I have a recurring dream. The plot changes but the scenery doesn’t: white sand, turquoise water, and tropical breezes. Sometimes I’m standing on a hilltop and the scene is splayed out in front of me. Other times I’m sitting at a beach bar – my toes in the sand and my eyes on the horizon – surrounded by brightly colored furniture and dangling shells. I know other people share this dream. But too often the fantasy of lazing under a palm tree is pierced by the reality of sky-high prices and hordes of other dreamers. Not so on Nicaragua’s Big Corn Island where lobster is cheap, hammocks are plentiful, and the pace is slow.
There are also very few visitors, making it one of the travel world’s best-kept secrets.
The Corn Islands consist of two islands known as Big Corn Island and Little Corn Island – though both are quite small. Big Corn Island (population about 6,000) has just one paved road that loops along the periphery of the 2.3-square-mile island and Little Corn Island has a year-round population of about 1,000 people but absolutely no cars. The interesting thing about the Corn Islands is that they’re a totally separate experience from mainland Nicaragua. That’s partly because it’s not easy getting to the Corn Islands. Electricity, water, and that one road I mentioned has only just arrived in the past few decades. English is the primary language and the native people are of African descent. Naturally, as tourism and opportunity have grown there are more and more Spanish speaking mainlanders moving to the islands. But for the most part, the Corn Islands have more in common with Jamaica than Nicaragua.
Though they’re only a puddle jump from Managua, the Corn Islands are among the few Caribbean destinations that remain unknown to most international tourists. They’re similar to each other in geography and are often mentioned in the same breath. But they have separate identities and have chosen different paths. The thing about Big Corn Island is, despite its superior beaches, most people skip right over it in favor of its smaller but more well-known sibling Little Corn Island. Both islands were heavily damaged by hurricane Mitch in 1998. The established coconut plantations that were the islands’ primary source of employment were mostly destroyed. Big Corn Island turned to lobster harvesting while Little Corn got a head start in the tourism department. While it’s true that Little Corn Island has more tourist infrastructure it’s also true that Little Corn Island has more tourists. That fantasy I mentioned rarely includes other people. So when it came to planning our travel itinerary we decided to take the road less traveled and see what Big Corn Island had to offer.
Big Corn Island
The answer is – not much beyond disappearing from the world (he said smiling). Sure there are purple and yellow and pink and green Caribbean-style houses and plenty of thatch-roofed cabanas. There are white sand and golden sand beaches, as well as coral reefs. If it’s a hammock strung between sagging palm trees you seek, you’ll find plenty of those too. But the charm of Big Corn Island lies in how little there is to do.
Which means aimless walks and random snacks is how we structured our days. We got to know the local beer Toña pretty well too. A schedule like that isn’t hard to maintain. Especially since we chose to stay at Sun Hill Villa. A newly built sunshine yellow house on the top of Quinn Hill. Its location is walking distance to two of the best beaches on the island. Which made it easy to fall into a routine. Mornings on one side of the island, evenings on the other, and a siesta at home sometime in between. When we got tired of that routine or didn’t feel like walking we took cab rides at just about a dollar per person anywhere on the island.
With so little on the agenda it’s easy to take whatever comes your way and be quite happy about it. That includes the food. Much of it is quite simple: rice and beans, bananas, tomatoes, breadfruit, yucca, and plantains. On Big Corn Island you’ll find plenty of seafood too, sourced from the surrounding turquoise waters: barracuda, king fish, snapper, and lobster. Especially lobster. A full lobster dinner (or lunch… who’s counting?) costs $10 or $12 for one or sometimes two lobster tails. In fact, we had lobster at least once a day every day we were on Big Corn Island.
There are other choices too. We ordered crunchy tostones (fried plantains) at almost every meal and enjoyed simply prepared ceviche as a snack at dusk. On the beach, we even found the time to slurp down fresh coconut juice offered to us by some children. It’s entertaining to watch a boy, barely taller than my waist, swipe the top off a coconut with a long machete. I noticed a few of the locals at other tables spiking their coconuts with splashes of rum. It seemed a very good idea and I was tempted to order a glass of Flora Cana myself. Beers cost $1 and rum isn’t much more. However, during my stay on Big Corn Island I learned one thing: don’t drink rum by the glass. In Nicaragua, it marks you as a tourist. Locals order rum by the bottle.
I may be on island time, but a bottle of rum seems like too much to accomplish in one lazy afternoon so I order another Toña and sit back in my chair – my toes in the sand and my eyes on the horizon. There is nothing more to do, nothing else to see. So I watch the sunset and think long and hard about nothing at all. Big Corn Island it seems is deeply familiar, in the way only somewhere you’ve never been before (except in your dreams) can be. GREG