The less-visited Caribbean side of Nicaragua is another world, where Creole English trumps Spanish, fresh seafood is more common than the traditional corn-based cuisine, and the relative isolation has produced a culture of its own. Nowhere is that more true than on the remote Corn Islands -- two of the least known and least expensive destinations anywhere in the Caribbean.
Arrive on Big Corn Island on a La Costeña turboprop from Managua ($175 round-trip) and the first thing you’ll notice is the unrelenting vegetation circled by white-sand beaches. The people here are a mix of Creole (descendants of emancipated slaves), indigenous Miskito, and mestizo (mixed European and Indian), all of which lends the place a worldly flair. English will serve you well, but Spanish will help in a pinch. Yes, it’s Nicaragua -- but with a twist.
Hotels here are so inexpensive you’ll wonder if they listed the wrong price. Casa Canada is arguably the top spot on the island. Rooms with king beds, leather sofas, and ocean views are only $114 per night in high season (December to April) and that includes airport transfers and a full breakfast, as well. If the Canada is full, check out the Arenas Beach, a very agreeable bungalow resort for $122 per night, including breakfast.
You’ll have a hard time spending more than $20 for a full meal. For instance, you can have an elaborate seafood dinner (think: conch, lobster, and fish ceviche) at the Arenas Beach for less than the price of a martini in New York. Elsewhere, you'll find seafood and traditional Nicaraguan meals for $5-$12.
Want to tour the island? Hire a taxi for just $3-$4 an hour. Go to the Culture House and check out its history museum. Soak up the New Age vortex vibes at the Soul of the World pyramid. Stroll through Brig Bay, the minuscule commercial center. Or just spend all day at the beach.
Little Corn Island, a 40-minute boat ride away, is even more laid-back than its big sister. Take the “panga” open-air ferry at 10 a.m. ($7 each way) from Brig Bay. There are no roads on “Little Island,” as locals call it, just long uninterrupted beaches lined with cafés, restaurants, bars, B&B’s, rooms for rent, and tour operators who will take you out on snorkeling excursions. Get the skinny on rooms for rent, beach activities, and bonfire parties at Tranquilo Café, a hive of insider knowledge right on the beach; you can also grab an inexpensive meal of quesadillas, fish tacos, or vegetarian dishes. For a splurge, check into Yemaya, an ultra-chic eco-lodge ($350 per night), or just have a seafood lunch at its beachside restaurant, where an all-out binge on kingfish ceviche, lobster tacos, and roasted pineapple in rum caramel costs only $10-$25. Many visitors head to Little Corn on a day trip, then return to their hotel on Big Corn before the sun sets.
Chances are you won’t want to choose between Big and Little Corn Islands. Instead, plan to visit them both -- if not this time, then next. After you’ve been to the Corn Islands once, it’s almost certain there will be a next time.