On a map, Big and Little Corn Island are unassuming specks in the Atlantic Ocean. They are located off of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. They are unforgettable gems for the budget traveler.
I decided to go to the Corn Islands because I’ve heard so many other Peace Corps volunteers rave about them. When the $165-200 round trip flight from Managua equates to roughly the same as our monthly earnings, and they still go, then it must be worth it, right? Since my mom had already spent $1,200 on her flight from Pasco, Washington, I dug into my savings to buy our round trip tickets. We were on a budget because we were traveling to the Apoyo Lagoon after this.
You probably haven’t heard of Big and Little Corn Island because they are so small. Why are they named after a golden vegetable? Some say that it’s because of the wild corn that grows on the island. Others attribute the name to phonetics: pronounce “corn” in a Caribbean accent, and it sounds like “carne”, the Spanish word for meat. The islands were known for the cattle that grazed the land and whose meat fed the British pirates and colonizers in the 17th century. Most of the people who live there are the descendants of escaped slaves of Afro-Caribbean descent.
I didn’t have many expectations. I knew I’d explore gorgeous beaches and that I’d hear locals of Afro-Caribbean descent switch seamlessly from English Kreole to Spanish (or English). I’d only been to the NiCaribbean coast once in August, when I led a classroom management workshop for English teachers at the ANPI (Asociacion Nicaraguense de Profesores de Ingles) conference in Bluefields. ANPI paid for my flight and lodging, and some meals. When my meals weren’t covered, I was happy to sit in the park and share a $1 loaf of dense Coconut Bread with Amilcar, a friendly cab driver I met and came out to. I was excited to return to one of the few parts of the world where the language and culture of Latin American fuses beautifully with that of the Caribbean.
It was a hot, humid Christmas Day. My mom and I woke up at 5 AM, then sat for three hours on a refurbished school bus from Matagalpa to the Managua Airport ($3). Luckily, our flight to Big Corn Island would only take half the time. We boarded around 11 AM. Our tiny airplane took off, and we shook and wobbled with the slightest gust of wind. Nervous excitement and tourists filled the plane. My ears plugged painfully as the cabin pressure changed. We cruised over the Atlantic Ocean. I was enamored by the way the puffy, small clouds cast dark blue shadows over the crystalline Caribbean Sea. Each cloud caste its own imaginary island on the water. The shallow water revealed undulating sand dunes underneath it. A flooded Sahara Desert. I could hear passengers chatting and pointing out the window, but my ears were too plugged to make out the words. I opened and closed my mouth to no avail.
After 30 minutes of flying over the massive, blue Dalmatian’s coat, the plane’s nose tipped down and we dove for a landing strip that divided Big Corn Island in two. We skidded to a stop, zooming past turquoise and orange houses on stilts. Three black children, resting under the shade of a massive palm tree, pointed at our plane, immediately distinguishing the locals from the tourists.
I was the last one who exited the plane on the staircase. The tropical wall of breezy, yet sweltering humidity hit me. My mom and I took a cab for less than $1 to our hotel, the Tropical Dreams Hotel. I’d found it on Airbnb, and the rooms were $20 a night.
Our room was sweltering hot, and had no air conditioning. For 97% of my Peace Corps service, I’ve been used to relying on fans to cool off. Air conditioning is a luxury to me. The amount of mosquitoes quickly made us regret not bringing a full can of bug spray. My mom ended up upgrading us to a room with air conditioning and far less mosquitoes for the two following nights. The upgrade brought the room up to $60 with breakfast included (cereal, instant coffee, and toasted coconut bread). Our hosts were super friendly, as was the dog, Gretchen. If you go, watch out for this puppy’s warm, friendly licks!
On the budgetary bright side, our stay included a 10% discount at Marlene’s “Relax” Restaurant next door. Marlene has won several cooking competitions for her Caribbean concoctions, like Rondon (a coconut stew) and freshly caught lobster in garlic sauce. We ended up spending most of out meals there. The prices were double what I’m used to on the mainland, but it does cost more to ship everything out here.
