added every sauce possible to my order, which the rest of my road trip pals thought would equal a saucy soupy disaster… but luckily Ike knew what he was doing and it was JUST the right amount of sloppy. Nick was furiously jealous of my choice, which led to him asking innocently if he could have just one more bite, and devouring the lot in his gob! Never get between a middle child and their food. Luckily you get a free bag of homemade crisps with every sandwich (which is something else I’d like to import to the UK please) so I didn’t go hungry.

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We took our feast up to Buena Vista park, which despite it being the middle of a week was absolutely heaving with all sorts of folk; a very diverse patch of grass that one. We sat next to someone playing bongos, which was unfortunate but provided a lot of comedy value as she bizarrely started to take her clothes off whilst still merrily tapping away! It was gorgeous sunshine so we sat for hours just taking in the view and pondering if it would be obscene to immediately go and order another Ike’s Place sandwich…

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Instead we took our pennies to the Haight district of San Francisco, which has a reputation for being a bit boho/hippyish. We absolutely loved it, a really eclectic collection of pretty houses, brunch places and independent shops. The first stop to satisfy a pack of music geeks was Amoeba Records. It was hard not to buy everything we saw, but we settled on the new Beck album which is marvellous. By chance we also stumbled into a gorgeous little bookstore called The Booksmith which I would highly recommend for a visit. The pound to dollar exchange was in our favour, so we couldn’t resist picking up a signed (!) copy of Wildwood by Colin Meloy, the lead singer from The Decemberists and his artist wife Carson Ellis.

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Next we had a huge hike around Golden Gate Park, which is stunning. Don’t be expecting something on the scale of an English park however, this one is so vast that it has actual roads going through it. We stuck mostly around the Academy of Science/Conservatory of Flowers end, and looking at the Google Maps I realise we missed seeing a bison paddock, which sounds like the kind of dangerous animal encounter fitting of the rest of the trip. You could spend day walking this park and still not see everything though!

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Quite enough walking had been done, so it was time to do something a little crazy and that had been lacking from our lives in a major way. BOWLING! Lucky Strike was slightly mind blowing in terms of mod cons. Here Nick and I were, fresh from a trip where most places didn’t have electricity or flushing toilets. Suddenly we were in a bowling alley where you could change the music playing with an app, and settle your bill from your phone. No human interaction required! It was a definite shock to our systems. The bowling itself was a lot of fun, as we were all quite evenly matched at going from throwing a strike to getting nothing for the next two turns. No one needed the kiddy bars though… so we may become pin kings yet.

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We spent our last night of the road trip as any cool kids would. Drinking Trader Joe’s craft beer (12 bottles for $10!) and playing… Uno!

We’d had a really jam-packed wonderful few days in San Francisco and were pretty sad to be getting on the Megabus back to Los Angeles. I think the best part for me was seeing our friends; sharing the end of our trip with Paul, Jean, Saul, Anish, Amii and David made the whole experience extra special. However, I would agree with Nick that whilst I have enjoyed both my visits to San Fran I struggle to get behind the hype of the place. It’s a wonderful holiday destination and I’m sure the people there have a nice quality of life, but I feel like it takes itself a little seriously on the cool/tech front. Those steep hills also get me in a sweaty, breathy mess every time! I have to say, in the California stakes, LA steals my heart.

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The One Where We Get Engaged on Little Corn.

Nick Says: The usual way of getting to Little Corn from Big Corn is on a panga, which leaves around 10am from the main dock in Brig Bay. However, on Monday and Thursday they lay on a bigger boat which they call the yacht, giving you a covered ride and apparently a smoother one too, albeit slower. We thought we’d hit the jackpot when we got to ride this bad-boy across, but sadly we hadn’t reckoned on the fact that we were inside, meant there would be no breeze, while we roasted in oven like temperatures. It was an incredibly sweaty hour crossing to Little Corn, and everybody was immensely happy to finally get across – many people rushing straight off the boat and jumping in the sea to cool off.

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A tiny place, Little Corn revolves around tourism. While on Big Corn you won’t see too many other holiday-makers, here you can’t move for them. But it’s easy to see why we all flock here. If you were asked to describe a tropical island paradise, you’d describe Little Corn. The place is drop dead gorgeous, with palm fringed jungle plunging straight onto beautiful golden beaches and clear Caribbean sea. You arrive in the tiny little Village, where most restaurants are based and the majority of the islanders lived. Along the east and the north of the island (sadly we didn’t quite make it to the south) are a handful of beach cabanas where you can stay, all with names such as Elsa’s Place, Grace’s Cool Spot, Derek’s Place, and Carlito’s. There’s also a few amazing places to eat, great snorkeling, and plenty of rum to drink. As you quickly see the same faces again and again in such a small spot, you quickly start recognising and chatting to everyone you pass, and everyone you pass has the same dazed smile on their faces, as if they can’t quite believe this place is real. We remarked more than once on our stay that it felt like a dream, and that we’d stepped out of reality for a few days. As the owner of Tranquillo café remarked to a backpacker who announced they were going to stay for a few more weeks, ‘That’s what I did. Seven years ago.’

