The Best Caribbean Islands You’ve Never Heard Of: Nicaragua’s Corn Islands
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In the 17th century, these forgotten little Caribbean islands just 50 miles off the coast of Nicaragua were a haven for pirates and buccaneers.
Today, the local population on Big and Little Corn Islands is a mix of the descendants of British prospectors and freed slaves who primarily make their living selling lobster and fish from the prolific waters just offshore.
Thanks to its colorful pirate history, shipwrecks around the islands abound as do legendary stories of forgotten treasure.
It’s not every day you discover a hidden gem in a part of the world as popular as the Caribbean. But that’s exactly what I found in the Corn Islands of Nicaragua.
Of course, this undiscovered paradise doesn’t come easy. And that’s where my story begins today…
Arrival in Nicaragua
After a stellar first week of this 30-day trip around Central America, I’m off to a rough start in Nicaragua.
Still reveling in the zen from my stay at Laguna Lodge in Guatemala, I land back to reality in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua.
Read More: Going Green with Glamour in Guatemala
First stop, immigration.
I am “welcomed” to Nicaragua by a gruff immigration officer who charges me a 2nd time for the CA-4 visa I paid for in El Salvador. The visa is supposed to cover Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.
Guatemala accepted it, no problem. Nicaragua wants more money.
Ok, fine. It’s only $10 and certainly not worth seeing the inside of a Nicaraguan prison.
How to Get to the Corn Islands from Managua
Next up, La Costena Airlines, the Nicaraguan national carrier.
There are only two flights a day from Managua to Big Corn Island. The first is at 7:00am, the second at 2:00pm. I land at 9:00am, so I have a lot of time to kill before my connection.
Luckily, the Managua International Airport terminal is clean, modern, and has free wifi. I camp out in the airport lobby with my laptop for a few hours. Then head over to the domestic terminal (the opposite of the lovely international terminal) to check-in.
I join the long check-in line just as the agent announces that some bags on today’s flight will have to stay behind in Managua. Our flight to Big Corn Island is sold out and overweight.
She explains that if your bag is left behind, it will be on the 7:00am flight tomorrow morning. And yes, they will deliver it to your hotel – even on Little Corn Island, where I am heading.
I never check a bag but the aircraft is so small that even my international-size carry-on is too big. Sigh. I pull out a few things to get me through 24 hours, hand it off to the agent, and hope for the best.
By the time we board, the weather has turned stormy and the flight is a rough ride in a very small plane. Fortunately, it’s a short flight and we soon hit the runway (wheels first, thankfully) on Big Corn Island.
Arrival in the Corn Islands
It is still raining steadily when we arrive on Big Corn Island. However, my day finally takes a turn for the better when I spot my bag being unloaded from the plane…hooray!
Plenty of taxis are outside the tiny airport waiting to transport passengers to one of two destinations:
1) A hotel on Big Corn Island.
2) Or the ferry to Little Corn Island, also known as the panga.
The Panga Ride from Big Corn to Little Corn Island
I’ve read horror stories online about the panga ride between islands and I am not looking forward to this necessary evil to reach Little Corn Island.
However, I’ve come totally prepared with all of the recommended safeguards to make the ride as pleasant as possible.
First, I place my luggage inside the garbage bags I’ve brought (because luggage will get wet). Then, I select a seat in the middle of the boat. Popular wisdom suggests the back of the boat gets wet while the front has the bumpiest ride.
Hedge your bets by sitting dead center.
Pleased that I’ve secured the seat I hoped for, the next step is lifejackets. The captain then hands out sopping wet lifejackets from the storage hold. Everyone makes a face but dutifully puts them on.
And then we’re off!
The ride actually isn’t as bad as I expected. It is definitely bumpy and there are lots of big waves thanks to the inclement weather. But other than a few drops of rain, I don’t get wet at all.
Success!! (I posted a little video from the ride in the photo gallery…in case you want to try to experience it for yourself.)
Arrival on Little Corn Island
We arrive safely to the dock in Little Corn and I scan the small receiving party for someone from my hotel.
For my stay on Little Corn Island, I chose the Little Corn Beach & Bungalow (LCBB) hotel. A fellow travel blogger who spent a lot of time on Little Corn says LCBB is the best place to stay on the island and that’s good enough for me!
I’m relieved when I spot a guy holding a sign with both my name and one other name (a fellow panga passenger).
There are no cars on Little Corn so once our luggage is offloaded from the panga, the nice man from the hotel then loads it into a wheelbarrow. Seriously. And then we’re off through a jungle trail to the other side of the island.
I realize then that my confirmation from the hotel didn’t say, “we’ll pick you up at the dock.” It said, “we’ll meet you at the dock.” Clever.
There are 4 in our group, me plus a group of 3 other ladies also staying at the hotel. My fellow guests and I exchange nervous glances. We aren’t really sure where we are going.
Little Corn Beach & Bungalow – the perfect Little Corn hotel
But after a 20-minute walk through the jungle, we emerge on the other side of the island on a beautiful beach. From there it’s just a few steps to Little Corn Beach & Bungalow where we are greeted warmly and shown directly to our bungalows.