Tropical Dreams Hotel to the Beach: A five-minute walk
The beach had peach-colored sand, coconuts laying around like easter eggs, and palm trees anchored into the sand. Their thin, emerald leaves rustled in the wind. The only other people there were two mestizo women and a handful of prepubescent boys. They splashed around near the shore, careful not to get swept away by the sneaky current. I’m a strong swimmer, but this was one of the strongest currents I’ve ever felt. It pulled me to my right as I faced out toward Africa. Then, I heard a “chh chh” sound. A 12-year-old boy waved me over to talk to him. His friend was already chatting next to my mom, who preferred to enjoy the beach by sitting on a log rather than swimming against the current.
As soon as I was close enough, the boy told me how beautiful I was. He grabbed my arm and traced it with his finger, as if assessing my level of beauty according to my whiteness. “Ohhh, yeah! You are pretty. Do you have a boyfriend?” he asked. “No, I’m a lesbian.” His three friends came by to listen in. I was trying to fight the waves. It’s hard to have a learning moment when you’re getting slapped in the face by salt water and tossed around like a doll in a washing machine.
“Oh! So you’re a dyke!” the boy responded. His friends laughed. Calmly, I responded: “I don’t like being called that. It’s not nice. What if I came up to you and called you an idiot?” His friends laughed. “But he is an idiot!” one of his friends piped up. More laughter. “Well, I’m not going to say that because I don’t know you” I explained. “Well, how do you say it then?” the little flirt asked. “Les-bi-an-a” I responded. This interaction reminded of coming out on the bus to a surprised older man. I’ve never come out to so many curious strangers as I have in Nicaragua.
I’m not sure if this boy really understood what the word lesbian meant, since he proceeded to ask me for a kiss on the cheek before he had to go. I said no, and that I didn’t want to. He had been touching my arms and looked me up and down. “Why not?” he asked. “That’s not nice. What if I came up to you and starting touching you where you wouldn’t want to be touched?” He looked down, then waved goodbye as he ran back to shore.
He was very persistent for a 12-year-old, and I wonder how much I impacted him, if at all. As I thought about what forces made this prepubescent child feel the need to seduce women at such an early age, I thought of queer blogger Bani Amor’s post about the flipside: when white women assault men of color. This article made me extremely uncomfortable at first, but it brings up a point no one talks about. I had never thought of white women as the perpetrators of these crimes, but now I think more critically of where I position myself as a queer, Mexican, white woman in Nicaragua. At first, I selfishly thought, well, maybe there are male victims, but the rate is not as high as it is for women. The rates are not the point. The fact that men of color are victimized for their skin tone, and that few people know about this, is the problem. Oh, Bani. You’re always making me challenge my own assumptions.
Then, came dinner at Marlene’s. I had a chicken taco (which resembles a fried, Mexican flauta) and a lobster taco rolled in a flour tortilla ($3 each). It was pan friend in coconut oil-I recognized the taste of the oil I’ve grown to cook with. I could’ve eaten four of them, but I was saving money for the trip to Little Corn Island the next day. I’d been convinced to leave one paradise for another after reading Big World Small Pocket’s 20 Things to Do on Little Corn Island. She is a great budget travel blogger-I recommend subscribing to her posts. Little Corn was also featured in the book 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.
Big Corn Island to Little Corn Island
Distance: 45 minutes on a speed boat. Articles of clothing soaked: All of them. Number of waves that made us wish we hadn’t taken the panga: All of them.
After moving our things to the air-conditioned room, we took a cab to Briggs Bay. Our panga (speed boat) would leave for Little Corn Island at 10:30 AM. We paid $6 for our huge, laminated boarding passes, then waited for everyone to climb in first. We put on our neon orange life jackets. My mom sat next to a mestizo Nicaraguan, Alejandro, who was on vacation. Luckily for her, he also had a seat cushion to share with her.
I was sandwiched between the edge of the seat cushion and a backpacker with a manbun. He had thick, long, dark eyelashes and began to peel an orange as if he were on a picnic. The zest filled my nostrils while the peels filled the floor. He picked them up as the boat picked up speed. We abandoned the tranquil, turquoise waters and became acquainted with the Caribbean on a windy day- and the 20-foot waves that came with it.
Other than “Sorry!” I didn’t exchange a word with Mr. Manbun. I grabbed his forearm twice. The boat climbed up and over each wave, and slammed down to transform the water into concrete.
