If you’re looking for a tropical getaway this summer, perhaps to a destination a little more authentic and a little less expensive than Hawaii or the Florida Keys, consider the Corn Islands of Nicaragua. Described as what Costa Rica was twenty years ago, these islands offer a relaxing retreat while still exposing tourists to the rich culture and natural scenery of the Caribbean. Although most water sports such as stand up paddle boarding are only offered during the high season (December-April), there are still plenty of low-season activities to enjoy, both aquatic and land-based.
Big Corn Island
This island has an area of four square miles, meaning you can walk or bike practically everywhere. One main road wraps around the entire island, and as you travel along it you are likely to encounter sheep, horses and pigs tied up in people’s front yards, as well as many businesses run out of front porches. There are no brand-name stores or restaurants (not to mention cash registers). While this degree of underdevelopment may be uncomfortable at times, I can speak from experience when I say that it is also humbling and strangely exhilarating to buy sweet coconut bread from the very woman whose hands kneaded the dough, or to know that the money you spend on handcrafted jewelry will go to help the very families who greet you every morning as you pass by. Although almost all of the natives live in extreme poverty, evident from the many one-room tin shacks and yards of colorful clotheslines drying in the sun, they are incredibly friendly and are eager to converse in either Spanish or English.
What to Do: The Picnic Center offers the best beaches on the island; think perfect white sand and crystal-clear turquoise water. Once you’re nice and sun-baked, pull on your sneaks and head to Mt. Pleasant Tower, the highest point on Big Corn Island with a sweeping 360 degree view. Snorkeling, fishing, kayaking and scuba lessons are available at a few locations around the island, including Anastasia’s on the Sea. I personally recommend going to a local guide named Dorsi. His shop is located along the Sally Peachy shore, from which he also sells handcrafted jewelry made from seashells and coral he gathers himself. There is also a cultural center if you are interested in learning more about the history of the island (spoiler alert: pirates are involved).
Where to Stay: We had a lovely experience at Casa Canada. Rated one of the top hotels on the island, Casa Canada boasts an infinity pool and gorgeous ocean views. Both pool and ocean-side location are fantastic. However, the “hot” showers and AC proved disappointing. The food, while authentically Caribbean, is not superb, but the staff is wonderful and know exactly when to bring you a refreshing margarita from the full bar. If you’re like me and consider food a vital part of your vacation, I recommend Arenas Beach Hotel. Located right along the Picnic Center, this hotel serves the best lobster and Caribbean Crepe on the island. While you’re relaxing under the hotel’s private cabanas, enjoy an ice-cold toña (Nicaragua’s traditional beer) or a fruity cocktail from the whimsical Boat Bar.
What to Eat: Alas, the overall dining experience at Big Corn is a disappointment. Most of the restaurants feature an identical menu of seafood specialties, as well as (curiously enough) an array of Chinese options. Surprisingly, most of the restaurants we encountered did not cook their seafood well. My favorite moment occurred when, after ordering garlic bread, we were brought two pieces of untoasted Wonder bread…with absolutely no butter, garlic or spread of any kind. Vegetarians will have an even tougher time; options are often limited to chicken, beef or fish. Thankfully, we found redemption in the Arenas Beach Hotel’s restaurant, as well as a little taco stand next to Dorsi’s snorkeling shop called Victoria’s. Run by Dorsi’s brother, this stand became part of our daily routine. Although the only options are beef, chicken or pork tacos, the fresh tortillas and homemade hot sauce are positively addicting.
Little Corn Island
Just a 30-minute boat ride from Big Corn, this island caters more to tourists seeking familiarity and comfort. There are no roads or vehicles on this island; just mud paths through lush rainforests and charming seaside restaurants. We only spent one night here, but part of me wishes we had spent the whole trip here!
What to Do: Little Corn offers many of the same activities as Big Corn, as well as diving tours and training with the highly recommended Dolphin Dive. For those of you on the adventurous side, kitesurfing is very popular and provides a more active alternative to lounging on the beach (although I admit I’m partial to the sedentary life).
Where to Stay: There are many high-quality lodging options on Little Corn, the Sunshine Hotel and Casa Iguana among the most popular. However, I cannot say enough in praise of Little Corn Beach and Bungalow. After the rather jostling panga boat ride, the delicious piña colada and soft beach towels you are welcomed with are heavenly. This eco-lodge does a wonderful job of practicing environmentally friendly habits, such as collecting and re-using rainwater. Additionally, the food here was hands-down the best cuisine we ate the whole trip. I never thought I’d be that happy to see vegetarian and vegan options, including a mouth-watering veggie burger and a healthy yogurt bowl with granola and fresh island fruit. I was even more delighted to discover that Beach and Bungalow offers daily yoga classes, held in a gorgeous studio with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out on the dense jungle. To top it off, you can decompress with an expert massage in this oasis.
What to Eat: Admittedly, we did not venture past the Beach and Bungalow’s Turned Turtle Restaurant. However, we heard enthusiastic recommendations for Darinia’s Kitchen (Caribbean, Asian-fusion) and Café Desideri (home-style). If you want a more authentic Caribbean experience, head to Rosa’s for coconut lobster curry or huevos rancheros.
As you book flights, fish out your swim suit and start buying your shampoo in travel-size, keep the Corn Islands in mind. If you go, you might return home with a new perspective, a killer tan and discovering that these islands are truly "unique…original."