On to the Corn Islands

October 27, 2016, Trip: Nicaragua
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October 27th, 2016

It was about a two hour drive from Las Peñitas, give or take to Managua, Nica’s capital and largest city located on the shores of Lake Managua (which we understand is quite polluted). Nica has many good sized lakes including Central America’s largest: Lake Nicaragua.

Enroute we encountered a police checkpoint and we experienced for the first time since crossing into Mexico, a request to see our original driver’s licenses. We carry laminated duplicates for various reasons and here in Nica they knew right away it was a copy and asked to see the original. With some hesitation and argument, Doug pulled it out of our “safe” and handed it over. After reviewing it and our vehicle papers (Permit and Insurance) we were on our merry way.

These illiuminated trees line the main boulevards in Managua:

dscn5114-these-light-up-trees-in-the-main-dragIn 1972 an earthquake destroyed this city and it was rebuilt. It’s a typical large Central American city with much of the usual things with the exception of much for the tourist. Tigger needed an oil change and although we’d been looking, we were having trouble getting 5W30 oil let alone, not too expensive 5W30 oil. We had checked out a place a few days earlier near Leon but they wanted $6.38 US a litre for a blended oil so Doug hoped we’d have better luck in the larger center. We stopped at a few places, including a Toyota dealership, a Castrol oil shop and a Bridgestone service centre but either they did not carry it all or it was $13 and more per litre and Tigger needs seven of them. We found a Chevy dealer but it had no service department that would work on vehicles not purchased there but he referred us to a garage connected with their parent company and we went there and here they we were going to be charged $28 a litre for synthetic oil. We passed. We did learn of a service place called Casa Crown and after driving to the one shown on our GPS we learned they had moved to a new location.

Enroute to the new location, Fran made a left turn at the traffic light and veered somewhat into the right lane as no one was behind her and it makes for an easier turn with the truck and we got stopped for this “infraction” and they asked for her license. Again, we tried not to hand over  the original but he insisted and after looking at it and our vehicle papers again, he advised that he was going to keep her license and give her a ticket for not staying in the left lane as she made that turn at the traffic light. In order to give the license back, you have to pay the fine at a bank or the transit police office and you can get it back the next day. Well that was not going to work as we have a flight first thing tomorrow and we wanted to dispute the ticket. So he said we could go to the police station to do that or if we paid the fine by 1:00 this afternoon and come back with a receipt, he’d return her license on the spot. So Fran walked about .75 of a km to the police station where after checking in at the front desk, went to a room and joined a huge line of other people with what she assumed were also there for issues. This was going to take a while. Then two minutes after entering the room, a female officer came over and asked what she needed. She felt bad getting special treatment ahead of all the people waiting in line but it was now 11:30 and we had only 90 minutes before the officer was going to leave the checkpoint where we’d been pulled over.

In her best Spanish and some help from others in line, she was understood and learned that to dispute a ticket you fill in a form and come back in 15 days. Since that was really not an option she asked about paying the fine there and was told, no they are not transit police and that office was four kilometres away but we could pay it at a bank, get a receipt and take it to the officer. As luck would have it, Fran had passed a bank on the way to the police station and so she turned around, went to the bank, reluctantly paid the fine, walked back to Tigger, gave the officer the ticket and receipt and he returned her license. At least we were not giving money directly to the officer like a fake fine but we’ve learned the police are much more diligent here in Nica so we’ll be on our toes more.

We even took a photo of the officer writing the ticket….

dscn5110-cop-writing-us-a-ticketAs is typical, it takes three or four sets of directions from locals to actually find a place and it turned out we could fit in the garage at Casa Cross but they did not have the oil in stock however they said they could order it but did have the filter. So we asked them to do so, and we’d be back on Tuesday after our mini vacation to the Corn Islands.