It was the longest, cheapest roller coaster ride of my life. If you’re ever had a spinal or neck injury, stay on Big Corn Island-this ride is not for you!
After 45 minutes of the slamming and splashing, we reached sand. Mr. Manbun climbed out and turned around from the dock, making a peace sign with his fingers back toward the boat. I’m not sure if he was looking at me or at the captain, so I just waved back and smiled.
We didn’t have an agenda for Little Corn. Alejandro advised us to hike to the radio tower for a great view. I was in the mood for a mojito, after what we’d gone through. I had my mind set on finding the Little Corn Beach Bungalow, a Peace Corps favorite. I had no idea it would be so hard to find. There are no paved roads on Little Corn, but the amount of white hipsters, yogis, and coffee shops reminded me of Portland. So this is where all the young white people go, I thought. Most of the tourists we saw on Big Corn were older. After having survived the boat ride, I understand why. The millenials lounged about, reading novels on their beach chairs. Books replaced teddy bears for the sleepy hammock-goers.
As my mom and I kept walking, a gorgeous, young black woman sang “Excuse me!” as she passed by on her bicycle. I wonder how annoying all of these tourists are for the locals. The island isn’t developed very much, aside from the posh cafés and restaurants. I wonder how different Little Corn Island was 50 years ago.
It felt like a tight-knit community. Locals smiled at us and said “Mornin’”. On our walk, it began raining, and a generous homeowner waved at us to come find shelter from the five-minute sprinkle. His dog sat next to me while I scratched his ear. We thanked the owner and pressed on.
We walked for hours along the beach, and in the wrong direction. One woman told us where the Bungalow was, but she ended up pointing us to a private farm. The farm’s annoyed, yet understanding owner finally gave us the correct directions. We walked past yards decorated with empty soda bottles strewn on strings, and heard people clapping their hands at a church overlooking the sea. One girl was dressed up in a pink dress walked to church with her brothers holding on to her hands.
We walked past swamps and trudged through beachside paths that were filled with water from the high tide. We finally reached the Bungalow. It was the very last hotel on the way there. As we looked at the map of Little Corn, we realized that we could have made it from the dock in a 10-minute straight shot. Well, at least the walk back would involve less water.
I ate grilled cheese sliders with onion rings ($4), and my mom ate some fries. I doused everything in a dark green, curry-like sauce in an old rum bottle. “What sauce is this!? It’s so good!” I asked the waitress. “Oh, that is just a vegetable and spice sauce” she said, in her melodic Caribbean accent. “They sell it everywhere. It’s called Lizano.” I thought Lizano was just a hot sauce, but yes, they do in fact sell it everywhere. I bought a bottle after that and the taste reminds me of how tired I felt after finally having found the place. Not to mention it takes me back to those greasy, cheesy sliders.
After lunch, we sat by the water. The Bungalow is more of a high-end resort. It’s a neat business that is pretty eco-friendly and is involved in the community. The resort has lots of neat sustainability initiatives, such as a spaying and neutering campaign. Normally, guests can be found scuba diving and snorkeling nearby, but the wind was so strong that the normally clear, blue water turned murky. We took the path we should have taken all along back to the center, and hiked to the radio tower. Mom climbed up the ladder rungs to the lookout point first, and I followed her. We had a panoramic view of the little island. Big Corn Island jutted out to the south. “Climbing up is always easier than climbing down”, mom said. I decided to count the number of ladder rungs in order to stay busy instead of nervous. There were 36 rungs.
On the way back to the dock, we stopped to buy coconut bread from an older woman. The smell of freshly baked Coconut bread is more memorable than the taste, but not by much. I told my mom about the time I ate coconut bread in Bluefields with a stick of margarine after my Amilcar suggested that it was the best way to enjoy it. “We have margarine”, the baker’s husband chimed in. “It’s the day after Christmas and I’m on a diet,” I joked. He laughed and pat my shoulder. We walked out, sharing ripped pieces of the fluffly, warm bread. “It doesn’t taste like anything”, mom said. I just smiled because the taste wasn’t what I was after. It was the smell and the experience of buying it. Since I’ve left the states, I’ve come to appreciate the process of buying a product rather than the product itself.
