Robie Uniacke: Journey to an unexpected Paradise: Nicaragua’s Corn Islands

Few airports weigh the passengers along with their baggage but the one at Nicaragua’s Big Corn is special, even by the standards of those in remote areas. The size of a large garage, it is run by two cheerful, watermelon-eating girls who manhandle the baggage and direct passengers on to a marvellous old Fairbanks Morse iron weighing-machine which I suspect would be worth a fortune as a collector’s piece if anybody could lift it out.

The airport is gateway to the Corn Islands, the main tourist attraction off Nicaragua’s east coast. Big Corn and Little Corn lie in the Caribbean Sea some 35 miles opposite Bluefields, the capital of the region and its principal port. Once a haven for buccaneers, they are now low-key recreation destinations with all the basic attributes of the Carib-bean experience—white sandy beaches, coconut palms, clear turquoise water, coral reefs, good fishing and snorkelling, and a leisurely pace of life.

All this comes without any pretentious development or temptations to overstretch oneself financially. Both are small, being 6 sq km and 11/2 sq km respectively, but life there is far removed from the way it is in the rest of Nicaragua, and one could be in any rather run-down part of the Caribbean proper.

But to reach these delightful islands, first you must cross from Nicaragua’s west to the Autonomous Atlantic Region to the east, an area that might be in a different country to that of the Pacific coast. Apart from the differences of terrain, climate and population, ‘Atlantic’ itself is a misnomer, as the coast is actually on the Caribbean Sea. The region consists of a long, wide, flat plain covered by tropical rainforest, impenetrable in many places and home to abundant wildlife and exotic flora. Annual rainfall averages 500cm, and even in the dry season from March to May it rains often. It is inaccessible by road, and despite comprising more than half of Nicaragua’s land mass, accounts for only 10% of the population.

This area of Nicaragua was never colonised by Spain, and between 1687 and 1894 was a British Protectorate known as the Mistiko Kingdom. The inhabitants are 75,000 indigenous Indians, mostly Mistikos, a great many English-speaking creoles, descendants of slaves (euphem-istically described as ‘labourers’ by politically correct guidebooks) brought by the British from Jamaica and Africa, and the balance of Spanish-speaking mestizos. With driving a ‘no-go’, one must either take a seven-hour bus ride and a five-hour river journey, or go by air. I decided to fly. 

The plane lands first at the region’s capital, Bluefields. This town, with its British sounding name (although it derives from Abraham Blauveldt, a Dutch pirate who founded it in the 17th century) is not for faint-hearts. It is chaotic, dirty, rough, with a menacing air, a filthy harbour and heavily polluted beaches. 

The old town was virtually destroyed by Hurricane Joan in 1988. It has been completely rebuilt, the result of which is to wonder what it could have been like before. I booked in for one night at the Bluefields Bay Hotel, run by the local University, and probably the most salubrious place in town. The nightlife was unnerving but vibrant, with everything from reggae to country and western blaring out until dawn. With a sense of relief I set off for the airport the next morning, headed for the Corn Islands.

On arrival at the tiny airport on Big Corn, I took a taxi, radio belting out music from Radio Corn (in English, scarily reminiscent of Radio 1), to the Hotel Paraiso, a collection of some 20 cabanas arranged round a central bar and restaurant. Each cabana was clean and simply furnished, with air-conditioning, a bathroom, a porch with a hammock and a rocking chair. Horses, pigs, chickens, and dogs of dubious pedigree roamed freely, and at dusk I sat on my porch and witnessed the finest display of fireflies I have ever seen. The food in the restaurant was excellent and ranged from steak and lobster to omelettes, all plain but beautifully cooked and served by cheerful, laid-back staff. After two days’ relaxation it was time to have a look at Little Corn.

There is a twice-daily service by large open panga between the islands, and I settled on the 0900 hours departure. I arrived at the quay in good time, but had stupidly forgotten where I was, so had to sit on a bollard until 1015, when we set off. The journey was spine-numbing and very hot, but the arrival was well worth the discomfort. After 35 minutes, and two miles from our destination, some palm trees appeared on the horizon—and from then on it was just like an advertisement from a South Seas holiday brochure—a cluster of colourful, brightly-painted houses above a startlingly white beach and clear, clear sea.

Little Corn is a tiny, magical island with a population of just 500—no roads, great beaches, first-class scuba diving and snorkelling, and even more laid-back than its bigger neighbour.

First I had to check in to the Hotel Iguana, an eco-lodge hotel, and the only proper accommodation on the island. I had booked a room through the Hotel Paraiso (or so I thought) but the Iguana knew nothing and was full, so I walked back to the village to see what I could find. 

My luck was in. Right on the seafront was a new hotel which seemed nearly completed, but with no sign of life. The door in the railings was unlocked so I went in and looked around. At the back I found a small house, and the lady inside turned out to be the caretaker. She said she was sorry but the hotel would not open for another month. 

Five minutes and $US30 later, I was the first occupant of the best sea-facing room in an unopened hotel, the Hotel Delfines. What a find! The rest of the day was spent in talking to the friendly locals and exploring the island—not difficult to walk across, as it takes only half an hour. The choice of where to eat was easy: either Dona Brigette or Dona Izayda, I tossed a coin and Brigette won. Supper was great, a freshly-grilled lobster with rice, plantains and salad for $US6—a delicious bargain. 

Next morning, after an early swim, I walked round the east of the island to Dona Elsa’s. She has lived on Little Corn all her life and has two stick huts where she puts up divers and back-packers for a pittance. Dona Elsa also cooks basic food on an open fire, as well as the ubiquitous lobsters—she cooked one for my brunch before I caught the panga back to Big Corn. It was sad to leave this unexpected paradise after so short a time. One day I hope to find a reason to return.