Big Corn Island lies approximately 50 miles (70 km) off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.
Great Corn Island was colonized by escaped slaves from Jamaica, and most native islanders have more in common culturally with other English-speaking Caribbean islands than they do with the mainland of Nicaragua. Many have English surnames. In more recent times mainlands have come to the island in search for tourism jobs, so you may have to speak Spanish after all.
Tourism on Great Corn Island is still in its infancy as most tourists gather on Little Corn. There are almost none of the things one usually associates with tourists traps (tourist markets, huge beachside developments by major hospitality corporations, time-share condos, etc.) The people are typically friendly and genuine.
The island is often referred to by its English name even in Spanish, but the name "Isla de Maíz" (meaning the same thing) is not totally unheard of.
Almost everyone on the island speaks both passable Spanish and English. For most of those native to the island, English is their first language, although there are many inhabitants who have come over from mainland Nicaragua and consequently speak Spanish as a first language. There are also others who speak Miskito or other Caribbean languages. The English spoken, however, is heavily Caribbean (think Bob Marley), and real communication can be far from effortless.
There is one local airline (La Costeña Airlines) that flies to Big Corn Island from Managua (usually once in the morning and again in early to mid afternoon) and Bluefields. These are 15-20 seat dual prop planes without pressurized cabins or air conditioning. One way flights are around US$107 and a round trip around US$165. Some of the planes go first to Bluefields before they continue to the Island. There is a weight limit for the plane so be careful about how much luggage you bring. They weigh each passenger with their luggage before boarding. When you arrive in Managua exit the airport and go left to the small building next to the terminal. You can purchase tickets there, but need a reservation in advance most of the time. You can change the return date for your ticket with no trouble or fees as long as there is room on the plane.
Some days of the week, you can get from Houston or Miami to Managua in time to fly directly to Big Corn Island; other days, you will have to spend a night in Managua and fly to the island the following day. When you return from the island to Managua, again, you may have to spend the night depending on the timing of the flights.
There are conflicting reports as to whether Nature Air (Costa Rica's domestic airline) flies to/from Corn Island out of San José.
From Managua, the overland trip can take as much as three days. First you will have to get to El Rama (don't worry, the road is in excellent condition and there are several departures daily). From there you can either take the next boat to Bluefields (if connections align; as the late afternoon boat leaves only "when needed", this is not a given) or see whether a direct boat for Big Corn leaves that day. Try to avoid staying the night in El Rama. While it is not a bad place in any way shape or form it is rather boring and can't compare to Bluefields. If you have to spend the night, take the fast boat at the crack of dawn (your bags will be searched, so make sure that there is nothing that should not be in your bags). The ride will be a bumpy, life affirming and wet 1 1/2 to 2 hours to Bluefields. In Bluefields you can check out the city but should go to the pier where the boat to Corn Island leaves as soon as possible (the pier where you arrived is a different one) and ask when the next boat for Corn Island will depart. Sometimes you might have to catch the boat in El Bluff instead, which is further out into the bay and can be gotten to by one of the boats leaving at the pier where you arrived. When buying the boat ticket, you will be asked for your ID, so bring your passport. As the boat schedule is rather erratic and subject to change at a moment's notice, you should ask when the return trip leaves to avoid being stranded on Big Corn. Should the boat ride (roughly seven hours for seventy kilometers) convince you of the benefits of aviation, book your flight back already on arrival (don't worry, changing the date is rather easy if space is available) as La Costeña is infamous for overbooking planes and "bumping" passengers who dare arrive less than one hour prior to boarding. Given that the planes are rather small Cessna-types, there are not all that many seats on the plane to begin with.
The road system basically consists of a perimeter road that runs around the island. There are a few paved side roads, but only the one to Picnic Beach is of significant length.
There are many hiking trails into the centre of the island and along the shore.
Getting around the island can be done by taxi (anywhere on the island for C$18) (~US$0.75), by bus (anywhere on the island for NIO 5) (~US$0.25) per person. However, the bus seems to have no reliable schedule to speak of.
You can rent bicycles, golf carts, cars, or motorcycles. A taxi will generally pick up other passengers along your route - don't panic, this is normal. If you are in a hurry (and you really should only be if you have a plane to catch), you should tell the driver as they are prone to taking circuitous routes to get several people to their destinations.
The island is quite picturesque. Hiking into the hills will bring you into tropical nature; there are two big beaches and lots of tiny and remote ones.
A boat trip around the island will showcase its natural beauty.
Baseball is the number one sport on the island, with even soccer a distant second, and taking in a local game will put you right in the middle of real island culture. Baseball (or fast-pitch softball) is on Sundays and there are typically 3-4 games. The stadium is right next to the airport and the island museum. The first game starts at 08:30 and is not very well attended. There is usually one men's game then one women's game alternating throughout the day. The final game is the highlight sometime around 3-4 depending on previous games. Soccer is also on Sundays and is just down from Casa Canada on the south end.