A five-year old boy extended his hand and asked me for a piece of my huge loaf. I ripped of a piece and handed it to him. Instead of a “thank you” he bit into it, as if this were his price for sharing his little island with me. Then, we passed by the little boy who had asked me for a kiss the day before. “Adios”, I said to him, as he walked by with an older man. Only the man said “adios” back to me. Mom and I had some time to kill, so we waited on the beach. I jumped in and swam to cool off.
Only now do I realize that Johnny Depp’s eyeliner must have been very, very waterproof for it to stay on after all of the perspiration one excretes in the Caribbean.
Our boat back to Big Corn Island was supposed to leave at 4 PM, but the captain didn’t even show up until 4:15. This reminded me of the time my friend Jen and I boarded a bus to hike Cosiguina Volcano, only to sit inside of it for over an hour in 90-degree heat before it departed. It was just another day of hurrying up and waiting, as she’d say. The Captain strolled lackadaisically from the beach onto the dock, then boarded the boat. It was as if he were disappointed that passengers even showed up. The tourists loaded up first, carrying their waterproof nikons and snorkeling kits. Locals loaded up bags of rice and an ice cream cart.
We set out at 4:30. I was mentally preparing myself for another round of getting slammed by the sea, but this never happened. Our boat turned out to be the large, gentle, two-hour ferry. One woman leaned against the ice cream cart and took a nap. How different things were now! As, we sat there, realizing we had more time than we thought to look out into the ocean instead of nearly pissing ourselves, I thought of one of my favorite travel writing passages, Mark Schatzker’s description of the ocean in A Tale of Two Crossings:
“It is vast. It is impersonal. It is wavy like you can’t imagine, except for those rare moments when, miraculously, it lies still. On a bright afternoon two thousand miles south of Alaska, it looked like a magnificent indigo pile rug. A day later, under a sky blotched with clouds, it resembled the hide of a huge slumbering animal, heaving up and down as it breathed…an ocean swell is the ultimate in existentialism: unremitting and blind. The waves marched across the horizon like Victorian factory workers. Their movement was both vigorous and futile- as if to say, “What else you gonna do out here?”
That morning on the treacherous panga ride, I had my own existential crisis. By the time we pulled back into Briggs Bay, the ocean was just another animal, slumbering under the twinkling stars above. I was relieved. We reached shore, and we had no more oceanic panga rides planned. Ever again.
We climbed into a cab that was headed in the opposite way of our hotel. I expected the driver to turn around as soon as we climbed in, but when I told him this, he mumbled that he was taking the other way around. He then turned up Pitbull’s timelessly tacky Taxi to keep us from bothering him. We came home at the same time after having driven the opposite way. Big Corn Island is not so big. Two lobster tacos later, I was ready for bed in our air-conditioned room.
Tropical Dreams Hotel to Picnic Center Beach
Distance: Just a walk and a cab ride away.
What a great day to not ride the panga! This was our last full day on Big Corn Island. My mom and I set out to walk around and end up at Picnic Center, which we’d heard was the most swimmable beach. We passed past crab crossing signs and houses on stilts that blasted country music from their porches.
We stopped by this cozy little green shack for some fresh coconuts in the Sally Peachy Neighborhood. The owners, Sidney and Adele, have been married for 40 years. They were the most warm, relaxed hosts. 40-cents later, we were sipping on a fresh coconut through a straw. Then, Sidney hacked it in half. We scooped out the gelatinous, white pulp. We giggled because of how good it was. I felt like a kid again. If only I’d had some chile and lime to put on it. I left Mexico when I was three, but one of the few things I do remember was seeing roadside stands selling fresh coconut doused in lime and chile powder. I also thought of how straws are called “popotes” in Mexico. Here, they are “pajillas”. This is just one example of the many linguistic differences between Latin American countries. I wanted to stay there forever, but my mom rightfully pulled me away. We ended up coming back the next day and I found out why Adele has never left the island.
We pressed on along the road. The hot, humid air started to make my neck unbearably itchy. I’ve had eczema all of my life, but for the past two years, my neck has been the only itchy spot on my body. Dermatogologists don’t know what to do with me, other than prescribing a rotating list of ineffective lotions and harmful steroid creams. I’ve even taken prednisone to stop the itching before. We were downtown, and my neck felt as if it were on fire. I bought a gallon of water and tub of Vaseline, then went outside and splashed my neck. I put on some Vaseline, which helped a bit. We took a cab to the Picnic Center beach, and the burning started to die down. We ordered beers and I asked for a bag of ice to press on my neck. The burning died down, and I jumped into the endless, still infinity pool of the ocean.