Next, we wanted to stop at the Customs office to see about extending our vehicle permit; we’d be advised that there was a Customs office near the airport and we’d found it earlier but they don’t deal with vehicle permits there and we were told to go back towards El Centro and across from the Coca Cola building was the office we were looking for. Turns out it was practically across the road from the Chevy dealership we’d been at this morning.  Anyway, we parked and Doug went in while Fran began pulling stuff out that we need to begin packing for our flight tomorrow. Doug came out in about 15 minutes and advised that he was told we could get a “new” 30 day permit but not an “extension” of the existing one so that was not going to gain us much extra time. We’ll have to decide if we want to come back into Managua in a couple of weeks or try and exit Nica, turn around and come back for a new one assuming we do want to stay longer than Tigger was given.

Now it’s after 4 and we’re exhausted from lack of accomplishing much. We head to a hostel near the airport that had been suggested to us as a safe place to leave Tigger while we took our trip. Hostel Monte Cristi is owned by a Filipino couple and Calvin welcomed us warmly and said we could camp right outside the gate in this safe gated community and we could spend the night with power for $15 and leave Tigger for three nights free and he’d also offered airport service both ways and we decided we’d stay here the day we return as well. The Wi-fi was the fastest we had in a long time and the hostel is quite nice.

After setting up we went back inside the hostel courtyard and a young Dutch couple was there enjoying a beer so we joined them; Natasha and Bart were at the end of their three week vacation and flying home tomorrow so we are going to share the airport ride with them.

Friday, we were up at 4:30 AM to catch our 6:30 AM flight to the Corn Islands. The only airline that flies there is Los Costeña and it has its own little office on the side of the main terminal building at the Managua airport. You check in, they take your luggage (no charge) for checking and hand you a reusable plastic boarding card. Instead of walking to the gate where we were told there was no food, we walked over the main terminal to get some breakfast. There was a small food court where we got a typical Nica breakfast: two eggs, some small white rolls (despite asking for whole wheat bread which they said they had), rice & beans, a piece of white cheese and a slice of ham. We returned to the gate, went through the metal detector and then walked around the empty part of the waiting area to get some steps. Our flight on the small place was full and it left only a little late. This flight goes east across the country, following a good portion of the shores of Lake Nicaragua, and makes it to the Caribbean coast to the small village of Bluefields in about 45 minutes where it stops.  About half the passengers got off, we picked up a few more and then it’s about 15 minutes to Big Corn Island. The airport in both these places is just a runway with a small terminal building.

the small plane that took us to the Corn IslandsUpon landing on Big Corn and getting our luggage we took a taxi to our hotel, The Hotel Morgan. The weather was amazing. This island has about 10 km of road, some paved, some brick, some dirt and all taxis (all little Kia’s) charge 20C (much less than a dollar) per person to go anywhere on the island. There is a real Caribbean vibe here but none of the Garifuna culture we encountered in Belize, GTM and HND. The main languages are English, Spanish and Creole and they love baseball. There is a player on the Kansas City Royals, named Cheslor Cuthbert, who comes from this island. The locals are very proud of him. As the season is over for him, he is back on the island and has a house next door to his mother’s place, where he grew up.

The Corn Islands are located 70km off the east coast of Nica. Big Corn is much larger and although it has a population of almost 10,000 it is largely undeveloped with no huge resorts but it has the airstrip in the middle. There is a “ferry” to Little Corn which is really undeveloped with NO roads and a lot of small hostels/cabanas/bars and one larger high end resort (but not tall and huge) at the north end which specializes in yoga retreats. There is a path, partially bricked, around the island and people walk or use wheelbarrows and push carts to move stuff around. You see a lot of backpackers here. A supply ship comes on Saturdays. The ferry is actually just a large launcha that holds less than 40 people with no shade coverage. The distance is about 11 miles and takes less than a half hour. Little Corn is quite jungled and pretty laid back. They have not had all day power for long and you get the sense of what Caribbean islands were like a hundred years ago.

