Saturday, April 4th, 2009

Little Corn When I mentioned to my friends & family that I was headed to Nicaragua for a much needed break, they all wanted to know if it was safe, even though I was traveling with two of my dear friends, Sue Bennett and Mary Kennedy – we were celebrating a 25 friendship and the need to escape our hectic work schedules.

Our goal:  An inexpensive get-away without the a lot of glitz and people that included nature/eco-tourism and diving and snorkeling.  All of us are  Hunter genotypes, O positive “strong American women” as we were nicknamed here…I first heard about Little Corn Island in my undercurrent newsletter: www.undercurrent.org  – written for serious divers about 4 years ago and was so happy that I was finally able to make this trip with two adventurous friends.

A quick trip through Miami on American Airlines to Managua was delightfully uneventful.  Mary’s luggage was delayed a few hours but made it safely before the early morning flight.   Managua, Nicaragua is the largest and worst city to be stuck in so we stayed at the Best Western directly across the street.  They advertise hot water but it is lukewarm to cool … rooms are like cabins and the restaurant serves good food; there is a pool. Internet is free, rates run about $95.00 per night.  The other recommended hotel is only 5 minutes away  – The Camino Real for about $15.00 more per night.

An early am flight took us to the airport around 5:30 am  to continue our journey across the country to the Caribbean coast . This was the pricy part of the trip for me as the $1.20 per pound ran me up $91.00 plus a $2.00 tax on the domestic airline La Costena – regular baseline RT  airfare runs $165.00.   Both Mary and Sue paid under $20.00 extra (I like to travel with my own dive gear).

The planes are old, but safe as long as you don’t dwell on the few places where there was some duct tape.  When we landed on Big Corn Island we were met by Elvis, a taxi driver for Casa Iguana, 848-4875, that ran us $2.00 each . The ferry ride to Little Corn ($6.00 US and about 40 min) was better than most theme park roller coasters and the previous week’s winds were calming down. Only 1 -15  foot drop, the other 4-6 ft drops were common and fun.  Still for those who get sea-sick, you would want to wait for calmer weather.

25 year reunion

Little Corn Island, a humble speck of land less than 3 miles long, East of Big Corn, is surrounded on 3 sides by coral reef’s.  This island takes you back 60 years to Old Caribbean  living.  There are no roads – only a 3 ft wide concrete sidewalk that meanders through the town . The town generators struggle to keep up with electrical needs so sometimes you can’t have dinner at your  favorite spot unless they have a back up generator or a grill.

The friendly people greet you with smiles and many of them speak English. Coconut bread is the mainstay starch  here and you will be approached several times daily by children peddling this and other baked delicacies. The restaurants are  excellent and not everything is fried like most Caribbean islands.  From the incredible Mahi Fish Soup and citrus shrimp at SOLE, to tender beef with cilantro sauce at the Cuban place – HABANA LIBRE, to Fantastic Chicken curry at LOS DELPHINES, best creole fish at BRIDGETES,  local island fare at Elsa’s and her her sons place, up the path on the West side … If you love Pizza … Mangoes is great but no spelt crusts(although the dough is made from scratch) yet for me, and of course the simple elegance of gourmet meals at the Casa Iguana Lodge, we did not have one bad meal.  All of the seafood is of course caught within minutes of your meal – the service is VERY slow so order and take a walk, bring books or converse with some fun people.  It may take up to an hour to be served. The locals are proud of their food and their island and the attitude  radiates  in everything they do.  Most dinners ranged from $12.00 – $20.00 including a glass of wine, water or beer.

Since we were diving , we stayed at the Casa Iguana Eco-Lodge on the east breezy side of the Island that has the same owner as Dive Little Corn.  Two years ago, this resort sold to a sharp Chicago business women Mary and she  is getting ready for expansion as Little Corn is being discovered and bookings increase.   She has hired a wonderful environmental engineer, Tim who resides in Idaho to improve the resort.

Tim made our stay comfortable, although there is NO hot water for showers anywhere on the Island, Tim made sure that sure that Sue and I had a thermos of hot water for tea every morning.  We introduced him to Guayaki Mate, Traditional Medicinals Ginger Aid  and Numi Jasmine Green and Rooibus tea.  Mary looked forward to  her Organic Nicaragua coffee.  Mary, the Casa Iguana owner, also owns a premium line of  fair trade organic foods called Sol Simple (www.sol-simple.com)  with her brother who lives in Managua,  makes preserves  from passion fruit, orange,  and hibiscus flowers,  dried mango, pineapple and banana, cashews and coffee.   All organic, all grown in Nicaragua to help the farmers expand fair trade practice.  They have a few accounts in the  US and are hoping to expand.

