Under the spell of Nicaragua's Corn Islands

  • Article by: COLLEEN KINDER , Washington Post
  • Updated: January 11, 2014 - 2:46 PM

These fringe islands seem a world apart — easygoing Little Corn, and Big Corn with 6,000 inhabitants.

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Fishing boats rested on the shore of the Corn Islands. Lobster fishing is a popular trade for islanders.

Photo: Colleen Kinder • Washington Post,

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The lobster trawlers bob like toys in a bathtub, tipping to and fro with every swell of gray sea. I watch with a crowd of Nicaraguans about to board the day’s last panga, or public ferryboat, wondering whether the storm is as bad as it looks.

The word I keep overhearing is “angry.” In Spanish, English and a Creole that sounds like English flipped inside out and set to a beat, everyone’s calling the sea — our only highway — angry.

Such is the medley of languages 40-some miles off the coast of Nicaragua, on the Corn Islands. For centuries, these two landmasses had little to do with mainland Nicaragua. It wasn’t until 1894 that the country claimed these fringe islands, but with no roadways linking the capital to the marshy eastern coastline, the Corns remained a world apart. To this day, islanders play more reggae than salsa, and every August, around the 27th, the day the slaves were emancipated, they crown another local beauty island queenla at a festival featuring crab soup.

There’s a Big Corn and a Little Corn, and the traveler’s first quandary is to pick her Corn. I say quandary, because these islands are different in both style and scale (“big” means 6,000 people; “little” fewer than 1,000) and what separates them is about 10 miles of often turbulent sea. My plan was to depart for Little Corn as soon as my puddle jumper landed on the bigger island. The reason was simple: In every story I’d read about Little Corn, the writer sounded a little shocked by how totally the place calmed him. Clearly, Little Corn cast a particular spell.

But watching palm trees bend back in the rainy wind, I wonder: Do I really need to sleep in Eden tonight?

“Hurry!” Our captain cuts off my doubts and sends us all running with fire-drill panic toward our thrashing panga boat. I’m seasick before it leaves the dock.

At last, the captain takes aim at a skinny band of beach, and we’re told to leap off the back of the panga, toward the kelp-strewn sand.

There are no cars on Little Corn. No buzz of motorcycles, no throttle or honk disturbs the air. Waves awoke me early, in a cerulean blue shack perched above the southern shore of Little Corn. Such is lodging at Casa Iguana, which borrows well from the palette of Corn Island homes — purple, turquoise, the deep yellow of ripened mango. It’s tucked back in a carefully manicured jungle, where hibiscus vines dome over damp dirt pathways. My shack-for-one, rustic and yet so ready for me (flashlight, mosquito net, three novels in a pile), invited the delusion that I could just stay here and live, overlooking an empty beach.

So did the mood at the communal dinner. A ringleted blonde on the staff handed me a basil mojito, then plantain chips. The catch of the day was cooking somewhere, as guests pattered in, barefoot. Was it ludicrous to ask about a wireless signal here, where fireflies beaded the darkness and pirates once strung up hammocks?

I did, only to wish that I hadn’t. The last thing one should gaze into from Little Corn Island is a full inbox. I shut the hotel laptop and drifted back toward the dinner table and then into the inky dark toward my abode.

It’s early when I step outside the next morning. With neither a watch nor a phone, I read the only available time clues: bare feet dangling from hammocks, and a few toes peeking out from shored boats. It’s the crack of dawn on Little Corn Island.

Harris is the first alert person I meet. An older man with the muscles of a sailor, Harris is scraping the scales off a yellowtail snapper, as the waves curl toward the sand just behind him. A native of the island, Harris assures me that I’ve come to the better Corn. Why? “Children can run around without the scare of cars.”

The foot traffic is gentle as I step back onto the path, and without meaning or trying, I merge with Ronald and Richard.

Both 21, both wearing baggy jeans to their shins, and both members of an Afro-Caribbean group called Garifuna, Ronald and Richard could pass for twins. Their native language, a mix of Arawak, Carib, English, French and Spanish, speaks to how many cultures fused along the Atlantic coast of Central America. It’s dizzying to keep up with these multilingual young men. Ronald and Richard salute passersby in Creole (“Yow bigs!”), echo back a few holas, and flip between singing American rap, Latino pop and Bob Marley like a radio on scan.

Snorkeling off the Sea Prince

Walk down the beach; look for a boat; find the guy who takes out snorkelers; bring $20.

The snorkeling guy isn’t around, but I do find men drinking 11 a.m. beer in the shade. One of them is Harris, from the other side of the island, which felt like a great coincidence, until I remembered that the “other side of the island” was what we’d call, anywhere else, “next door.” Little Corn is little more than 1 square mile.

I beam at my old friend (Harris!) and he responds in kind, offering to take me snorkeling.

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