Nicaragua's Corn Islands

If your idea of a perfect vacation is walking along white sand beaches, enjoying spectacular sunsets, snorkeling in clear waters, swaying in a hammock, and (if you have time for it between all the other relaxing activities) reading books, then Nicaragua's Corn Islands are the destination for you. There are no country clubs, martini bars, 5 star restaurants, or tour buses. Even the official tour signs advertise that no mini drink umbrellas! Instead, you get ca. 70km (50 miles) distance from Nicaragua's mainland and a worlds apart from your normal routine.

The two Corn Islands‐Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island‐are covered by exotic fruit trees, adorned with crystalline coves and surrounded by stunning reefs (part of the Belize Barrier Reef) and even a few underwater caves. The islands offer a superb Caribbean experience and side of Nicaragua in a beautiful and mostly unexplored environment. Here you can still get a room for less than $10 in a family run hospedaje and buy an excellent dinner from street vendors for $2.50. The local beer is always cold and rum is served by the bottle at many of the local restaurants.

Undertake adventure sports like diving or sea fishing, or just relax and enjoy the beach and tranquil surroundings. Temperatures hover year-round at ca. 30° Celsius.

People

Descendant from indigenous populations (primarily peoples of the Mosquito Gulf), British prospectors and freed slaves, as well as recent in-migrants from the Nicaraguan mainland, local Islanders are a diverse population speaking their own distinctive version of Caribbean Creole.

History

Several stories exist about the origin of the name "Corn Islands". Some say that the islands were named by British sailors who used the area to re-provision their boats with game meat —having misspelled the Spanish word 'carne' as 'corn'. Others say that the islands were so named after the corn (maize) that was once grown on the islands.

What is certain is that both British and French pirates and buccaneers in the 17th century often sought haven on the Corn Islands. Surrounding them remain untold numbers of shipwrecks and other sunken treasures.

In the more recent past, the islands were utilized by for drug-running and other criminal activities (and tourists experienced crime problems as a result). Corn Island, Nicaragua being only a short distance from Colombia’s San Andreas Island, results in it being a passing point for drug runners. Narcotics traffickers pack their ships and speedboats with their cocaine cargo, en route to its prime customer, the United States. As it can sometimes happen, these boats get intercepted by diligent coast guards and marine police, which can lead to the cocaine packages being dumped overboard. In recent years, these drug bundles have been washing ashore on the beaches of Corn Island, where they are seen as a godsend to the locals. For them, selling its contents can profit more money than they've ever seen. Even today, it is not unusual to see the United States Coast Guard flying over the area.

Today, the security situation is greatly improved and criminality dramatically reduced. Police are present on both islands. By using common sense, most risks to tourists can be mitigated.

Economy

Most people make their living from harvesting lobster and fish.

While many adventure-minded tourists seek out The Corn Islands for their fishing (flats and offshore), scuba diving and snorkeling, the tourism and hospitality industry is in its infancy.

Tourism infrastructure is small-scale, though there are many charming places to stay and visitors often enjoy the personal attention they receive. One should not, however, expect the same level of amenities as may be found in more mature tourist locales.

Health & Safety

The Corn Islands are ports of call for Colombian drug boats, which combined with a history of bare-bones law enforcement and a growing, youthful tourist industry, has led to serious problems. Petty theft is common, and muggings, hotel break-ins and even sexual assault have been reported. Solo female travelers should get a hotel room (as opposed to a bamboo shack) with real locks and doors. Anecdotally, crime happens mostly to tourists who have purchased cocaine earlier; your cool new friends know you're high and have money.

Police presence was radically increased in late 2005 in response to these problems, and many issues were being resolved at press time. Regardless, be careful and ask locals for the latest.

Electricity and telephone services do not always function.

Getting There

Reaching the Corn Islands can be either easy and rather comfortable or difficult and tiring—depending on the transportation method chosen.

Of course, the key factors in one's decision tend to be available budget, time for traveling, ethics concerning resource consumption, etc.

By Air

The fastest, most convenient (and also most expensive option) for reaching the Corn Islands is to fly from Managua to Big Corn Island. Big Corn's airport is served by Atlantic Airlines (575 5055) and La Costeña (575 5131). La Costeña has two flights daily that depart from a small terminal building next to the main terminal at Managua International Airport.

In a trip that takes on average 1 hour and 45 minutes, passengers are flown by small planes (single or double propeller planes)—sometimes passing through Bluefields )(and even Ometepe) along the way. Departures are at at 8:10am (LC), 8:35am (AA), 3:40pm (LC) and 4pm (AA). The cost of the flight is around US$130 - US$170 round-trip. La Costeña airlines state that you need to check in an hour and a half before your flight time. In reality, they are not consistent in applying this rule—meaning some days they do, some days they don’t. Although Big Corn's airport has recently been approved for international flights, there still do not appear to be any direct connections with Miami and Houston.

When entering and departing Big Corn Island by air, expect to pay a small tax (ca. US$5).

By Boat

This scenario easily cuts down costs by two thirds or more, but it also means spending more than a day traveling under less-comfortable circumstances. Adventure is definitely ensured during this journey though, and it can surely be a great experience.

Boats make the four- to six-hour trip between Bluefields and the Corn Islands on Sunday (9am, US$12,), Tuesday (mornings; US$6) and Thursday (9am, US$9). Alternatively, Big Corn Island can be reached by taking the ferry that departs once a week from El Rama. El Rama is a small port town at the Escondido River that has a decent bus connection with Managua. Ferry 1 is the name of the ferry that travels back and forth between El Rama and Bluefields.

When to Visit?

Dry season usually occurs between January and April. For diving, we've read that the best time to come is September-October, when the hurricane season starts in the more northern regions—drawing away tourists due to the bad weather. Storms on the Corn Islands are reported as occurring in October-December, characterized by strong winds and heavy rains.

Avoid going during Nicaraguan national holidays such as Semana Santa (Easter week) and Christmas. Prices are more expensive and accommodations fill up quickly.

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