Casa Iguana’s simple huts had comfortable beds and a futons in the larger Casitas with hammocks to spend a few hours reading in the afternoon.  The mile long beach was safe for snorkeling and about 10-15 minutes out was a reef teaming with sea life (lots of eagle rays) and healthy coral.  Rooms run $65 – $85.00 depending on the size of the cabin.  Prices for meals are $6.00 breakfast, $7.00 lunch, and $16.00 dinners. Wines from Argentina are only $4.00 per glass and beer is $1.60 – $1.80.  A small bar and dining room makes this lodge a central part of island entertaining.

Because we were on the breezy part of the Island away from town, there were no bugs. but you may need the provided mosquito netting during the hotter, calmer summer months.  There were community and private showers and bathrooms.  We actually had toilet seats –  not all accommodations provide them and I ended up getting used to the water.  I was also thankful to see them use eco friendly soap like Wonder Wash from All Terrain a popular environmental line of bug repellents, sunscreen and washes operated by the Kulow family in NH which also imports the Borlind of Germany products, an  upscale environmental friendly skincare line.  For more info or to book a room : wwww.casaiguana.net.

Another unexpected surprise were the fireflies and the massive galaxy of bright twinkling stars every evening.  We loved every minute of it.

For scuba divers, there are 2 dive shops Dive Little Corn www.divelittlecorn.com and Dolphin Dive www.dolphindivelittlecorn.com. Diving prices are very reasonable – 2 dives for $65.00 and $75.oo for night dives.  Packages of 10 bring it down to $60 per 2 tank dive.  Snorkelers are invited out on the afternoon dives that frequent shallower waters for $15.00.

I dove primarily with Dive Little Corn and loved the experience.  I just needed more dives and wished I could have stayed longer.  My dive masters Linnea (from Sweden) and John (Chicago transplant)  were very good about safety,  pre-dive conditions and briefings.  The dives were easy and fun, not many big fish except at Blowing rock which is more pricey – a 17 mile away dive that takes all day.  My favorite local dive site was White Holes which offered both snorkelers and divers an opportunity to swim with nurse sharks, eagle rays, and schools of blue tang among picture perfect Elkhorn coral. There are now 2 boats, no rinse tanks and they do carry DAN safety emergency kits. I did learn to feel better about cavern and ledge diving as we had several of these.  The water was a beautiful 81 degrees.  Mary and I were the only ones with full wetsuits which I would advise for protection.  I wore a skin for snorkeling as there were a few small jellyfish. The current was mild, with a few swells on the east side.

Due to a funeral which closed down Dive Little Corn for 2 days – I took a day and dove with Dolphin Dive.  These Europeans offer good diving too, but the boats was so crowded that I did not feel safe. On the second dive John and some students also came on the boat and they helped me with gear issues and getting on and off the boat was challenging.  A newer more spacious boat would make a big difference here.

While I was diving one day – Mary and Sue  went horseback riding with Bing Crosby (his real name) for 2 hours,  only $25.00 which included riding on the beach and through the woods and orange groves.  Bookings through the Peace & Love Farm on the NE part of the Island. They need 24 hours notice and the riding starts at 10:00 am .www.farmpeacelove@hotmail.com or have someone radio them. It is about a 45 minute walk to get there from town. They also have a room to rent and provide a genuine  3 course Italian dinner for those who will venture out there during the night .

Other activities include  fishing trips, swimming, volleyball,  playing pool, hiking around the island, hanging out with the locals, reading or just relaxing in a hammock somewhere.  Be sure to book your trip soon as the word gets out this sleepy little island is already on the drawing board for land developers.  We met people from all over the world and group of grad students from the DC area.  I think we were the oldest tourists there!