The beach was nearly deserted- and this was the “high season.” We walked back to town and spun around to see just another airplane glide over us. This time, we were the ones pointing at it. A troupe of young men played soccer on the beach. Other men welcomed us to the island and asked if we wanted to buy a conch. I thought they were selling us conches for ceviche, and replied “No thanks. I’m full.” My mom playfully clarified: “It’s not to eat. They want to sell you the shells!” “Oops!” I said, laughing.
Taxis honked at us, as if to ask “Why are you white people walking? You don’t know where you’re going!”
We weren’t in a rush to go to the hotel, though. Luckily, the only bus on Corn Island approached. It was a blue van with a huge decal in bubble letters that said “My Bus” on the windshield. We waved it down and stepped in. Dancehall music blasted from inside. It cost 40 cents to ride anywhere on the circuitous route. We took the “long” way back to Tropical Dreams. About 12 minutes later, we stopped by Marlene’s to place an order for Rondon ($11), a local specialty.
Two hours later, we sat down at the restaurant and were each served immediately. The staff placed a big, bony fish cooked in coconut milk in front of us. We daintily picked out the bones from each steaming forkful, and then came another offering: a huge bowl of plantains, malanga, yucca, shrimp, and green bananas cooked in coconut milk and spices. My favorite part was the broth. It tasted like gravy.
The Rondon took two hours to prepare, and 45 minutes to eat. The vegetables were tougher than I expected, but the fish was perfect-after we drizzled lime juice onto it.
Panza llena, corazon contenta (Full stomach, happy heart) is a common saying here. My heart was definitely happy, as I sat there in a food coma. It was not bad for a final NiCaribbean dinner on Big Corn Island.
Big Corn Island to Managua
Distance: The blink of an eye.
I had booked our flight out at 12:45. I knew I wouldn’t want to leave paradise first thing in the morning. Our alarm, a half-grown rooster shrieking outside, woke us up. I’m used to the feeling of waking up in a zoo, but my mom isn’t. I don’t pay much attention to the dogs yelping at 2 AM anymore. The only thing that I’ll never get used to is the BANG of cats landing on my tin roof. We walked one last time to Adele’s and filled up on more fresh coconut juice. We then tip toed in between washed up sea urchins, sea weed, and coconuts on the beach.
We took a cab to the three-room airport. We paid our $2 exit tax and I received a massive wooden boarding pass for the both of us. It could’ve replaced a cutting board.
An officer stood in the corner with his black, drug sniffing lab next to him. “Sentáte”, he said. The pooch quickly sat down and looked up at his master with eager eyes. I sat next to a young couple from Vancouver in the waiting room. They asked about my Peace Corps experience. I explained the negatives and positives of living away from home for 27 months. A skinny woman with a bob sat in front of us. She kept turning around to listen in. I mentioned that yes, it’s safe here. I’ve been assaulted, but that could have happened anywhere. I referred to Nicaragua as a “peaceful country”, and when the woman in front heard this, she whipped around. “Excuse me? Did you just say this is a peaceful country?” she asked me. “Yes, it is, compared to other countries,” I responded. “Oh okay, in the day-to-day, you mean.” “Yes, it’s not the 1980’s anymore.” “Oh yeah, I was going to say…” she nodded and turned back around.
What does peaceful even mean? It’s such a relative term. I had just gone running while listening to music on the island, something I’m still afraid to do again on the mainland after my assault on a run a month ago. I felt very safe on the island, but it does depend so heavily on tourism. Everyone knows everyone. I still see the mainland as peaceful, in its own way. Petty crimes are common, but there’s not as much gang-based violence or mass shootings as there are in the United States.
Peaceful is a relative term. As I pondered the meaning of a word that makes up my job title, we boarded the plane. Again, I was relieved to find out that this plane was much larger than the last one. Our ride back was much less bumpy. The Corn Islands were testing us during our first panga and plane rides, then forgave us with a tranquil voyage back. It was a predictably refreshing trip, and surprising in other ways.