There is very little of historic or artistic significance except for an art installation at the top of Quinn Hilll. It's a small pyramid in the middle of a park. It is one of 8 sites around the world. Others include:
- Cocos Islands (Australia), and their antipode, Corn Islands (Nicaragua)
- Kalahari Desert (Botswana) and the Hawaiian Islands (USA)
- Tierra del Fuego (Argentina or Chile) and Lake Baikal (Buryat Republic)
- Galicia (Spain or Portugal) and the South Island of New Zealand
Find out more at this website
Right between the airport and the baseball stadium there is a small island museum. Although it doesn't give too much explanation on its exhibits, admission is free and they have one or two things to see that might just make a rainy day bearable if you've read all your books.
Snorkelling, scuba diving, and ocean fishing are all excellent."Nautilus" [dead link], an island institution, can arrange any such trips (including scuba instruction).
Picnic Beach is the cleanest and most beautiful beach, with fine sand and gentle waves. There are two restaurants, the picnic center which has thatch cabanas to sit under, and Arenas. Arenas has wonderful white cabanas and will bring food and drinks out to the beach. This beach is great when the sun is shining, but in the evening and when it rains there are tons of sand flies that bite so beware.
Most of the tiny and remote beaches are between Sally Peaches and South End. Beware many beaches have litter, plastic bottles and trash scattered about on them.
Snorkelling, Kayak rentals, sport fishing, and fly fishing are available at "Anastasia's on the Sea." Also available is a snorkelling marine park designed to guide snorkellers to interesting coral formations. For a more personal touch, find Dorsey right next to Cevas, (look for the sign on the beach that says "First class snorkeling, First class guide.) He is a great local guide and some of the best snorkelling on the island is right in front of his house. He will take 2 people out at a time for snorkelling and has great knowledge of the area. He also sells jewellery that he makes and some fruit. He is a wealth of information about the island.
Nightlife, as anywhere else, is mainly on weekends. Weekends here run from Thursday night till Monday morning (don't miss the "sexy dance" at Nico's).
Renting a golf cart is a great way to see the island at your own pace. You can get them near the picnic center, and at the Sunrise Hotel. If you go to more remote parts, off the main road, be ready for kids to try and catch a ride with you. If you have the time it is a delightful experience to give them a ride and hear their laughs and excited comments.
Be careful eating here if you are a picky eater or have dietary restrictions. Most of the menus have the same items (usually fish and other seafood), and vegetarian and vegan food is rare and unvaried (mostly pasta and French Fries). Fresh vegetables and produce are hard to find and very expensive (salads typically are small and cost around C$100).
The best restaurants on the island for typical island cuisine are Casa Canada (South End), Restaurante Sabor at Sunrise Hotel (excellent breakfasts & Sunday barbecue), right next to Casa Canada, Seva's (Dos Millas) & Paraiso. Paraiso has a fantastic menu including deserts. The food is varied from pasta and bruschetta to traditional island dishes and fresh fish. They also make the best pina coladas and coco loco's. They use coconuts cut from the tree. Nautilus restaurant offers gourmet island fusion dishes, pizza and vegetarian dishes.
The cook at the picnic center does an excellent job with local dishes, going to great length to prepare them correctly. Lobster fishing is a huge part of the island's economy, and lobster is on the menu at almost every restaurant. When the lobster are in season, lobster dishes cost US$5-8, and are available at all local restaurants. Lobster is the primary industry in the Corn Islands, so lobster and conch are plentiful. Be careful of lobster tails under 5 inches long or under 5 ounces in weight because they are illegal. When the season is closed in early March time frame, the lobster dishes tend to go up slightly in prices, but are still reasonable in prices. For a very inexpensive lunch or dinner check out one of the little taco stands on the beach on the south end near long bay. They have fried tacos with salad that are excellent. There isn't a name on the establishment, but a taxi driver told us the locals call it "specitos" because the owner wears glasses.
It is not unusual to wait 40–60 minutes after ordering to receive one's meal. Everything is prepared from scratch after you order, so order before you get too hungry and be prepared to pass some time waiting for the results. After you place your order, typically the chef will make a trip off on his bicycle to fetch the needed ingredients for the dish you have chosen. This is typical of the relaxed pace everywhere on the island. It will be unusual to see anyone in a hurry to get anywhere or do anything.
Also, do not miss the coconut bread (pan de coco), especially the sweet (dulce) variety. It is typically sold in small shops or from their houses by the ladies who make it.
Local fruit is incredible in its variety and freshness. You can get coconuts and mangos almost anywhere for free. Ask someone at your hotel to cut one down and you can drink the milk straight from the nut.