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The emphasis of tourism on Little Corn means that you’re definitely not left to get on with your own thing, like on Big Corn. You can’t go 20 minutes without someone trying to sell you a snorkeling or fishing trip, get you to go to their restaurant for Rondon/Run Down (an unappetising looking but apparently delicious local dish made with fish and coconut milk), or generally get you to buy something. Our first evidence of this was when we got off the yacht and met a crowd of touts, each trying to get us to go to their respective hotel/beach hut. Knowing that places can get full quickly, we’d booked in with Grace’s a month or so before. We saw our guy at the dock, and followed him to Grace’s. But on the 20 minute walk across the island, he managed to completely turn us off the idea of staying there. If he wasn’t telling me, and the other guys we were walking with, about the fact that Grace’s had really hot Chilean girls there for us to try it on with, he was waving a condom in my face and telling me I could get some (this while I was holding hands with Bee…), or telling us that Grace’s was the party place on the island and no old people were allowed to stay there. Despite it looking a really nice place to stay, thanks to him we decided to walk on to the next place and lose our $10 deposit. The next place luckily happened to be Carlitto’s, a friend of Ike’s. Minutes later, and with us sat outside our new beach hut, the dude from Grace’s Place staggered over. Thinking he was going to ask us why we had run off, we were a bit surprised when he instead tried to sell us a snorkeling tour. The guy was so blazing that he had totally forgotten who we were and the fact he had just spoken to us five minutes earlier!

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Bee Says: The good fortune that Ike brings to our lives continued on Little Corn, as we mentioned him to Carlitto’s wife and she gave us their very best cabana, at a discounted rate. The little tin roofed cabin sat atop wooden stilts, with a decked porch that we liked to sit and drink daytime beers on whilst chatting to anyone who passed our house. We then had a slice of private beach and miles of turquoise twinkling water. From leaving bed, to being in the sea, could be done in under a minute. I know, because I tested this theory! The island is only 1km square, with no vehicles and no roads, just some paved tracks winding in and out of dense jungle to cross the island. It is the most pristine, perfect place I have ever seen and for those 90s kids from the UK, it is basically the Bounty telly advert come to life. The pace of life is slow, with absolutely nothing to go and nowhere to be, and this communal sense of giddy freedom. Unlike Big Corn with its bustling dock, cargo boats and planes of all sizes zooming in and out, Little Corn is only accessible one way. That is by boat, once in the morning and once at night. The same goes for leaving. The rest of the time? Well you may as well lay back in your hammock and bask in the fact you are completely marooned on a desert island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea.

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If you do decide to visit Little Corn (why wouldn’t you?) my one piece of advice is – pack your flashlight/torch! We were staying on the East, but socialising in the Village on the West, which inevitably meant that late night jungle treks back to bed. One such evening, Nick used his well-honed spidey-sense to track down the cheapest beer vendor, which also happened to have the most beautiful thatched little seating decks, with a panoramic view over the docks and with Big Corn twinkling in the distance. The sunsets were the kind you simply cannot take a bad photograph of and as we sat watching the magenta hues slice the violet sky, I was lucky enough to spot a shark circling and splashing about 20 metres away in the shallows. After a few sun downers (a phrase we have only learnt whilst travelling, basically it is a classy way of saying Happy Hour) and a plate of fresh fish tacos, we ducked into the wilds for our twenty minute stagger back to Carlito’s. Whilst there is power running off generators in restaurants and shops, there is no street lighting, so once you step under the canopy of the jungle it is PITCH black, with just the smattering of stars overhead to lead the way. Hence the need for a torch! These impromptu night hikes were some of my favourite times on Little Corn though. You never knew who was going to bowl around the corner, or what animal eyes would flash neon in the reflection, and there was always the slight chance you were going to get hopelessly lost. Well, as hopelessly lost as is possible on a 1km sq island.

