Florida to Panama 2009

N 12° 17' W 82° 59'

An unofficial visit to Nicaragua

June 16, 2009

Reading various world cruising books there is not a lot of encouragement to visit Nicaragua.  Given the unstable relationship the country has had with the U.S. over recent decades, many shallow reefs near-shore, and limited facilities, the mainland is not a particularly popular cruising destination.  However, about 30 miles east of the southern end of the Nicaraguan mainland there are two islands that have always been quite popular stops in the southwest Caribbean and which, like San Andrés is to Colombia and Hawaii is the U.S., are island vacation destinations for Nicaragua.  Neither Big Corn Island (population of 8,000) nor Little Corn Island (with many fewer residents) is an official port of entry for Nicaragua and one of our books emphasized that a permit to visit them must be obtained in Managua after officially checking-in to the one port of entry on the Caribbean coast (El Bluff).  Another book, however, suggested that “port officials at Big Corn welcome yachts in transit to stop for rest, shelter, fuel, and to visit the island” and would meet you at the main pier.  Our plan was to visit Little Corn Island, for which the entry procedures were even less clear, so we knew that there was a chance that we would be told to leave or to check-in at Big Corn.

So early on Sunday morning (June 14th) our three boats carefully retraced our route back out through the Albuquerque reef (following the incoming trails shown on our chart-plotters) and then motored steadily west for 10 hours.  It was about a 70 miles passage with no wind to assist us but a slightly favorable current and it was a beautiful sunny day with some spectacular cloud formations on the horizon.  We anchored among fishing boats of various sizes in Pelican Bay on the southwest side of Little Corn Island.  Without the protection of a fringing reef, we expected to roll badly in the swell curving around the south end of the island but having pulled in a close to shore as possible, it was not too bad. 

As we surveyed the harbor scene with people in boats or on the beach enjoying the Sunday afternoon, a brightly colored panga (a long, narrow, outboard-motor boat with a relatively high bow) pulled alongside with a couple and young daughter who, in perfect English, welcomed us to their island.  We were not sure that many restaurants would be open on a Sunday evening but any plans to look around ashore were nixed by a very heavy downpour.

We had been attracted to Little Corn Island because Dan and Kathy had made the complex series of flight connections and final ferry ride to get there for a vacation with their sons about six years ago and had shown the rest of us glorious pictures of the beautiful beaches and rustic cabins in which they stayed.  Once we got to shore the next morning, it was very interesting to hear about what they remembered and what had generally been improved.  This revisit was not a disappointment.  There are no motor vehicles or roads on the two-mile long island with all transportation either by boat or foot.  A concrete pathway along the harbor shoreline and to the center of the island (part of which had panels that residents had decorated with paint and mosaic work) was new since Dan and Kathy’s previous visit and they were impressed that many of the houses were freshly painted with new fences and a generally cleaner and more prosperous look.

We were the only cruisers but there were many visitors from all over the world staying in the small hotels and cabins around Pelican Bay or on the long beaches of the eastern and northern shores of the island.  One man who was looking for people to take out fishing, quickly identified us as cruisers because we were already tanned (most people came to get a tan) and no doubt (although he did not specifically say it) because (with the exception of Jamie) we were older than most visitors who, one the whole, looked like students enjoying a low budget tropical paradise. 

In addition to the dozen or so places to stay, there were many small restaurants, a couple of small grocery stores, a school, and two scuba-diving operations. We did not see the police station or the two policemen that supposedly work there.  In fact, we never saw anyone in uniform or who might be officious enough to question our presence without Nicaraguan clearance and were only treated with great hospitality and friendliness by all the locals with whom we talked.  Pangas with large outboard motors flew past our boats delivering visitors from the airport 10 miles south on Big Corn Island and we half expected that one of these boats would bring an official who had heard about our three sailboats without Nicaraguan courtesy flags.

We wandered across the south end of the island on Monday morning to see the beautiful beach there and the cabins at Casa Iguana where Dan and Kathy had stayed on their previous visit.  Jamie went diving in the afternoon while Kathy and I walked across the central part of the island to the north coast and then returned via the long beach to the east.  We returned to Casa Iguana for a good dinner that was served family-style to about 30 people and Jamie pointed out several people who had been diving with him.  Somewhat smitten by the opportunity to dive (or was it the beautiful, young French woman working in the diving center?) Jamie went out again to a different reef the next afternoon.  Randall was nursing a sore back that day so he had to miss the morning walk that the rest of us took to the low hill at the center of the island.  There we climbed the ladder on the light and look-out tower next to the wind generator and radio antenna.  Given that the skies had finally cleared and the sun was shining, the views across the island, bay, and over to Big Corn Island were particularly spectacular.  

In addition to the single large wind generator, there were also some solar panels at the top of the hill and some hotels obviously had their own generators.  There was a large water storage tank on the hill although it was not obvious whether this was filled only by rainwater or was supplemented from a well and/or with reverse osmosis treatment of sea water.  It certainly did not appear that water or electricity were squandered on this small island and it seemed that fuel supplies had to be obtained from Big Corn Island, collected by individual boats or delivered by the supply ships.  We watched a young man laboriously roll a large barrel of liquid (possibly fuel for a generator) along a dirt path across the island and sympathized with his likely frustration at the absence of mechanized vehicles on the island.

With its lack of motor vehicles, beautiful palm tree-lined beaches, and relaxed and friendly atmosphere, it was easy to see why Little Corn Island was becoming a popular tourist destination for those looking for a tropical paradise on a low-budget and rustic style.  If, as Dan and Kathy felt, the residents are becoming more prosperous and the number of hotels and restaurants is increasing, it will be interesting to see whether the island manages to retain its laid-back charm over the coming years or whether more commercial interests from outside will be allowed to prevail and risk overloading the place with more sophisticated developments.  We felt privileged to be able to stay there for a few days and enjoy this beautiful outpost hoping that our travels will take us to many more places where the balance between booming tourism, local needs, and, ecological stability will (at least appear to) be so successfully maintained.

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