The best places to sit and have a beer or cocktail during the day are at Picnic Center on the southwest side of the island and at Anastasia's on the Sea on the north end of the island. Anastasia's has the most expensive domestic beer prices found on the island, even higher than Hotel Casa Canada's. After baseball games and on Sundays, Island Style is very popular. On Friday and Saturday nights, Reggae Palace is where the dancing is best. And on Sunday nights most islanders head to Nico’s for after hours fun. Nico's bathrooms lack a bit in hygienic maintenance.
There are a variety of places to stay on the island, ranging from extremely basic backpacker accommodations costing only about US$10 per night to clean/comfortable/air conditioned places for US$30–50, to a few more upscale places (which are still usually less than US$100/night). Travelers reviews can be found easily online.
- [dead link] Fishers Cave. Located right at the municipal wharf so you can't beat it for convenience. The rooms are really nice with big beds, air conditioning, views of the island over Brigg Bay and a restaurant that serves excellent breakfasts. This is the place to stay if you don't want to get up early to catch the boat or panga. You can also buy your tickets to the Capt. D right here. mid-range.
- Hotel Morgan. Always highly rated, Hotel Morgan is clean. The upstairs rooms have a balcony looking out over the sea. They offer a restaurant that serves really good food...even if you don't stay here you should have lunch here. Hotel Morgan is a pretty good deal for the traveler. US$15-50.
- South End Sunrise Hotel. falls in the middle pricing structure, but the rooms are very clean and spacious, and the proprietors (Lanmar and Ina) are very friendly and helpful.
- [dead link] Cabanas Vientos del Norte (Ike's Place), North End (About 1 mile NE of the dock), ☎ . Vientos del Norte is a great place on the North End of Big Corn Island. Ike Siu is the owner, and he has 8 rooms about 15 m (50 feet) from the ocean. His rooms range from $10 per person in a dorm style up to $50 oceanview with AC/Fridge/microwave, etc., although you may be charged extra for using a credit card or some of the amenities. Also has wireless internet for guests. Ike will do just about anything for his guests. You can use the kitchen. Free airport/boat pickup and dropoff. Food is available. US$10-50.
- Paraiso Beach Hotel, Brig Bay2 (Shipwreck Beach), ☎ . Check-in: any time, check-out: any time. Paraiso Beach Hotel is a well known Corn Island resort, able to accommodate 45 people in 15 rooms, all decorated in traditional Nicaraguan style. They are made to make you feel right at home. The cabanas are built 80 meters from the beach. Paraiso Beach Hotel has bathing, diving, fishing, waterskiing and snorkeling. Coral reefs are just minutes off shore surrounding the island 3-4 m (10-12 feet) deep, visibility 25-30 m (80-100 feet). Has a restaurant - basic breakfast is great, and free with your stay. Has a computer with internet access for guest use. US$35-65.
- [dead link] G and G hotel/hostal (Hotel), Brigg Bay (Reggae Palace). Very lively hotel with good bar and restaurant. Nice rooms with TV and A/C, very secure. Parking available. Wifi free for guests. Beach is just a 2 minute walk. Really one of the best deals on the island. rooms from US$15.
The island is relatively safe, and few travellers encounter problems, but you should definitely take the normal precautions and not let the peacefulness get your guard down. Violent incidents are rare, but have happened in the past.
It's wise to take a taxi after dark, because there are no street lights. Most locals seem to be friendly, but alcohol use in the evening sometimes causes tourists to get harassed.
One other note of significance is the electricity, which typically goes out on a nightly basis for several hours and almost always goes out when it rains hard (still the case as of June 2009). There are hotels (Casa Canada, Morgan, Martha's B&B, Hotel Paraiso, Anastasia's on the Sea, Picnic Center, Vientos del Norte) that have their own generators to cover the gaps in electric service. Verify before booking.
Currency & prices
The Nicaraguan córdoba oro (C$) is the legal tender, but most stores, restaurants, and taxis will gladly accept US dollars as well. With US dollars, however, comes this caveat: if there is the tiniest tear on the bill (or pen marks, or any other disfigurement), the bill will not be accepted.
The ATM at the Banpro bank accepts VISA and MasterCard, and some hotels and tourist services accept those cards as well, but you had better check before arriving if possible, in order to avoid unpleasant surprises. If you plan going to Little Corn Island as well, remember that this is the only ATM on both islands as of March 2014.
Life is a bit more expensive on Big Corn Island than on the mainland, but on Little Corn Island, it is much more expensive.
Little Corn Island is the obvious place to go next and smaller, more tranquil, car-free but arguably also more touristically developed than Big Corn. Boats depart at least once daily every day except in extreme weather.