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Originally published February 22, 2014 at 7:05 PM | Page modified February 24, 2014 at 10:22 AM

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Falling under the spell of a Nicaraguan island

No cars, just beaches and peacefulness, on Nicaragua’s remote and simple Little Corn Island.


The Washington Post

If you go

Nicaragua

Getting there

From Managua, La Costena flies to Big Corn Island (with a brief stop en route in Bluefields). The only transportation to Little Corn, about 30 minutes away, is via public panga boat, weather permitting. About $4.50 one way. lacostena.com.ni

Where to stay

Casa Iguana has very simple but charming cabanas, plus a dining room and lounge, all facing the beach on Little Corn Island. Rooms from $35. casaiguana.net

Yemaya Island Hideaway

The new and first upscale hotel on Little Corn Island, described as “eco-chic,” offering 16 cabanas on the waterfront. Rooms from $300. littlecornhotel.com

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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 from a crowd of Nicaraguans about to board the day’s last panga, a small open boat that ferries passengers, 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 east coast of Nicaragua, on the Corn Islands. For centuries, these two landmasses — faint crumbs on the Caribbean map — had little to do with mainland Nicaragua. They were pirate territory, coconut-tree-lined refuges for the likes of the ruthless privateer Captain Morgan.

It wasn’t until 1894 that Nicaragua 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 still bear surnames such as Quinn and Campbell and play more reggae than salsa.

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? Do I even believe in one? A place so calm it could chill even me out? I’m good at motion; I get off on reaching the map’s outer edge. Hunkering down under a pretty tree once I get there, however, is a lot, lot harder.

“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.

My seat puts me between a jumpy man and the open sea. Trying not to look at the great girth and rolling height of each gray wave, I clutch the flapping plastic tarp that is our boat’s umbrella, very ready to hear “land-ho.”

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. Someone points out the sunset, but heads are down, nausea pervasive.

No cars, just peacefulness

There are no cars on Little Corn. No buzz of motorcycles, no throttle or honk of any sort disturbs the air. You hear just two things as you wind around the concrete footpath that is this island’s only thoroughfare: the crash and withdrawal of waves.

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 — creamy purple, cool 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 (on the house). The catch of the day was cooking somewhere, as guests pattered in, barefoot. A Californian named Blake struggled to tell me when he’d arrived — “Tuesday?”

How soon I could feel the complete dissolve of home’s priorities. 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, where everyone was talking scuba.

Corn Island travelers chat about diving conditions the way bankers discuss stocks — everything here hinges on the clarity of the sea. A nondiver, I couldn’t get into it, so I wandered off into the inky dark toward my abode, intent on exploring Little Corn first thing in the morning.

It’s early — profanely early — when I step outside. 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 polylingual young men.

Ronald and Richard salute passers-by 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.

To the water

Lots of things keep Little Corn feeling little. There are no hotel pools, no tennis courts, nothing taller than two stories.

What is does have is ultra-clear blue waters for diving and snorkeling. 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 one square mile.

I beam at my old friend (Harris) and he responds in kind, offering to take me snorkeling. What makes hospitality in the Corns so disarming is how uncalled for, in context, it feels.

In a place this idyllic, no one has to be nice. And Harris certainly doesn’t need (nor will he accept) my $20 bill. He owns both a hotel and the lobster trawler on the horizon. Is it possible? Could Harris just care that I snorkel?

The men in the shade set down their beers, rise to their feet, and push Harris and me off the beach in a motorboat called the Sea Prince.

The water glints with so much light that I have to visor my eyes with one hand, and it’s clear enough to count the mustard-colored patches of corals, to see every ripple in the white sand below.

Hours from now, I will feel like a cooked lobster — the skin on my back the most alarming shade of pink in the palette — but right now, barefoot and bikinied and leaning forward on the tipped-up bow of a speeding boat, I feel like the Sea Queen.

I don’t tell Harris about my phobia of ocean swimming — a fear of fish (and worse) nibbling at my feet. I don’t have to, it turns out, because snorkeling in water this clear is the perfect cure. Head submerged, I can see it all, the swerving and darting and breezy wafting of every size of fish.

How silly: to think that my plain white toes could garner any attention down here. A school of jet-black fish with long whiskers and shimmery blue stripes turns past me.

Harris spots a barracuda, and that’s enough to get me wriggling back into the Sea Prince. Besides, my time is short — I’m catching the afternoon panga boat back to Big Corn. This bothers Harris. “You’ll have to come back,” he says, shaking his head at my haste.

But as I scamper down the beach and grab a loaf of coconut bread from the little pink house that everyone agrees is the place for the baked variety of “coco food,” I feel secretly as if I got it right.

Perhaps the perfect time to leave is just before the sunburn shows, before the waves dull into white noise, before I run into Harris a third time. Maybe it’s best to get on your way, right when you’re tempted to call a place perfect?



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