Map of the Corn Islands (with dive sites shown).

map of the islands and their dive sitesOn Big Corn you see shops, a large baseball stadium, a cultural centre, court house and of course the airport. There are lots of small hotels and hostels as well as lots of seafood restaurants. There are a good number of small tiendas, a few larger “grocery” stores but nothing really big. There are three lovely main beaches and lots of small ones.

Upon checking into the hotel, Kurt, the stand in manager (owner is out of town for a few days), drove us to a place to rent either a golf cart or motor cycle to explore the island and decide what to do while we’re here. Kurt also has a couple of launchas and runs snorkeling tours of both islands (his main home is on Little Corn but he’s building another here which he hopes to rent out). We arranged to have him take us out this afternoon here off Big Corn and to take the ferry to Little Corn tomorrow to do another trip on his boat there with one of his guys.

We wanted to rent a golf cart (more comfortable) but it was rather pricey so we got a 125cc motorcycle. We toured all the paved roads (a few dirt ones) to check out where things were and most importantly, checked out the beaches. The main beach was near the rental place and it’s called Picnic Centre – it has white sandy beaches and a few restaurants.

aaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhLong Bay is on the other side of the island and is longer and quite lovely mostly because it’s not very well developed as there are no bars/restaurants. The third main beach is Sally Preachy but it’s on the northeast side and a little choppier with a narrower beach.

our rented motorbikeOur hotel is on the northwest side and there is a narrow short beach near us with lovely Caribbean coloured water as well as access to two nearby tiny sandy beaches.

We stopped to pick up drinks for our hotel fridge and few snacks before returning the bike and walking to Picnic Centre beach for lunch. There we met a Canadian woman named Rachel who was here for one night before going to Little Corn for a yoga retreat for a week. Then a German couple, Omid & Joanna arrived and we chatted a bit before catching a cab back to the hotel. We met Kurt at two o’clock for our first snorkel trip. Kurt’s boat is quite new and well taken care of and he and his two assistants took us out to the reef where we snorkeled for about an hour in one spot where we saw lots and lots of different fish and coral but nothing out of the ordinary other than a large trigger fish.

trigger-fishThe water was very clear and visibility was very good. Then we went to another spot but it was not as good. Enroute to the “sunken cannons” location we saw two separate turtles peek their heads above the water for a second or two each.  At this location, we saw over a dozen of sunken cannons. Unfortunately, as Fran got out of the boat her snorkel detached from her mask and it sank; we did not find it so she was not able to stay under the water for long. But the sun was going down and it was getting darker under the water.

After showering and rinsing off our gear, we walked up the north side of the island to find a place to eat on the beach. Sea Side Grill served us some nice seafood and veggies and we walked back after dinner.

A crab walking down the road with us:

a crab out for an evening strollSaturday we awoke to glorious sunny skies again and had a Nica breakfast in the hotel restaurant before heading to the ferry terminal to catch the boat to Little Corn. Upon arriving Doug walked up to the ticket counter and learned that we needed our passports to catch the boat – ridiculous – it’s not like we’re crossing a border but okay. Our cab had left but Fran saw Kurt in a pick-up nearby and advised him of our situation and he offered to drive her back to pick them up.   He’s quite a nice guy with a good work ethic and common sense.

The ferry loaded just before ten and took forever to leave the dock. Stanley met us at the dock in Little Corn and showed us to his boat. Our plan was to walk around and check out the island before heading out on the water. We headed south to one of the main beaches. It was a pleasant 15 minute past bars, eateries (many of which were closed as it’s low season), hostels and colourful homes. We got to sandy beach but the water was rather choppy and had lots of sea grass in it and onshore. There were lots of cabins/hostels and beach bars here. It was quite rustic and laid back but we thought the beaches on Big Corn were larger and wider. Stanley said he’d take us past the north beach where the pricey resort was so we could see that one on our snorkel trip.

