Nicaragua, Part One: Getting to Little Corn Island

When you decide that you’re going to Little Corn Island, a Caribbean paradise located about 40 miles from the eastern shore of Nicaragua, you are making a commitment. You don’t just hop on a plane, close your eyes for a nap, and wake up in the tropics. Far from it. Depending on your budget and time constraints, you will take either a plane or a bus. Then you will take a taxi and a boat ride. Or ferry ride, followed by a panga ride. The posted schedules for these methods of transportation will be mere suggestions; you’re on Latin time, after all. By the time you reach Little Corn, you will be drained – and then you will walk to your island destination, because there are no motorized vehicles on the island.

The thing is, it’s all worth it. Every second of travel is forgotten the moment you set foot on the island. Because Little Corn Island is an amazing place, with unspoiled natural beauty and a lifestyle unlike any I’ve experienced before.

Here’s one way to get there.

Start in Managua, Nicaragua’s capital city. Our connection from Fort Lauderdale, FL landed at around 1:00 am local time. Customs was easy to navigate. Visitors must purchase a tourist card for $10 USD, which allows you to stay in the country for 90 days. Even at the late hour, the immigration department was well-staffed and we made it through quickly.

Next, we were to take La Costeña, Nicaragua’s domestic airline, to Big Corn Island. Depending on the season, these flights leave Managua a few times per day. Ours wasn’t due to leave until 6:15. With hours to go, we settled down in the airport lobby to rest. If you find yourself in a similar situation, bring a book: Augusto C. Sandino International Airport has free Wi-Fi, but they turn it off overnight. If you’re hungry, one cafe in the food court stays open. They serve traditional Nicaraguan snacks and cheeses. We enjoyed a turnover, stuffed with rice and beef, accompanied by maduro and spicy onion sauce.

Our first taste of Nicaragua
Our first taste of Nicaragua

Finally, it was time for us to catch our flight to Big Corn Island. To access the domestic terminal of the airport, you must leave the lovely air-conditioned international building and head left. La Costeña’s building is next door. This is what their terminal looks like. Their slogan means, “Wings that unite Nicaragua.”

La Costeña's check-in counter
La Costeña’s check-in counter

Fortunately, the check-in process was pretty fast and the security line minimal. Travelers should keep in mind that the airline enforces a 30-pound limit for checked baggage. Should your items weigh more than that, you may have to pay a fee per pound. Furthermore, they will make you stand on their scale with your carry-ons. Since their planes are small, making sure that the load is within limits is definitely a priority for them. There is also a tax. I don’t remember the exact amount but it was no more than a couple of U.S. dollars per person.

Once you’re through security, you receive laminated tickets that are numbered. The airline will use as many 12-seat planes to transport passengers; you will be called to board by name based on the number you receive.

Tickets to Corn Island
Tickets to Corn Island

The gate area is small but comfortable, with an abundance of chairs, a little cafe, and a bar. Even though it was before six in the morning, many travelers were seen indulging in the local offerings: Toña beer and Flor de Caña rum. Perhaps they were nervous about climbing onto a terrifying little airplane… or maybe they were just celebrating the oncoming weekend.

Signs in the airport
Signs in the airport
Chairs for waiting passengers
Chairs for waiting passengers
The bar in the airport
The bar in the airport

The first twelve passengers were called, and we watched their flight leave. Finally, our names were called. We walked out of the gate and directly onto the airplane.

A La Costeña baggage cart
A La Costeña baggage cart
The plane awaits
The plane awaits

We squeezed into the seats and took off without incident. The flight was a breeze. Since the morning was beautiful and clear, I saw great views of Nicaragua’s fields.

Farms from the window of the airplane
Farms from the window of the airplane

Some passengers, exhausted from a full night of travel, slept; their slumber was made more comfortable by their girlfriends’ thoughtful purchase of neck pillows prior to the trip. They may look silly, but they sure do allow you to sleep well almost anywhere.

Sleeping passengers
Sleeping passengers

After about an hour, we saw Big Corn Island approaching in the distance.

Big Corn Island appears in sight
Big Corn Island appears
Approaching the island for a landing
Approaching the island for a landing
A little bit closer to Big Corn
A little bit closer to Big Corn

The water is so clear blue that you can see coral reefs underneath. I started to get excited: we would be diving those in just a few hours!

We landed uneventfully – the best way to land.

On the runway at Big Corn Island
On the runway at Big Corn Island

After checking in at the airport (we had to provide our passport numbers), we found a taxi to drive us to the municipal wharf. This is where you catch the panga to Little Corn. It’s very easy to find a driver. Hordes of them clustered at the door, begging departing passengers for business. We picked one for the ten-minute drive, which cost $1 USD per person.

The dock area of Big Corn Island is exciting. You must be alert – there are lots of people who will be quite pushy about offering assistance, and then ask for money. There is no real need for anyone to carry your bags to the boat, to guide you towards a breakfast restaurant, or to help in any other way. It’s easy to buy your tickets (they cost about $6 USD). But if you don’t feel like carrying your bags, someone will be there to do so – and they’ll want a beer or a couple of bucks in return.

Our tickets for the panga
Our tickets for the panga

The panga wasn’t leaving for another 90 minutes. After some encouragement from a local, we made the mistake of being corralled into a breakfast. The restaurant is right across from the dock, and it’s not very good. We were dismayed to be charged the equivalent of $25 USD for some terrible French toast, a borderline inedible sandwich, and a couple of beers. I’m pretty sure there’s a menu that this restaurant gives to locals, and another for tourists that has much higher prices. I will say that our first taste of ice-cold Toña, the national beer, was delicious. The morning was already steamy, but the beer cooled us off.

My first Toña
My first Toña

Here are a few shots from around the wharf area, which was crowded with people and boats.

A shipment of concrete, and a car
A shipment of concrete, and a car
Some policemen at the wharf
Some policemen at the wharf
A store
A store
Some boats ready for fishing
Some boats ready for fishing
Larger boats and a load of stone
Larger boats and a load of stone
Socializing at the dock
Socializing at the dock

Finally, it was time to depart. We made our way towards the panga, which would take us over to Little Corn Island in a forty-minute journey. The boat looked small, especially when you considered how far it was going.

A view of the panga and Little Corn in the far distance
A view of the panga and Little Corn in the far distance
The inside of the panga
The inside of the panga

That boat was stuffed full of people by the time we set off. There’s a space for bags in the stern of the boat, where they will be protected from the inevitable splashing. But you’re on your own. Seats towards the bow are more likely to spray you, and also more vulnerable to the rocking of the boat as it flies over the crests of waves and slaps back down onto the sea below. The ride is a little bumpy. Not to say you can’t enjoy it, or even relax: a baby, excited and giggling at the beginning of the rocky ride, quickly was rocked to sleep in her mom’s arms. By the time we docked at Little Corn forty minutes later, she was fast asleep.

Excited on the panga
Excited on the panga

All in all, the journey from the airport in Managua to Little Corn took about five hours. This was after 14 hours of overnight travel beforehand. It’s safe to way that we were tired by the time we made it there. However, all of the exhaustion fell away as we got our first glimpse of the island…

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