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Longtime readers of the blog, may remember that back in Peru we celebrated Nick’s birthday. One of his presents from me was an IOU voucher for a slap-up meal of his choice, complete with cocktails and fancy long-forgotten things like dessert, that he could cash in at the location of his choice. In an unexpected act of patience, he hung onto this little scrap of scribbles until Little Corn. Therefore on the Saturday night, we donned the fanciest gear we own (my dress and Nick’s shirt were picked up at a goodwill store in Granada for the occasion) and headed to the Turned Turtle. We had selected this restaurant because during our stay on Big Corn we received three separate rave reviews from tourists saying they had eaten there pretty much every night as the food was so spectacular. Luckily it was a five minute stroll from our cabana too, so no hiking around in my fancy frock required. We arrived at 5.30pm to ensure we bagged the best table and view, then set about ordering. The thing Turned Turtle do really well, is the sense of value for money. You order a main course, and then you receive “free of charge” a starter, a soup/salad and a dessert. All for the price of your main, which is the standard reasonable Nicaraguan pricing for more upmarket places. We gorged on cheesy bread bites, a phenomenal sundried tomato salad, surf & turf of lobster & steak and then black-bottom banana cream pie. Just listing it reminds me of how phenomenally full we were, as 5 months of street food has left us with half the appetite we used to have for munching through London’s cheeseburger joints. That aside, the food was all just mouth watering and went down nicely with a few giant margaritas.

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We had a lovely meal, then after we strolled to a secluded beach that we had visited earlier in the day. It was just as beautiful at night. The air was balmy, the sea smelt incredible, and we sat snuggled up doing some star gazing. And then… Nick ASKED ME TO MARRY HIM! I will keep the finer details just for us, as what I liked most about it was that it was so private, but I will say that I had no idea it was coming! So it was the most amazing surprise. I had rationalised that there was no way Nick could bring a ring with him, so in my head I had completely parked the idea of any proposal speculation. He couldn’t have asked at a more perfect time in our lives and trip, and I am just so honoured to call him my fiancé (although everytime he calls me it, I think he is calling me Beyoncé, which is getting a little wearing for him!) We didn’t know what to do immediately after we got engaged… Do we run into a bar? Buy champagne? Go night swimming? In the end we settled on a couple of frosty Tona beers and sat alone on our favourite place… the porch, just listening to the sea crash in and out.

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I didn’t know, but Nick had actually taken me to the exact spot he was going to propose, the day before and we took some selfies that now have an extra significance!

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Nick Says: Even though I had been planning on asking Bee for a long time, and had an inkling she might say yes, it was still one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever had to say in my life. But now the feeling is incredible, and it’s made an already unforgettable adventure even more special. We’ve just got on so well throughout the trip, and enjoyed spending so much time together, that marriage seems the perfect way to carry on.

When not asking girls to marry me, I also took the time to hike round the island and do a bit of exploring. I set off on one blue-skied morning and found myself on the north of the island, where if possible the perfect beach island has it’s best beaches. While there I got chatting to a couple also hiking around, Pam & Doug. On first impressions they seemed a very pleasant 60ish American couple on their holidays. However, first impressions are often misleading, They were two of the most fascinating and slightly crazy people we’ve met along the way. Bearded and long-haired (what he described as his Willie Nelson phase) Doug was a Vietnam vet, while Pam was a war protester, and along the way I found out all sorts of amazing war stories – including Doug fishing for the local village kids by firing his machine gun into a lake, and also how the GIs used to float out to sea on their inflatable mattresses and get incredibly stoned. Currently the pair are conspiracy theorists (they talked to us about Area 51 and faked moon landings) and rum enthusiasts. One memorable drinking session with them included Doug disappearing for what seemed an age, before being spotted at the bar downing shots, while beautiful twenty year old girls surrounded him with their arms around his waist. Doug was a dude. We also liked that Pam always referred to us as ‘the kids’, which softens the blow that this is the year we turn 30…

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But there can be too much of a good thing, and after 3 days of paradise, we decided to head back to Big Corn, or what we now referred to as ‘home’. Our time on Little Corn was the perfect slice of dream living, and it’s a place I can see myself returning to more than once in the future. We hopped on the 1.30pm panga back, riding back with a Canadian couple called Mike and Nicole we had befriended on Little Corn. Despite a few warnings that it could be bumpy, the ride was super smooth and quick, the very antithesis to the panga ride of doom back in Colombia. Arriving back in Big Corn, Ike was there to greet us like long lost friends at the dock, before heading back to his place. After being rained off last time, the baseball was back on and so leaving Bee to recover from a dodgy tummy (maybe cocktail related), I headed off to the big game. Having never really paid much attention to baseball before, it’s always bemused me how it’s attracted such a passionate following in the Caribbean. But after a few hours at this game, I could understand why. The sun was shining, the reggae was blasting out full volume in the stadium, the crowd (who knew all the players from birth) would shout encouragement or jibes, the beers were flowing freely, and everyone was knowledgeable about the game. The only thing missing was a win for North End, after they threw a lead away in the last innings. Damn.