I reserved the “Master Suite Crusoe” bungalow and it turns out to be really lovely.
They explain that the island’s power is turned off from 5:00am – 2:00pm each day. (I am already aware of this after carefully reading LCBB’s website.) However, my particular bungalow has a generator that runs the fans in my room until around 8:00am.
This is one of the reasons I selected the Master Suite Crusoe bungalow. But as it turns out, I don’t really need it.
The windows in the bungalows do a great job of capturing the island breezes. Other than the middle of the day (when I’m not in there anyway) it’s never really hot at all.
It’s dinner time by now and after a long travel day, I realize I’m famished. I head over to check out Little Corn B&B’s restaurant, the Turned Turtle. The restaurant is a nice surprise. The prices are extremely reasonable and the food is excellent.
I enjoy a 4-course dinner with grilled snapper as the main course for just $10. It’s possibly the cheapest meal I’ve ever had in the Caribbean.
A Walking Tour of Little Corn
The next morning I awake early to check out the beach. But first, a delicious breakfast at the Turned Turtle to fuel my island exploration.
It’s a beautiful day so I decide to strike out on a long walk around the island. Since there are no cars on Little Corn Island, there are, of course, no roads. Navigation basically consists of a system of trails around the island.
I begin with a walk from end-to-end on the LCBB side of the island. Along the beach, there are a variety of inexpensive beach shacks available for rent. I get the feeling you could spend a long time for very little money on Little Corn Island.
Next, I take the jungle path back across the island to walk the other side, where the main “town” is located. I stop at a cafe in town for lunch and a quick e-mail check. (Note: LCBB generally has wifi but it was down during my visit. And it’s tough to get such things repaired around here.)
It’s a lovely walk and a great way (well, the only way) to explore the tiny island. There’s not much to see or do on Little Corn Island but isn’t that the point? To disconnect, relax and enjoy the beautiful Caribbean surroundings.
By late afternoon, I’ve seen it all, and I head back to LCBB to put one of their hammocks to good use. That night I enjoy another delicious meal at the Turned Turtle and sleep soundly wrapped in the cocoon of the mosquito netting around my bed (it was kind of like sleeping in a fort, ha!).
All in all, a very relaxing and enjoyable stay on Little Corn Island.
Panga ride, Round 2
The next morning, it’s back on the panga for the return trip to Big Corn Island.
I have one full day left in the Corn Islands and I’m excited to explore Big Corn before I fly back to Managua tomorrow. This time, the panga ride back to Big Corn (under sunny skies) is actually quite pleasant.
Although I meet another American girl on the boat who says her ride over yesterday was quite traumatic.
Bottom Line: You never know what you’re gonna get from the Corn Islands panga ride.
Big Corn Island
On Big Corn Island, I booked a room at the lovely Hotel Casa Canada. Initially, I couldn’t decide between La Princesa de La Isla (which has awesome reviews) and Casa Canada for my stay on Big Corn Island. But Casa Canada offered rooms with air conditioning and ultimately, that won out.
And now, after 3 days without AC and wifi, I’m happy to have both back in my life. The hotel is kind enough to check me in at 7:30am and even offers a late check-out tomorrow for my 3:00pm flight.
The hotel property is very scenic with an infinity pool right on the rocky shoreline and colorful hammocks dotting a manicured lawn. The restaurant isn’t quite as good as LCBB’s but the price is right and the view is exceptional.
I spend a relaxing afternoon between the pool and a hammock and then retire to my room under cloudy skies. I’m dying to get out and see some of the island but the weather forecast looks more promising for tomorrow so I hold off.
A Driving Tour of Big Corn Island
The next morning, the hotel arranges a taxi driver for a guided island tour (the best way to see the island).
Though it’s bigger than Little Corn (hence the name), Big Corn can still easily be seen in an hour or two. Taxi drivers charge a very reasonable hourly rate for island tours.
My driver’s name is David and he turns out to be a terrific tour guide, full of interesting stories about the history of the island. Especially the intriguing pirate history.
According to David, there is still buried treasure all over the island. In fact, just 6 years ago, he was digging in one of the swampy parts of the island and found a few gold coins and a bracelet. He later sold them in the US for $5,000.
How about that? It’s a wonder the whole island isn’t walking around with shovels.
David and I cover every corner of the island, including some of Big Corn’s best beaches. Arenas Beach, in particular, rivals any beach I’ve visited in the rest of the Caribbean.
With my island tour complete, David drops me back at Casa Canada to grab lunch before my flight back to Managua.
What makes the Corn Islands so special?
Looking back on my days exploring Nicaragua’s Corn Islands, this may truly be one of the few stretches of sandy, unspoiled, tropical Eden left in the Caribbean.
What these islands may lack in modern amenities, they more than make up for in local charm and natural beauty.
Looking for a beachside hammock on your own private beach? Little Corn Island just might be your idea of paradise.
After a quick flight back to Managua and an overnight stay at the comparably-luxurious (i.e. it had power 24 hours a day) Hilton Princess Managua, it was time to move on.
Next stop on this Central American adventure, another little-known Caribbean gem, the San Blas Islands of Panama!