Published: September 15th 2008March 11th 2008
Elsa's, Little Corn Island
Imagine an island with no roads, turquoise water, coral reef, palm trees and timber huts on the beach.
When the inevitable question of travel highlights comes up - Little Corn Island, Nicaragua is high on my list. Basically - this little Caribbean gem sets a new benchmark for paradise on earth. The thing is; I wouldn’t have even gone there if it hadn’t been for St Paddy’s day and a fabulously crazy gang of Irish. But I’ll get to that …
If Guatemala is hot on the backpacker destinations for Central America, then Nicaragua is the next BIG thing. With colonial Spanish style cities like Leon and Granada, undisputed paradise on the Caribbean Coast and some of the best surfing breaks in the world on the Pacific Coast - there’ll be no stopping the Americans making it their 52nd state (after Costa Rica). The first thing I noticed about Nicaragua was the heat - a roasting, hot slap in the face off the air-conditioned bus. The countryside en-route to the capital Managua was very dry with lots of paddocks, horses and garbage stuck to barbed wire fences by the roadside. It wasn’t hard to see the poverty here - it’s the second poorest country in the Southern Hemisphere (behind Haiti), with 28% unemployment and 70% of the population
Little Corn Gang
Myself, Lydia, Sam, Aaron, Mortein, Eggy, Creagh, Sarah, Nollsy and John
[courtesy of Courtney Illfield - www.courtneyillfield.blogspot.com]
living below the poverty line. The Lonely Planet says Nicaragua is a Central American country where gender equality is ahead of the game - but I'd have to disagree - I often found the men here openly sleazy, rude and unhelpful to boot.
Boarding down a volcano in Leon
I catch a mini van crammed with people, luggage and sweat from Managua to Leon and spend the journey with someone’s baby on my lap. I am more than relieved to hit Leon’s cobbled streets and reach Big Foot Hostel. With its hammocks, tiny swimming pool and resident turtles - Big Foot proved a nice spot to beat the heat. It was lunchtime and the Irish gang were having a liquid breakfast across the road at Via Via - the local café with Western food. Their numbers had swelled somewhat with a few new additions - so as well as Sarah, Creagh, Eggy and John (who was at the time MIA) - there was Noely, Mairtin and Roisin - a brother and sister from Co. Galway, and Courtney and Aaron, the Aussie’s I’d met in El Salvador. Noely was quickly christened Nollsy by us Aussies and Mairtin became Mortein. We
Sunset, Cerro Negro
The sunset from up top is spectacular.
swap tales of Central American adventures, the gang invite me to join them for Paddy’s week on Little Corn Island and we do extensive research to decide whether Victoria or Tona is the better Nicaraguan cervaza.
Leon was once the capital, a university town with lots of English speakers, museums, churches and rocking chairs. But forget the cultural sites, the big thing to do in Leon is volcano boarding! Darryn - the board-shorted, Aussie yobbo who owns Big Foot invented volcano boarding and has spent the last couple of years refining the equipment and technique. We ride in a jeep on dirt roads, past farms to the active volcano - Cerro Negro. It last erupted in 1999 for 5 and a half days, before that in 1992 for 3 and a half months - so based on a 7 year eruption cycle - they’re well overdue for another one. We get given boards and gear and hike up loose gravel to the top. The heat is intense. Up top, we check out the crater which reeks of sulphur and there’s lots of steam coming from the ground - basically there’s no question that the thing is active! Next we
Granada is a pretty town, with lots of quaint colonial buildings, narrow streets and horse drawn carriages.
gear up - into prison style orange coveralls and goggles and prepare our specially designed sleds for the descent. On average there are 2 bleeders from each group, the technique sounds a bit complicated, I can’t see the bottom and people are starting to freak out. The sunset from up top is spectacular and it’s getting dark by the time we take off, two at a time. Like most people, I stack it spectacularly right near the top - but manage to re-board - boarding down 400 metres in less than a minute! Awesome and probably just slightly crazy! If you’re interested, check out this 3 minute
/" target="_blank">promo video to get a better idea of how it works! (If the link doesn't work - search for 'bigfoot volcano boarding promo' in You Tube .... there's also a few others there featuring pretty spectacular crashes).
