Christmas on Little Corn Island

There is a darker side to Little Corn which cannot be ignored. The island is a major refuelling station for cocaine smugglers coming up from Colombia heading to the US.

Christmas was just around the corner and whilst we killed some time in Managua before our flight we visited the local shopping centre to stock up on some good stuff for Christmas. Very quickly we both realised that this year Christmas would be a bittersweet affair. Last Christmas we were barely one month into our journey, the excitement of over a year on the road ahead meant we enjoyed the novelty of holidays on the beach. Whilst shopping for sweets and drink we both felt a little homesick, not just for our absent family and friends but also for the other things that make a Christmas – drinks with friends, mince pies and Christmas puddings , even office parties. Luckily we were no longer alone and would be spending it with our new friends. We had lots of local rum, cigars and silly hats in the bag.

Getting to Little Corn Island is a bit of a mission. It’s possible to get a boat to Big Corn Island on a local boat but it’s a long journey, the seas are BIG and sea sickness is a given. We splurged a little and booked a flight from Managua to Big Corn Island where we would have to take a short water taxi to Little Corn.

Not your usual boarding cards
Not your usual boarding cards

The airline was not the most professional service I’ve experienced, the boarding cards were big lumps of blue plastic that had been altered over time by passengers. After being unable to start one of the engines on the plane we were taken off and herded back into the waiting lounge whilst engineers prodded and poked around until they got it started. A slightly less enthusiastic group were ushered onto the plane by the grinning pilot, reassuring everybody not to worry and have a nice day. The boat to Little Corn Island was not at all bad. The internet is full of horror stories of huge waves and swells, lost luggage and tears but we didn’t suffer any of it.

Our plane almost worked
Our plane almost worked

Little Corn Island is a tiny island, only three square kilometres; there are no roads, just a few paths along the west coast. Transport is bike or cart and the atmosphere is laid back. Most locals can be found horizontal in hammocks all day. It’s Christmas so we splurged again, booking into probably the only real hotel on the island. We have a balcony, air conditioning and a bathroom with electricity from 2pm – 5am, luxury. No hot water still though, that would be asking too much.

Little Corn Island
Little Corn Island

We had a few days before the others arrived and they flew by. We were instantly infected by the local condition – acute laziness. Our days went like this –bed to beach to bar to beach to bar to bed. We loved this place, at first it appeared a little cliquey, all the bars and dive shops (about four of them) had groupies and we felt like outsiders. But after a few days, we got to know everybody and were treated like family. As usual we got to know the local dog population well and gained some canine company on our balcony in the evenings. Leah made friends with the hotel monkey, Rosa. She didn’t like me so much but I wasn’t too fussed, she smelt quite bad.

Leah and Rosa
Leah and Rosa

Once our friends arrived the days quickly became a routine. Swimming on the beach, drinks on our balcony followed by happy hour at Tranquilo bar and restaurant. Tranquilo’s sells the best burgers I’ve tasted anywhere in the world as well as an impressive British fish and chips.

Christmas day started with Leah and me opening our stockings we had bought for each other, stupid toys and sweets  – a tradition Leah was not going to give up even if we were on the other side of the planet. We spent the day on the beach, started a sand castle competition (which we thought we should have won) played some pool , followed by cigars and drinks on our balcony, finishing the day with a Christmas dinner of lobster and steak. All very different but all very nice.

Christmas dinner
Christmas dinner

Little Corn Island is the first place we have visited on our trip where we really thought we could settle down for a while. I’m not thinking forever but easily for 6-12 months. We really will miss this place, especially the dogs!

Little Corn Island
Little Corn Island

There is a darker side to Little Corn which cannot be ignored. The island is a major refuelling station for cocaine smugglers coming up from Colombia heading to the US. When boats are intercepted by local police the smugglers will dump their cargo overboard. Kilogram blocks of cocaine regularly wash up on the beaches here, the locals call it ‘White Lobster’. They have the option of selling it back to the Colombians or keeping it for themselves. On the mainland there is even, in the midst of wooden shacks and mud streets, a spanking new concrete internet centre funded by the Colombians, built to enable locals to contact them if they wish to sell back lost ‘produce’. Luckily all this nonsense went unnoticed by us, locals accepted us with open doors and warm smiles. We will not be thanking them, however, for the local delicacy ‘run down stew’. A giddy brew of crab, lobster, conch and root vegetables. I thought it was hideous.