Funky little cottages on south side of Little Corn:

dscn5249-funky-little-cabinsStanley and Wilfred took us the White Hole Diving site and within two minutes of getting in the water, we saw a group of SEVEN eagle rays! It was fantastic.  Stanley had snorkel gear on board so Fran was able to borrow a snorkel today(we have two extras in our rig but that didn’t help us today!).

Five of the seven eagle rays:

rays-for-blogNext was a nurse shark followed by a sting ray and a second nurse shark. The water here is pristine and there were SO many fish and every direction you looked, you saw fish. We saw many of the usual fish but the water is deeper than we usual snorkel places so our little waterproof camera was hard pressed to take pictures of the ones deep down in the coral. We enjoyed the numbers of colourful ones and the lovely Caribbean waters. We saw another trigger fish and a rather large parrot fish. We looked for turtles but they were keeping hidden.   We went to a second spot but it was pretty quiet there and we saw a few small schools of fish but not a great deal. We did see about a half dozen sea stars on the bottom and Stanley went down and got us one to hold and release.

Sting ray in the sand:

dscf5585-sting-ray-in-sand

Then it was back to catch the ferry back to Big Corn. There is only one ferry in each direction a day and they are timed to make sure people make their flights. The ferry to Little Corn runs at 10 and the return ferry is at 1:30 so we didn’t have a whole day like we’d hope. We did speak to a fellow on the ferry over that was from Florida and had purchased a lot on Little Corn 12 years ago but was still trying to get his house built after all this time.  He advised they’ve been trying to get a proper ferry going for several years now, but the red tape is deep.

After docking at the municipal dock back on Big Corn, we were starving so we went to the Fisher’s Cave restaurant by the docks. They have a small pool outside with a nurse shark in it so we sat on the deck and had lunch before we picked up some fresh fruit, snacks and drinks to have for dinner since we’d had a late large lunch. We then returned to our hotel to shower. We took our hotel deck chairs across the street to sit by the water to read for a while before watching the sun set.

Sunday we had hoped to spend the day by the beach if the weather held but that was not in the cards. It rained on and off in the morning and we just made it to a little diving shop to have breakfast before the skies really opened up (didn’t want the same thing again for the third day). We enjoyed some amazing coconut bread French toast and lots of fresh fruit before catching a cab back to our hotel as it was still raining.

Sundays here in the island are all about baseball. There are several games at the stadium and the two islands play against each other in different age groups and levels, so this was something we thought we should check out. Kurt at the hotel told us he was a coach of one of the Little Corn Island teams so we hoped to catch one of his team’s games. As luck would have it, we got there at the top of the third inning as his team played. Sadly, there was not the huge turnout in the stands we thought we’d encounter so it was a quiet game but Kurt’s team one 1-0. It did not rain that afternoon but although the sun tried to come out and did peek through once in a while, it did not clear up. On our return to the hotel, we passed by a park where lots of people were gathered; turns out it was some sort of autonomy celebration; that explained the low turnout at the baseball games. We spent the remainder of the afternoon sitting on our patio to reading and then ordered pizza for dinner delivered by taxi.

baseball gameMonday morning we went out for brekkie at Big Fish restaurant where we could order an American breakfast, did some walking and Spanish lessons before catching our flight back to the mainland. This time we flew on an even smaller plane; only holds 15 passengers and again we stopped in Bluefields to drop off and pick up. As it was smaller, we did not fly quite so high nor did we follow the lakeshore as closely.

We could see lots of farmer’s fields including these flooded ones:

flooded fields below us

Our impressions of the Corn Islands are good ones; we did prefer them to Roatan since they are smaller and easier to get around and less developed; the snorkeling off Little Corn was some of our best ever; the people are friendly; the islands are small enough to see in a short time; cabs are cheap; lots of seafood places; prices were not as high as we’d expected but still more expensive than mainland Nica; beaches and water are and lovely; it’s humid and pretty warm especially away from the shoreline; this place has retained a lot of the Caribbean vibe missing from larger islands in this part of the world and we hope it can stay that way and stay more in the hands of the locals than the big hotel chains.

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