The next day we were able to Skype and FaceTime our families to share the good news. Brilliantly, Big Corn has the best internet connection we’ve had on the whole trip, so we were able to reach everyone with no trouble. I particularly liked seeing my older brother Chris still at work in his classroom, and having one of my old college teachers pop up mid-chat, lending a slightly surreal air to the proceedings. That evening we met up with Mike & Nicole for dinner, and no sooner had Bee’s mum Phil said to us to make sure we celebrated with bubbles, then these super friendly and generally excellent Canadians were offering us a bottle of champagne to split with them (it was their honeymoon gift from their hotel). That set the stage for a great night of chat with some fascinating people (my favourite story was how Mike, a Mountie, had lined up the taxi drivers in Managua and frisked them after having his wallet stolen) and a brilliant welcome back to Big Corn.

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Bee Says: Nearly a week of Big Corn living stretched ahead of us, but it passed in the link of an eye. We spent most days on Long Bay, our favourite beach by far, which we had entirely to ourselves every time. A beach like that anywhere else on our trip would have been heaving, so we were reminded once more why we are besotted with Big Corn. Long Bay beach also has a brilliant bar and restaurant called Island Style, run by the friendliest chaps around who whip up some mean plantain treats if all the sunbathing gets you peckish. We chose one day as our snorkeling day, but sadly the visibility was bad (we could see sand… sand… and more sand…) so we hung up our flippers and roamed around the island hunting our cheap lobster instead. On our last night on Big Corn, Ike excelled himself to the maximum, by throwing us an impromptu engagement party! As we haven’t been able to celebrate in person with friends and family, it was extra special and just another example of this man who, aside from his sweary-sailor stories once drunk, is basically a saint. His generosity and life advice will continue inspiring us for years after the trip. Heck, I would recommend a trip to Big Corn JUST to meet this man, let alone the paradise beach thing.

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Ike’s assistant Eva had baked us a phenomenal meringue cake, and Ike had ordered a platter of the best Caribbean fiesta food; shrimp, chicken wings, plantain, beef strips and fried fish. Oh and of course, a bottle of red wine, a bottle of white wine AND a huge bottle of Flor de Cana rum. We donned our Ike’s Place tee-shirts for the do, and then felt a bit embarrassed when Eva arrived looking Hollywood-movie stunning, in a dress and sparkly accessories. The bar opened at 5pm, and by midnight we were STILL sitting around the table, nattering on about everything and anything. At one point Ike bought out a big map of the Caribbean and we had an amazing Geography lesson mixed in with all his riotous tales from his time as a sailor and salesman working the Caribbean coast in the 70s and 80s. Most stories ended up with all of us doubled over in belly laughs, tears streaming down our faces and only gathering our senses to burst out laughing again. It was a really special night, with us feeling firmly a part of his Big Corn family. We even got Ike to drunkenly promise to attend our wedding (he has air miles aplenty) and plan to remind him every week until the day itself!

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With heavy hearts (and absolutely hangin’ hangovers – although of course Ike and Eva looked fresh as a daisy at breakfast!) it was time to big Corn Islands farewell. As Nick mentioned, we this special place has now become a huge part of our story. It will always be the place we got engaged, and therefore without a doubt we will be back here before long, which makes it a tiny bit easier to say goodbye… for now. We both agreed that if we didn’t have an important date to make (more about that in a moment), we would probably have sacrificed Guatemala, Belize and Mexico, and just stayed here for a month. Granted the blog would have become very dull (“sat in a hammock… ate fresh fish… drank pirate rum… sat on the beach… repeat…”) but it is the only destination of our whole 5 month trip that we have felt this way about, which says it all really. Luckily for you we HAVE left (back on the cattle cargo boat of course) and are now en route to Guatemala, via Honduras and El Salvador, to meet our friend Craig in Antigua, a city in Guatemala – not the Caribbean island, confusing! He has chosen to spend his holiday/vacation joining us for part of our trip, which as we have both agreed, gives him a free pass for life for us to do anything in return for him. We really appreciate him using the precious time to share this adventure with us and cannot wait to have a new travel team member (and he is bringing precious supplies from England such as CLEAN underwear! pain killers! Dime bars!).

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The blog may well have a little break for Craig’s visit, as it won’t be much fun for him sitting for hours in a cyber café sweatbox, so expect some bumper updates mid February. In the meantime you can follow mini updates on our adventures on Twitter here:

Bee

Nick

 

 

Corn of Plenty, Nicaragua.

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…

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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