Touristy but still authentic Caribbean? I’m not entirely sure if that would be the best description of Las Islas del Maíz AKA Corn Islands but it certainly has something to it. The fact is that these beautiful islands come with the classic Caribbean clichés, like crystal clear blue waters and fairytale-like palm forests while they have been spared of the classic resorty beasts of a hotels with their pools and so on.
Land-wise, Corn Islands consist of two islands: Isla Grande del Maíz and Isla Pequeña del Maíz. So what are the differences between the two?
Some basic facts first
Corn Islands are located about 70 km off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Size-wise they are tiny, we’re talking about 10km2 (Big Corn) and 2,9km2 (Little Corn) of land. The population is around 8000, respectively 1000 people. The islanders are English speaking Afro-descendants mixed with indigenous Kukras and some Westerners. Socially, both islands are build upon strong communities that can be best described by two words: “very friendly”. The “everyone says hi’ kind off friendly 🙂
Like many other Caribbean islands, Corns’ history is also affected by pirates. Another thing to mention is that for a significant potion of its modern history, Corns were ruled by English-speaking powers. In between 1655 and 1860, Corns were British Protectorate and as of 1914, the islands were leased to the United States for a period of 99 years. The Americans remained on the islands until 25 April, 1971.
When it comes to the differences between the two islands – besides it’s sizes and population – the main difference would be the distribution of tourism, which is estimated to be at about 25% at Big Corn and 75% at Little Corn Island.
In my humble opinion this split might be even bigger as I have observed that dominant part of the Little Corn Island economy is based on tourism, while on Big Corn there are fishermen and various tourism-unrelated services the locals can earn they daily bred from.
Both islands reminded me a lot of a small town world as I grew up in one. It could be cute on holidays (and it was) but I had to leave my small town as soon as I could. There are things to be seen under the shiny surface but I won’t bore you with my small town observations. However, from this perspective, it appears that there’s more variety of stuff to do in the Big Corn.
I’d say that the Little Corn Island is perfect for couples as well as for divers. For solo travellers it can turn into kind off the same shit different day, which is still absolutely all right, if one takes the Caribbean settings into the consideration 😉
At the end of the day, the islands are only a 15 minute boat ride from each-other so it’s not a big deal to visit the other island at any point. Little Corn is without cars and It also has more small secluded beaches as opposed to its bigger brother. But between 6am and 1pm, the Little Corn is without electricity, unless your hotel has its own generator.*
The Big Corn has roads, taxis, 24hrs electricity and all that – it’s more “civilised” in this sense. I must say that the Little Corn’s “no cars” element provides a solid case to imply that it’s more magical and special as opposed to Big Corn and yes, it is more magical and special;)
The no electricity element however can be rough considering the heat as your fan will be solid still while you really want it to spin away, especially if you have enjoyed few cold beers the night before.
I have also observed that there are two economies – one for the locals and one for the tourists. It’s natural to have things arranged this way, especially when the prices (of for example beer) could be nearly triple if compared to the mainland Nicaragua. Everything has to be imported, hence the price hike and there’s no way the locals could afford the $2 beers, especially at the volume they drink them 🙂
Among many other observations of this “small town” world, I’ve spotted that there might be a a bit of a sex tourism thing going on here as well. This is not to judge anyone – it’s just an observation. For me it was the first time I’ve experienced a female sex tourism. I don’t really know how it works but I guess it doesn’t operate on “pay as you go” basis like its male counterpart.
From the little I know, I believe that the financial arrangements are more about supporting the local boys by getting them new cool trainers, T-shirts and stuff like that. But that’s just mostly my theory and I haven’t had a chance to collect much sufficient data to support it properly.
How to get there?
There are two major ways how to get to Corn Islands. The easier, faster and more expensive is taking a flight from Managua. In 90 minutes, it will take you to the Big Corn for about $164 return. Check it out here.
The other, harder, slower and cheaper was is taking a bus to the coastal town of Bluefields. The 320,-Córdobas (€8,60) drive takes about 8-9 hours and it’s rather picturesque but please note the old American school buses AKA “chicken buses” don’t offer much comfort. You can also take a speed boat from the town of El Rama instead of going all the way to Bluefields on the bus.
Please note that the buses leave from Mercado el Mayoreo bus terminal in Managua. If you are arriving from León or Granada, you will need to take a 100,- Córdobas taxi there from UCA bus terminal. Check the taxi price with the driver before you get in.
From Bluefields you need to take a ferry. There are boats almost every day but the schedule depends on demand. What I mean that you might have to wait a day or two, unless you’ll get there early morning on Wednesday. That is because the only regular boat leaves on Wednesdays at 9am, it takes about 5 hours and it will cost you 255,- Córdobas (€6,90).
The irregular boats between the two islands are going for 160,-Córdobas (€4,30). Ask upon your arrival.
So we are talking about 15 hours of land-boat transportation for €19,80 (plus a possible hotel in Bluefields) or 90 minute flight for approximately €145. Make your choices. I’ve personally opted to break the trip from Managua in a town of El Rama. from which I took a river speed boat to Bluefields. It took about 90 mins and it cost me 255,- Córdobas (€6,90).
BTW, Bluefields is not a spectacular place to be but it has strong-ish night life scene and it’s not entirely uncool.
As for border fees, Nicaragua has an entry fee of $13 and exit fee of $3,-USD
- Bluefields: I’ve stayed in a place called Typical House Downtown. It’s pretty much what it says. You’ll stay in a small ally just off the central market street. Ferci is a young friendly half-American half Nicaraguan dude who likes to show you the night life in town if you’re up for it. It was good fun, I’d certainly recommend to my more social party mates. For $12,-USD, you’d get a private room with a fan.
- Little Corn Island: I’ve decided in Christina’s Guest House. My choice was based on the price because for $10,-USD per night it was the cheapest private room in town. Christina is a very nice and non-judgmental lady, who’s also a preacher in the little church right across the street. The place is only about 3 minutes walk from the port, far away enough from the party strip not to be bothered by loud music if one wants to sleep, but in case of changed mind, it would take you no more than 5 minutes to be right where everything is happening.
- Big Corn Island: I was there during my birthday so I’ve treated myself to a private room for $22,-USD in the best rated Island Roots Hostel. It was a clean place run by a young friendly and attentive family. I can’t complain about anything there at all.
Safety and SCAM
Corns are very safe. And they, especially the Little Corn Island, are also mostly spared of the SCAM one witnesses during his or her travels. Just please watch out for the damaged dollar bills when given your change back. Even the smallest tear will make that bill useless, not even a bank will take it off you and locals also need to get rid of them so…
Other destinations in Nicaragua
- San Juan del Sur and Ometepe Island
- Granada and León
- In case you were interested, here’s a piece about vibrant history of Nicaragua I put together to illustrate how crazy this part of the world once was
*the electricity situation on Little Corn is apparently going to change soon as I’ve observed large solar panels being delivered to the Island to deal with the situation. I hope it’s going to work out well 🙂