The balcony
The balcony

We thought this would be a final farewell to our friends but it turns out that the Swiss couple have made identical plans for New Year in Guatemala. So we sadly say goodbye for now to Josh from Alaska and Paola from Italy, thanks guys we had a great month.

 

Next, it’s a quick stop in Honduras before heading into Guatemala. Only 7 weeks left!

Leon – casinos and another new camera

Leon is on the verge of exploding as a tourist destination. The infrastructure is all here, hostels, bars, restaurants, but it’s not yet gone the final mile.

Leaving Puerto Viejo at around 9am we had a short five hour bus journey to the capital San Jose. All reports we’d heard were that it’s a bit of a dump and not the best place to spend a night out. Our plan was to book a bus as soon as arriving onward to the Nicaragua capital Managua.  Unfortunately, because of the holiday season all buses were booked. Nicaraguan migrant workers are all heading home for Christmas so we ended up on the 7am bus the following day.  This did however give us a chance to try and buy a new cheapo camera to keep us going until the end of the holiday. Turns out Latin Americans get a bit of a rough deal when it comes to cameras. All the models on display are at least two years old (compared to the US and UK market) and are at least twice the cost as the same model back home. Maybe it’s a bit of unfair price fixing, maybe it’s a huge import tax. Anyway, we couldn’t find one so gave up and kept our fingers crossed for Managua.

We did nothing else that day, just wrote our diaries, booked some tickets to a Leftfield gig back home in April and that evening even ordered delivery Domino’s and watched a film. A slice of normality.

Dog of the month

7am and we were a on a TransNica international bus to Nicaragua. The best buses to get are the Tika buses, they are the gringo cattle trucks of Central America, nothing like the quality of buses in Argentina but apparently very comfortable. TransNica is nothing like Tika buses. Cockroaches scampered everywhere around my seat, and by the time we got off I was covered with bites around my ankles. Still, the border crossing was a breeze and the scenery changed wonderfully from pizza joints and shopping malls back to lush tropical forest and small villages. Then we hit Managua. It was a pit, luckily we were moving straight through to Leon but not before watching some poor chap get mugged right in front of us. We shared a taxi with an American girl who spent her whole time away in San Jose and Managua, can’t think why.

We had never heard of Leon, it wasn’t on any of our various and every changing itineraries. It’s one of those places that over the months we kept getting told we simply HAVE to go to. On top of that, Josh, one of our new traveling chums, spent three months working there last year and had nothing but good things to say. So here we are, and it was a very good choice.

Leon

Leon is on the verge of exploding as a tourist destination. The infrastructure is all here, hostels, bars, restaurants, but it’s not yet gone the final mile. Expensive generic hotels and chains have not arrived, American coffee shops are not on every corner and the locals still live and sell in the city centre. The locals are usually the first to be squeezed out of the colonial city centres, either forced out by the local authorities or persuaded by huge lumps of cash. I imagine in a few years it will look a little like Cusco here, it may not have the draw of Machu Picchu but it has all the charm.

Although I’ve said many times that we had got a bit bored of colonial towns, I’ll eat my words. We spend hours walking through the cobbled streets, there is some sort of local fair on and all families are out in their best. Street food stalls pack the central squares and local musicians and street performers are also out in force. Latin America can do a rather good street party.  Whereas in England an evening event in town may well end up being awash with vomit, drunks, and a few street brawls, here it’s a family affair. Sure, there may be a few guns in pockets and a shortcut via a back street might mean you are relieved of a few valuables, but it’s refreshing to see large families all out enjoying themselves.

We meet up again with our friends we met on the San Blas tour, spending another day at the beach, and enjoying a few local tours. I also dipped into the local casino for only the second time in my life and walked out $170 up. I’ve promised Leah something nice when we are in Orlando at the end of the holiday. We also manage to find a Radio Shack and pick a up a new camera.

Leon - on the beach
Leon - on the beach

On our last day we spent a few hours with a local jeweller where Leah had a ring designed and made from scratch. She came up with the shape and style and I (with just a little help from the jeweller) smelted the silver and sculpted the ring. Turned out alright, I think.  Leah seems happy. We recorded a video of the whole process if you have four minutes to spare. It’s more interesting than it might sound.

We loved Leon, another place we could have easily spent more time. However, we have flights booked to the tiny corn islands off the coast of Nicaragua. We enjoyed our Christmas on an island so much last year we’ve decided on an encore. The plan was we would be on our own for a quiet affair. However the night before leaving Leon we managed to convince our friends to come join us. So it’s now a party of six. Should be a good Christmas!

Leon sunset
Leon sunset