Granada and a good dose of Imodium
Sarah, Aaron, Courtney and I decide to spend a few leisurely days in Granada before Little Corn, but my stomach has other ideas. This is the first time the entire trip my stomach has played up and there’s nothing quite like a journey in a couple of cramped,
hot mini vans and hauling your backpack around a new city looking for a hostel in this condition. The situation was dire. Thank Christ for Imodium! Luckily, Oasis Hostel is lovely because I only leave it twice for the next few days as I continuously sip a cocktail of tea, gastroylte and imodium. With lots of open, shady areas, hammocks, clean bathrooms, a pool and a free phonecall home each day - it’s just the place to recuperate. Here I met up with Eva and Niek who I’d met travelling in Mexico and also randomly bumped into an American lady who’d been at my hostel in Penang, SE Asia!
I end up involuntarily doing some Granada site-seeing when the hostel decides to fumigate and asks us all to leave for a couple of hours. Granada is a pretty town, with lots of quaint colonial buildings, narrow streets and horse drawn carriages. Unfortunately on reaching the square, my stomach lurches and the little kid who stops to try to sell me chewing gum is pushed aside as I hot foot it to the closest café toilet. I return to the hostel and beg them to let me back in!
Little Corn Island for Paddy's Day
Imagine an island with no roads, turquoise water, coral reef, palm trees and timber huts on the beach. Where the biggest decisions one needed to make was whether to choose the 5 or 7 year aged Flor de Cana ‘ron’. Where the white sand is like cocaine - but could well be, as the Corn Islands were once a notorious drug route between Columbia and the States. Where you sleep tangled in a mosquito net and wake each morning to the sun shining through the gaps in the timber and wander out onto the veranda, complete with colourful hammock and contemplate your morning swim. Where the morning breeze shifts coconuts precariously overhead and your host Elsa cooks up enormous serves of delicious seafood. Yep - that’s Little Corn Island for you - tropical island paradise!
The great thing about little Corn Island is that it’s off the beaten track and hard to get to - meaning it’s relatively unspoilt and un-touristed. In fact, the entire middle of the island is a tangled jungle of palm trees, exotic fruit trees and vines. Less than 1000 people live on the island and most make their
income fishing for lobster and fish. Back in the day, the Corn islands were a British protectorate and for a long time Caribbean pirates and buccaneers inhabited the island. Like Livingston in Guatemala, most of the locals are Garifunas and are more likely to speak English, Creole or the native Indian language Miskito, than Spanish. Little Corn is basically controlled by four local families - descendants of the British with surnames like Morgan, Campbell, Taylor & Bowden. Where we found the Nicaraguan people rarely helpful on the mainland, the Corn Islands were a different story - the people were friendly, welcoming and quite jovial.
Nine of us made the journey out to Little Corn Island on tiny planes, followed by land, then an open water taxi. The boat ride is renowned for being quite rough and a touch damp - enough to deter the crowds, but not us! After just one night at the Lobster Inn on the western side of the island (where there’s lots of mozzies and no relief from the heat or breeze to speak of) and a memorable bit of night-time swimming, we all moved onto the east side of the island into $10 huts
at Elsa’s Sea Breeze. Elsa’s only has generator power for a couple of hours a day and rustic bathroom set up, but that side of the island is far cooler and definitely more chilled. Elsa herself is an interesting character - a daughter of one of the prominent families on the island - sometimes charismatic, sometimes quite reserved - in direct proportion to the amount of ron she was drinking I suspect! The nearby Casa Iguana, the island eco-lodge, is the poshest accommodation on the island with great food run by a lovely young American couple - Marc and Kelly. They've even got the actress Joan Cusack coming to stay the following week. We spend a fair bit of time eating and drinking there and eventually they bow to a whole lot of peer pressure and agree to throw us a St Paddy’s Day Party.
