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Nicaragua In the News

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Little Corn Island, Nicaragua - Hard-to-reach 'resorts' offer sun, hiking, fish and beauty

This is the way you picture island resorts looking 50 years ago.

Standing on the tiny municipal pier of Little Corn Island, about 40 miles off eastern Nicaragua, I can see fishermen and pastel-colored casitas and jungle.

It is bliss - but it’s no St. Bart’s.

If your idea of a Caribbean vacation includes facials, room service and $25 breakfasts, head to those islands whose names start with “Saint.” But if strapping on a pair of hiking boots, slathering yourself in high-test mosquito repellent and trekking through the jungle to deserted beaches quickens your pulse, Little Corn or its sister, Great (also called Big) Corn, are your ticket.

High-end amenities here include hot water, 24-hour electricity and $11 lobster dinners.

During my visit, I overheard Canadian and European tourists say, “I wanted to go to Costa Rica, but it’s too expensive and built up.”

So they’re here instead, at a place with no golf resorts, few tourists and zero paparazzi.

When I told friends I was coming to the Corn Islands for adventure and cheap lobster, their faces went blank. The Corns are far off the travel grid, but the payoff is solitude, scenery and some of the best fishing, diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean, at bargain prices. The bonus: no driving. On Great Corn, there are only golf carts ($31 for three hours) and taxis ($1 per person anywhere on the island) for tourists; on Little Corn, there are no cars - or roads, for that matter.

All the better.

Locals and tourists plopped themselves and their bags aboard our 15-passenger panga, an open boat that zipped us the nine miles from Great Corn Island to Little Corn. When it pulled alongside the pier after the 25-minute, jowl-jostling crossing, I knew immediately that I had left Nicaragua’s last outpost of civilization. No roads, no doctors, a few hostelries and restaurants, sketchy phone reception, one Internet connection.

A porter, Lolo, greeted me and tossed my luggage on his wheelbarrow, and we headed out. We strolled through a slice of the tiny town to a dirt path heading east through the jungle. After about a quarter-mile, we reached 12 brightly colored casitas that make up Casa Iguana.

Along the way, cat-size reptiles scurried across the trail. Lolo laughed at my reaction. “They’re nothing,” he said. “Wait till you see the boas.”

Casa Iguana is summer camp for grown-ups. I was immediately smitten with my no-frills, purple-and-yellow cabin with the double mattress atop a wooden frame, the sofa that had seen better days and especially the view from my windswept patio facing the sea, all for $55 a night. I had my own toilet and sink; the (cold) shower was outdoors.

Little Corn is a square mile, most of it jungle. Pedestrians and bicyclists use a paved walkway along part of the isle’s western side. Getting to the other side, all pristine shoreline, requires a hike through the tropical forest. I was game.

After telling Casa Iguana’s manager that I would be eating there that night - the hotel requires a head count each morning so the staff can catch enough fish for the evening meal, served family style in the lodge - I headed for the Dolphin Dive shop near the pier, where I picked up a hand-drawn map.

“Go up to Bridget’s place and turn right,” I was told by Sandra Herman, the shop’s manager, “and you’ll see a path that takes you through the jungle to Derek’s Place.”

Bridget? Derek?

I walked 50 yards north to an unremarkable house (Bridget’s) and headed east. Within minutes I was on a dirt trail, surrounded by ferns, palms trees, butterflies and hanging vines, with coconuts along the path.

The trail was solitary and quiet, other than the squawking of birds, on my half-hour trek to the eastern side of the island. I turned north at the sea. Ten minutes later, I stumbled upon Derek’s Place. Hello, 1960s.

It’s easy to pick out Derek Sharp. He’s tall, his thinning, long strawberry-blond hair tied at the nape of his neck. A braid hangs from his chin.

Sharp, 32, staked out his corner of nirvana about eight years ago and set about building four jungle cabins, each different, each splendid, each costing $10 to $40 a night, depending on the number of guests. Think upscale Robinson Crusoe: casitas with palm-thatched roofs atop wooden piers. The interior walls have hand-painted murals; lofts have foam-pad beds and mosquito netting; hammocks hang between porch posts.

