Typically, I am a big-time planner when I travel. It’s a little bit of an anxiety thing I guess, as having my itineraries planned out makes me feel more in control of a situation that is generally uncontrollable. But beyond that, I also do just genuinely enjoy the planning process. The obsessive compulsive in me loves pouring over websites and pamphlets, making reservations and reading reviews. The tasks that many find tedious I find strangely satisfying.
So it really is a testament to Nicaragua that other than the purchase of our plane tickets, I had planned absolutely nothing about our five day trip to Little Corn Island. It was the last stop on my journey in Nicaragua, and I had learned long ago that planning very much in this country… was close to impossible.
As it turns out, Little Corn Island might be one of the few destinations in Central America to plan for.
Little Corn Island and her sister, Big Corn Island, lie about seventy kilometers east of mainland Nicaragua in the Caribbean sea. These islands, as well as most of the Caribbean region of Nicaragua, are quite a bit different from what you’ll find in the rest of the country. The people here speak English and Creole, as well as Spanish (and in my experience, often all three at the same time). Their skin is darker, and their demeanor friendlier than the Nicaraguans I met on the Pacific-side. The culture here is also very laid-back, very Caribbean. It reminded me a lot of the Dominican Republic, The Bahamas, or what I imagine Jamaica might be like (though I’ve never been there).
We arrived the day after a massive storm – something I would have known if I had bothered to do any research-oriented activity, like say, check the weather. But I didn’t, so the grey skis we encountered upon landing at the airport on Big Corn Island were a bit of a shock and disappointment. We boarded a ‘ferry’ anyway – a small fiberglass boat packed to the brim – and headed toward the shores of Little Corn, just a few miles away.
Before we set off, the crew carefully placed a sheet of plastic along one side of the boat, and instructed those on that side to hold on to it and hand it down the aisle should we get wet. I assumed this protocol had something to do with the drizzle and dreary skies. I was wrong.
Just a few minutes out of Big Corn, we hit our first wave. We flew through the air for what seemed like far too long, then landed with a crash so hard that the back to the bench in front of us literally fell apart. People screamed and then laughed nervously. Water came rushing over our heads. Now I knew what the plastic was for.
This continued for quite some time. At first it was fun. It felt a lot like a rollercoaster – except instead of finishing off in a gift shop, this rollercoaster promised to take us to a tropical paradise. But then it kept happening… Up we’d go in long flying leaps, only to come back down in hard, jarring crashes. The waves poured over the bow and sides. While at the beginning the crowd was jovial and loud, just ten minutes in everyone was silent. The quiet conveyed what no one would say: this isn’t fun anymore.
The plastic was passed over and those who could huddled underneath. That helped a little, but it also felt very claustrophobic. People were starting to get sick. The girl next to me looked like she was going to lose it at any time, and I wasn’t feeling that much better. Meanwhile, my travel companion sat on the other side of the plastic, too tall to fit underneath, absolutely soaking wet as wave after wave pummeled him – sometimes directly to the face.
Finally we arrived to Little Corn, and had the dock been less crowded, I definitely would have kissed it as we climbed off. Like most of our trips in Nicaragua, we hadn’t made any reservations on the island. It was time to start searching for a place to put our bags down – but not before taking a seat at a dock-side restaurant to calm our bellies with carbonated beverages and a snack.
No cars exist on Little Corn Island, just a couple of sidewalks and a couple more dirt paths. We decided to walk first to the more popular eastern side of the island to find a room. We had heard tales of cheap shacks on pristine beaches, and after our harrowing ferry ride, we were more than ready to take it all in. But we found the signage on the island to be confusing, and ended up missing the turn-off we needed to follow. Instead we found ourselves on a sort of jungle trail, mucking through thick mud for about an hour while following hand-painted signs that simply said ‘beach.’ When we got to the ‘beach’, we found it was inaccessible. We were on an escarpment high above and the waves crashed directly below – almost no sand in sight. We turned around.
Back on the sidewalk, we asked for directions more than once before finding the (actually very obvious) path that lead to the eastern side. We had probably been walking for two hours when we reached the beach lined with the shacks our friends had told us about. I felt immediate relief to see the ocean, but that feeling didn’t last long.
The beach was filthy. It was covered in trash and debris, presumably from the outgoing storm, and it seemed like most of the lodging options were shuttered and closed. It felt a bit like a post-apocalyptic scene – us carrying our packs through the rubbish-littered sand, walking through abandoned hostel after abandoned hostel. We came about one nice hotel with a clean beach and a good-looking restaurant – but it didn’t fit our budget, so we walked on. Finally, we encountered a couple who seemed to know the island fairly well, and recommended we head to the north shore. There weren’t as many places to stay there, they said, but the beach should be in better shape than this one.
We had to go back to the dock area in order to get to the north shore – a painful decision seeing as we had been walking north along the eastern beach for so long. But we were done guessing our way around the island. Hours had gone by, and we were exhausted.
Finally, we made it. We stopped at the first place we saw and agreed on $30 a night for a shack… that wasn’t on the beach. But it was close, a three minute walk through a beautiful grove of trees that lead to a beach in much better shape than the one we had come from. Plus, we were tired, wet from sweat and rain, and covered in mud. We didn’t have it in us to carry on, so instead we took showers and collapsed on our overpriced, mosquito-netted bed.
We awoke sometime not long after sunset, starving and dehydrated, but at least we had a bed and a place to put our things. Our hostel didn’t have a restaurant or drinkable water, so we had to walk all the way back to town in the dark in order to stock up.
By Nicaraguan standards, Corn Islands is not a cheap destination. Tourism is their main industry, so most of the restaurants on the island are hugely overpriced. We decided to cook for ourselves in our hostel kitchen to save money, but we did allow ourselves two meals out – one that first night, and a lunch later on. It was lobster season in the Corn Islands after all, and sometimes you just have to shell out the cash.
We were on Little Corn for several days, and the weather got progressively better as time went on. We hardly saw the sun that first day, but we had nothing but blue skies on our last. The wind never really died down enough for the waves on the northern and eastern sides of the island to calm to the point that the pictures in promotional photos of Little Corn Island advertise, but the protected western shore – where the main town and dock are located – was so flat on our last afternoon, it was easy to imagine someone walking right across it.
Our timing hadn’t been great, and the laid-back attitude I’d adopted in Nicaragua as far as planning goes did not serve me well here. A lot of stress would have been avoided if we had just checked the weather, researched the ferry ride, got ahold of a proper map, and made reservations ahead of time. Still, as I floated in that crystal clear water – belly full of lobster and skin tanned from the sun – I had the thought that despite all the hassle it had taken to get there – a plane ride, the terrifying ferry, the hours and hours of walking in the mud, the less-than-ideal weather – it was all worth it for this kind of paradise…
…Just maybe next time, I’ll plan a little more.