Day two I was already restless and looking for something to do other than read books, swim and laze around in a hammock - so Eggy and John convince me to join them for an introductory scuba dive with Dolphin Dive. The water is clear and blue and we see two nurse sharks in
Creagh & I, St Paddy's Fishing Trip
At lunchtime most of the gang met at the dive shop and we headed out on a rented boat for an afternoon fishing-snorkelling trip with the requisite esky full of beer it was Paddy’s day after all!
the first 5 minutes, several stingrays, Eagle rays, barracuda, lots of coral and brightly coloured fish. Actually mostly the diving skills come naturally, the hardest thing for me about diving was that you can’t talk for an hour odd whilst down there! Once out of the water, the instructor - Sandy - declared me fit to continue and I managed to finish the 4 day PADI Open Water Course in 2 days! Apart from the actual dives, you have to learn to set up your own gear - tank, breathing apparatus, weight belt, flippers, mask, wetsuit ... which are all very heavy and bulky out of water, then once you flip off the boat and get down into the water, it’s really weightless and relaxing.
It was decided that on Paddy’s day, we’d also celebrate my birthday one month early - as the gang would all be parting ways after Costa Rica. So I awoke to a birthday gift of a sarong from Sarah, and then went for an early morning swim and two morning dives. At lunchtime most of the gang met at the dive shop and we headed out on a rented boat for an afternoon fishing-snorkelling
Corn Islands Gang
Another seafood lunch - John, Eggy, me, Courtney, Aaron, Sarah, Creagh and Colin
[Photo courtesy of Sarah Desmond]
trip with the requisite esky full of beer - it was Paddy’s day after all! That evening, it was up to the fancy Casa Iguana for a big Irish shindig. We had Shepard’s pie for dinner, mojitos and birthday cake, followed by lots of dancing and frivolity - if I recall correctly at one point there was a guy playing a flute and Sarah did an Irish jig. We met new friends - like Lydia and Sam from NYC. Then someone got a laptop and started DJing, the night ended with a bonfire by the beach near our huts. Brilliant fun had by all!
Easter at Isla de Ometepe
Whilst loathe to leave Nicaraguan paradise, it had to be done before things on Little Corn turned ‘Lord of the Flies’ or ‘the Beach’. Sarah and I decided to leave the gang and spend Easter on Isla de Ometepe - an island with volcanoes in a massive lake that everyone raves about. The Easter transport situation was diabolical - so after a long day of flights, taxis, chicken buses and a ferry - we were relieved to make it to Ometepe in one piece. The ferry over was particularly rough
Later that same day, we reached Finca Valencia a farm on the lake where deep pink flowers grew alongside farm fences made of rocks and timber, there’s also chickens, ducks, cows and horses roaming around.
- crammed with local tourists and horrible music with equally horrible accompanying video clips. In the town of Moyagalpa everything is closed and the only thing happening is some sort of Stations of the Cross procession with a Jesus mannequin Good Friday morning.
Later that same day, we reached Finca Valencia - a farm on the lake at Chaco Verde where deep pink flowers grew alongside farm fences made of rocks and timber, there’s also chickens, ducks, cows and horses roaming around. After a stroll in the neighbouring national park, we decided to hike Volcano Maderas Easter Saturday and enjoy some chocolate, sunshine and hard-earned R&R Easter Sunday. The island itself was not so impressive - very dry and dusty, packed with local tourists for the Easter weekend and no buses running over the holiday weekend. The ‘beaches’ on the lake are popular, but hold no appeal whatsoever … or maybe we’re just jaded after leaving Little Corn?!
