Escape to a quiet, tropical beach without breaking the bank
Published 5:01 pm Monday, May 18, 2015
Interested in escaping clamor and exhaust to the easy lapping of limpid waves and the whisper of Caribbean breezes? Untouched by the wheels of any motor vehicle, this barefoot island off the coast of Nicaragua is beckoning.
Little Corn Island, named the No. 1 place to vacation by Travel and Leisure Magazine, can be circumnavigated in less than two hours by foot and is rife with mango groves and palms ornamented with plump coconuts. Surrounded by vibrant reefs teeming with patterned rays, wild lobster and amiable sharks, it lures snorkelers, SCUBA divers and fishermen from around the world. Drifting off to reggae beats in a hammock on a secluded beach drinking rum from a coconut is accessible within two days of travel and affordable for budget travelers.
From Atlanta, flights are available round trip with Spirit Airlines ($400 to $600) to Managua, Nicaragua. Options for getting to Little Corn Island from Managua are either to fly round trip to Big Corn ($160), or to take a seven hour bus ride to El Rama ($6), then a boat down the Rio Escondido ($16) to Big Corn Island. Once on Big Corn, a boat takes passengers to Little Corn Island in a half hour ($6).
Two boats depart from El Rama to Big Corn for an approximately 20 hour ride. The Island Express departs Sundays at 9 p.m. Captain D, with 80 rustic bunk beds, departs on Wednesday at 9 p.m. Beverages and food are sometimes available onboard, but I recommend taking your own water and food. Another option is to take a small river boat from El Rama to Bluefields ($10) in one hour, then to board the Bluefields Express ($10), departing Wednesdays at 9 a.m.
On the port side of the island, closest to grocery stores and restaurants, with inexpensive accommodation and kitchens are Shell Hostel ($12+) and Three Brothers Hostel ($15+). Shell is the only place offering camping ($5 to $7) and hammock rental ($3). Shell guests can enjoy mangos from the owner’s tree and relax in beach-front hammocks under avocado trees which are home to a family of iguanas. Lobster Inn and Hospedaje Vista del Mar ($20+) are also port-side and beach front with well-groomed lawns and hotel restaurants.
On the East side are Grace’s Cool Spot, Elsa’s Place, Carlito’s Place and Stedman’s, which feature beach-front cabañas on the windward side with double beds and private bathrooms ($30+). Sharing a room, cabaña or tent cuts expenses in half at any of these hotels.
Many hotels do not have websites and only have a phone number to make reservations, but staying without a reservation should not be a problem. Upon arrival, a barefooted local can wheel your luggage on a cart to the East or North side because the walk may be 20 or 30 minutes.
Only Three Brothers and Shell provide kitchens which is an enormous money saver. Fresh, affordable produce is available from a number of vendors, and in many places, you may gather fruit. Valhall Farm on the southeast side sells fresh greens, herbs, vegetables and aloe. Eggs cost 20 cents each and loaves of freshly baked coconut bread are 80 cents. One pound of ground beef is $2 and a half pound of cheese costs $1.50. Pasta and tomato paste are inexpensive. Cans of vegetables and beans can cost up to $4, but dry beans, rice and lentils are affordable. Bring your own rum because the price doubles.
On a stroll back from the North side, towels bulging with ripe mangoes and arms sticky with trickling juice, you can pick up a bag of roasted peanuts from two little boys’ stand out front of their house. Then you can stop at the blue house after the church and get an enchilada with salad and cream for $1.50 and watch the sunset on the port, where sting rays and needle fish congregate. After dinner settles, join in the beach volleyball game on a team with locals and other tourists. Round off the evening with $1 beers at Oasis followed by affordable dinner or $2 tacos.
For $10 to $15, you can eat at any of the fifteen restaurants ranging from upscale Italian and American to local dive bars with lobster and shrimp, coconut rice and curry vegetables. Ceviche, chicken, beef and vegetarian dishes are available for slightly cheaper, along with typical food like plantain chips, salad, tacos, pupusas and enchiladas.
Run Down, the local stew, is a coconut milk-based stew with seafood, green plantains, yucca and quequisque cooked in a caldron over a fire and covered with banana leaves. Many locals will offer to make Run Down for you and to bring all the ingredients and the pot for $5 to $10 per person.
Most days pass in nothing but a bathing suit reading and lounging on isolated ivory and gold beaches where less than 10 people may pass. Take a knife or machete and indulge in the milk and meat of fresh coconuts and juicy mangoes between intervals of napping, reading and floating.
If you do nothing else, go snorkeling. Renting snorkels, masks and fins costs $5 per day, or $20 for guided tours. The most economical way to snorkel is to buy a mask and snorkel on the mainland, or to buy them from someone who is leaving the island because they are not sold on the islands. The North side has many lively reefs teeming with parrotfish, blue tang, bluehead, fairy basslet, spotted eagle rays, manta rays and nurse sharks. Bring your own sunscreen and bug spray; they cost $8 to $10 per bottle on the island. Kayak and stand up paddle board rentals are available for $10 and SUP yoga classes cost $25. Fishing for barracuda, trigger fish and snapper is offered by hotels and local fisherman for $25 to $50.
SCUBA diving is a bit more costly, but the experience is unparalleled. You can breathe effortlessly underwater, pet sharks and identify trumpet fish, schools of Caribbean squid, loggerhead sea turtles, the yellow head jaw fish popping out of a hole in the sand, the camouflaging sand diver, patterned yellow rays and starfish. The open water certification course at both dive shops costs $305, or $65 for an uncertified fun dive to 40 feet, or $35 for a certified diver. Few experiences rival weaving between corals of violet, emerald, tangerine, and neon azure and observing octopi, lobster and angel fish thriving at their core.
Five high-energy baseball games take place every Sunday at the Little Corn Stadium between teams from both islands. You will be right at home drinking $1 beers and eating 40 cent Caribbean meat patties to the tune of reggae and country music. Afterward, catch a tan on the secluded north beach and retire to an evening of lobster, coconut rice and mojitos under the moonrise.