This Shangri-La, blanketed in a carpet of grass and thick with tall palms, attracts backpackers mostly, but a more varied clientele has recently begun staying here, Sharp said.

Everyone shares the compound’s bathroom. Chickens and roosters - “dinner” when guests tire of fresh fish - wander around the spread; a worker breaks open coconuts for snacks. “I like the freedom here,” Sharp said. “If you have an idea, you can make it happen.”

Others in this corner of the world had the same epiphany. Ten minutes northwest of Derek’s Place, past a gorgeous stretch of beach to my right and jungle to my left, I came across a sign directing me to Farm Peace & Love.

The proprietors of this outpost, surrounded by a wild garden, are Paola Carminiani, an Italian expatriate, and her husband, Bing Crosby Downs, an islander. They rent out a guest room attached to their house for $50 for two guests or $60 for three, and a separate guest cottage for $75 nightly.

Carminiani runs a patio restaurant. Three-course dinners cost $12 to $15. Reservations are made by radio from Casa Iguana’s dive shop. Carminiani also offers 90-minute guided horseback rides along the island’s northeastern shore, for $25.

I couldn’t resist, but I wish I had. I climbed on the back of Aziz, the feistier of Carminiani’s horses. About 100 yards up the shore, Aziz dropped to his knees like a camel. I hopped off and watched as he twisted on his back, loped into the sea, cooled off and headed home.

Carminiani had some choice words for the horse - and for me - but she refused to accept payment, handed me a bottle of cool water and directed me to Ensuenos, her neighbors’ spread to the west.

Ensuenos, which means “dreamy” in Spanish, is just that. Each of the three guest cabanas, designed and constructed by Ramon Gil - an artist and former biologist from Spain - is different, but all are made of cane, palms, shells, driftwood and other natural items. Candles provide light. The floors are concrete and sand. The cozy dwellings - $5 to $20 a night a person - are tucked into the forest.

Gil, and his French partner, Marine Laurent, greeted me warmly and insisted that I sample a sweet fruit drink brewing on the stove.

Gil arrived on Little Corn in 1997 and says he will never leave. “It’s perfect here,” he said.

I hated to leave this idyll myself, but dusk suddenly fell like a cloak. Lacking a flashlight, I needed to get back to my own quarters. Half an hour later, the moon lighting the last part of the hike, I arrived at Casa Iguana in time for dinner.

I set off in the morning to experience Little Corn Island’s main draw: diving and snorkeling. I went with four divers to White Holes, a white coral reef a 10-minute speedboat ride.

I snorkeled for an hour, awed as nurse sharks lazed along the bottom and barracudas cruised by. Two spotted eagle rays swept up from the sea floor 30 feet below and drifted right under me.

“The primitiveness of this place makes the hard work of getting here worth it,” said Dennis Bowmen, an avid diver from Austin, Texas. “I’m concerned that someone with a ‘vision’ will come here, though, and change this place. Best to see it now.”

Diving and fishing are the big deal on Great Corn. The best snorkeling can be reached by foot (or fin) at Anastasia’s on the Sea, on the eastern side. From this hotel, which also rents kayaks and fishing rods and offers sport-fishing trips, snorkelers can walk out 60 feet and explore the reef for $3 an hour.

Anastasia’s co-owner, Robert Finley, a North Carolina native and fishing aficionado, said that the fly-fishing on Great Corn is the best on the planet. “You can troll near shore and get kings, mackerel, barracuda, mahi-mahi, grouper, snapper - I’ve caught some that are 40 pounds,” he said.

My best dinner on Great Corn was the grilled barracuda I devoured with beans and plantains, for $8, at Paraiso Club.

“You come to Big Corn, away from the crowds, pull up a lounge chair, and there are two people on the beach, not 4,000 like the rest of Central America,” said Richard Hewson, 52, from Saskatchewan, Canada. “You’ve got your bottle of rum, a Caribbean view - you’re in paradise, man.”

Amen to that.