Hiking up and down Volcan Maderas and its 1394 metres took us 8 hours and nearly killed us. The hike was through dense, damp jungle and the howler monkeys … well they howled overhead and the track itself was muddy,
Sarah, me & Courtney chilling at Finca Valencia
Easter Sunday, Aaron and Courtney joined us and we spent some quality time nursing our hiking wounds in deck chairs.
slippery and difficult. At one point we were struggling so much that our guide asked us if we wanted to turn back. Dirty, determined and stubborn, we refused to turn back and we scrambled through the mud to make it to the Crater Lake at the top in good time for lunch. No thanks to our guide, Rodolfo - who took off ahead on his own - frustrated with our slow pace! Visibility up top was very poor and despite the grassy surrounds and what I’m sure is a lovely crater lake - it will not go down on my travel highlights list. The hike down was never-ending - we were filthy, exhausted and had both taken a tumble on the descent. Once at the bottom, we begged our guide to stop on the way back to the finca for chocolate for Easter Sunday - but alas, there was a chocolate drought on Ometepe - so we had to settle for an ice-cream instead. Early evening after long showers and a nap, there was a knock on the door - Roisin had come to visit! We pulled ourselves together and walked along the lake (where massive frogs kept jumping out
Surf Lodge - Playa Maderas
Another day we caught a jeep to Playa Maderas a popular surf beach in the middle of nowhere with no facilities and just the one restaurant of very dubious quality or cleanliness.
at us) for dinner and a celebratory wine. Easter Sunday, Aaron and Courtney joined us and we spent some quality time nursing our hiking wounds and sore muscles sitting in deck chairs in the sunshine.
The breaks in San Juan del Sur are epic, dude!
‘My name’s Nile. Like the river’, said the Canadian surfer dude that swaggered over to be-friend Sarah and I at the hostel. There were lots of tan, fit young guys with no shirts wandering around our hostel clutching surfboards who were prone to one word sentences and copious amounts of beer and ron. In fact, one day I actually saw a guy walk out of the shower with a towel around his waist and his surfboard under his arm. Nile’s next word of wisdom was simply ‘chicken’. I looked at him for clarification, was it a question, was he calling me chicken - what on earth was going on?! It turns out he was talking about the famed chicken lady - that was his invitation for us to join him for dinner. Nile’s next gem was ‘I can’t wait to get up in the morning, so I can go back to the chicken lady’.
San Juan del Sur is a little fishing town on Nicaragua’s Pacific coastline very close to the Costa Rican border. It’s quite touristy; lots of plush accommodation and quite a few European and American expats are living here, running cafes, bars and hotels. Real estate agents are also prolific, selling posh condos with sea view for a steal - but this is quite a contrast to the shacks with tin roof the locals live in. There are a lot of young Aussies here which is unusual - most of the backpackers in Central America are American, English, Irish or Dutch. In the street, the locals wax their surfboards and hang around waiting for good surf. It’s a relief that there’s normal western food available - because I needed a break from the gallo pinto (rice and beans) and plantain -the Nicaraguan staples. We tracked down the chicken lady one night and bumped into our friend Nile there - apparently this is actually the second best chicken lady, in town, the best one is closed that night.
With all the intellectuals at the hostel talking about ‘big swells’, ‘reef breaks’ and the chicken lady … Sarah and I decided
Sunset @ Pelican Eyes Resort, San Juan del Sur
With all the intellectuals at the hostel talking about ‘big swells’, ‘reef breaks’ and the chicken lady
Sarah and I decided to flash-pack it up Pelican Eyes, the posh resort with infinity pool up the hill!
to flash-pack it up Pelican Eyes, the posh resort with infinity pool up the hill! We were paying a mere $7 for our private room at the hostel - but enjoying the plush facilities of the $200 plus a night hotel. You’re supposed to pay $5 for a day by the pool, but it’s amazing what a girl in a bikini can get away with. Most of the guests were American or European and the poolside sunsets were amazing. Another day we caught a jeep to Playa Maderas - a popular surf beach in the middle of nowhere - where a bunch of locals surfed and gringos took surfing lessons. It made for a great viewing spectacle and another opportunity to work on the tan! Back in San Juan del Sur our last night, we decided to have dinner at Pelican Eyes - we must have mentioned to 'Nile like the river' our plan, because we arrived and ‘coincidentally’ Nile and all his friends were already there and had saved us a spot at their table! Early the next morning we caught a taxi to the Costa Rican border, leaving Nicaragua and our fabulous adventures behind.
There are more photos below