We needed more time and will just have to go back.  We flew back after only 6 days to Managua and hopped a cab to Granada, the 4th largest city and the prettiest and oldest mainland settlement that sits on the edge of Lake Nicaragua, only a 1 hour drive from  Managua. Our destination was a small intimate hotel with 13 rooms  -  Casa San Francisco run by a hard working expat, Nancy a former United Airlines employee who believes a good bed is key to a great night’s sleep .www.casasanfrancisco.com to reserve rooms from $55 – $75 per night  and includes a hot breakfast in a courtyard filled with flowers and birds and free Internet.  We were also delighted with the hot showers and homemade soaps her professional and friendly staff made our trip perfect – Maria Lourdes – she knows everything! And there is Pena, Carlos, Franklin & Giovanni …

The dinners were elegant and filling and the we liked the location of this hotel as it was a 5 minute walk from the town square – Central Park and all vendors and celebrations … in a safe quiet neighborhood. This town is  being restored and several other places also looked nice.  Another elegant hotel is La Gran Francia -  www.lagranfrancia.com

Nicaragua is the home to 54 volcanoes. We only had time to visit one – Mombacho an inactive one that encompasses a coffee farm and a zip line  high up in a cloud forest. There are many different Eco-tours places all over Granada – Giovanni was our guide who spoke excellent English and provided us with a memorable day for $30.00 pp.  If we had another day we would have gone to Masaya, the town that houses the active volcano -it is visible from Mombacho.   Another few hours roaming about the streets, churches, convents and art museums provided us with a good feel for the town . The artisans in Central Park offered reasonably priced jewelry, pottery, clothing and food items. Only a few beggars.  They even had a small chocolate shop – Momotombo Artisian chocolates infused with local fruits, nuts and coffee that were irresistible.

Wanting more exercise we headed out for a 3 hour kayaking tour amongst the 365 islands in the lake – created by volcanic eruptions years ago.  Of course that would take days but our short trip proved to be great exercise and informative. Our guide Alberto Mario Romano,a 22 year old with beautiful English speaking skills, works with  Inuit Kayak company ($35.00 pp including transportation.)  The birds and the flowers were beautiful and Alberto  is also a poet  and teaches children English in his spare time. His dream is to have a large whiteboard, pens and paper for his students.  I would like to help him reach his goal. Casa San Francisco also owns several small cottages on the lake if you want to be directly on the water and want to hike,  bird watch or swim.  www.sansimian.com 505-813-6866.

One afternoon Sue & I pampered ourselves by getting a massage, an acupuncture treatment and a pedicure at the Alma Zen massage place down across from the bus station – a  rougher area but very peaceful inside.  www.almazennicaragua.com/825-9094.  A simple place that offered great rates and could take with just a quick call from Maria Lourdes at our hotel.  Paula, a competent business women runs the place and Claudia and Lydia our therapists were awesome; they are skilled, attentive women with big hearts.  Another Spa – Pure Vida was more upscale and was completely booked. The fitness center is free when you stay at the Casa San Fransisco. I had no idea that the Mayan Indian Indian culture was using acupuncture.  It is still common in Nicaragua and Claudia  inserted the needles with better proficiency than most therapist here in the US  for only $10.00 and you get to keep your needles! We also received a discount since there were two of us.

Totally relaxed,  we walked around town the rest of the day.  Leaving Nicaragua was difficult for us. The people, the landscape, the activities and simple affordable fun was such a treat!  The water was safe to drink – I did bring my Cell Food drops, North American Herb & Spice, Wild Oregano, Silver Biotics gel & spray, Tea Tree Therapy oils and Dr. Venessa’s Liverclean & Digestion just in case. We always travel with all of our supplements and have never had any illness or stomach upsets  in my last 30 years of road travel.  Nutritional supplements were lacking in the stores but the food supply was so fresh. Protein bars and snacks did come in handy (bring some with you)  for hiking but the fresh fruit smoothies were awesome.

The men -waiter and bartender at Casa San Francisco seemed to love the Aura Cacia Geranium oil that I wore mixed with lavender for a bug repellent. Some new American perfume, they all had to put it on …very cute… All 3 of us took our Dr. Venessa’s Anti-Aging 3 Collagen each evening to keep our immune system up, our joints limber and our aging bodies intact.  We tried to represent America well.  We respected their customs and mingled with the locals and thanked everyone we met.  Even taking photos,  the people were friendly and wanted me to spread the word that Nicaragua wants  tourism.  On a Friday night you may be able to catch a movie outside as the local were projecting American Movies on the side of an old building  with sound!  Better than a drive in and free!

Spanish schools are everywhere – for 4-5 hours a day and $140.00 for class and an additional $70.00 – $80.00 per week you can stay with a family and learn.  I am contemplating going back. They do have cell phones, Internet and I need to learn Spanish . Can’t wait to return – I have 2 photo albums posted on Facebook.

In Continued Health,

Sally Byrd

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