There are two ways to get from central Nicaragua to the Corn Islands, the tiny pair of idyllic Caribbean hideouts that live some 70km off the eastern coast of the mainland.
The first option is to take the chicken bus from Managua to El Rama, which is supposed to take five hours for an express bus, but which almost always takes longer. You then need to get onto a boat to Bluefields, which can take up to seven hours (though there are faster express services if you time it right).
Then you probably need to wait a day or two for the next boat to Big Corn Island, which should take somewhere around six hours, though we met a girl who'd spent twice that on a boat journey from hell where even the locals started praying for deliverance from the monster waves. This journey is the stuff of legend, and we met a Frenchman in León who said it took him five days of travelling to get from Managua to Big Corn, by which time he had to turn around and go straight back, as he'd used up all the time he had left in just getting there.
The second option is to fly, which takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Not surprisingly, we chose this option, as indeed did the Frenchman on his return journey. Sometimes less is more, especially when you're talking about time that you could be spending on a Caribbean beach.
Even with the flight option, it still sounded like a bit of an effort, having to deviate miles from our planned route south to Costa Rica just to visit a couple of islands, but we needed a bit of a break from the unpleasant hassles of Granada, so we thought we might as well see what was involved. In the end, it was relatively easy to arrange a quick side-trip to paradise; I bought two return flights from the La Costeña website with no more than a few clicks, I booked an airport taxi through our hotel in Granada, and Peta managed to make a couple of hotel reservations on Little Corn Island that would see us through our visit. All we needed to do now was to get there in one piece.
The first step was easy, and the taxi picked us up from our Granada hotel on time and whisked us away to Managua airport in just under 45 minutes (though with the taxi radio tuned to disco hits of the 1970s, it felt rather longer, particularly when the Bee Gees segment kicked in). In the domestic terminal – a small building to the right of the main international terminal at Managua – we handed over our passports and checked in our bags, but before he gave us our boarding passes, the man behind the counter pointed to the scales and said, 'OK, now can you please get on there?' So we jumped onto the scales ourselves, one at a time, clutching our hand luggage and trying not to look at the readout (three months on a Central American diet of cheese and beans is no way to get thinner, I can tell you).
The reason that they weigh absolutely everything on the flight to the Corn Islands, passengers included, is that the planes are tiny; they only have 14 seats and one propellor, so that's just four rows of three passengers, plus the pilot and co-pilot. You might be able to get away with averaging out the weight of the passengers on a jet plane, but when you're flying across a country in a tube that's no bigger than a small minibus, size matters, and it's this size that makes the experience so unique.
Flying as a passenger in a 14-seater plane is like being shrunk, digitised and injected straight into a flight simulator on your PC. There's no partition between you and the pilot, and you can see out of every window, including the front, as well as being able to look at every dial and screen in the pilot's dashboard. We were the last to board the plane, and there were only two seats left, one at the back and one right at the front; Peta kindly sent me up front, so I had the same view of the flight as the co-pilot, though without the groovy aviation sunglasses that our Nicaraguan crew were proudly modelling.
It was amazing, all the way from from the juddering take-off right through to the landing on Big Corn Island. When you're in a small plane, you really feel the clouds flying past you at 9400 ft, and the 360° views are astonishing. Not long into the flight the captain flicked on the auto-pilot and settled back with his newspaper, but although it was just another day in the office for him, I was riveted for the whole 80-minute flight. I particularly enjoyed watching Big Corn slowly appear out of the ocean towards the end of the flight, gradually morphing from a green stain on the horizon to an island with buildings and beaches; and then, as the plane banked to the left, there was the obvious straight line of the runway along the backbone of the island, which grew larger and larger until, there we were, aiming for the centre line as houses flew past on either side. The landing was smooth and applauded, and before long we'd pulled into the airport, grabbed our bags and hopped into a taxi to the harbour, still buzzing from the flight.
The Public Panga
Big Corn Island is a proper Caribbean island, but Little Corn Island is a proper Caribbean paradise, so we decided to head straight for the smaller island. The only way to get across the 12km divide between the two islands is by public panga – a panga being a large, open speedboat with powerful engines and a liberal attitude to passenger comfort – and we'd heard some nasty horror stories about the panga and rough seas, which worried me a bit with my propensity for seasickness. Luckily the weather was pretty pleasant as we took our seats among the 40 other passengers on board and put on our life jackets.
We'd paid a dollar tip to the boat man to get good seats – which he said were in the middle of the boat – but as if to show that there was nothing to worry about, two of the crewmen stood proudly on the very front of the panga, holding on to ropes attached to the bow as the engines revved up and we shot out from the protection of the harbour, past the coral reef and out into the ocean swell. As we ploughed through the waves, we did take off a few times and those sitting at the back of the panga got soaked while those at the front left their seats every time we hit a big wave, but compared to the trip in windy weather, we all got off lightly.
We were met at the pier on the western shore of Little Corn by a crowd of locals, some there to meet passengers with bookings, some there to find accommodation for passengers without bookings, and some just there to see who'd arrived. Among the crowd was a man from our hotel who was cheerily waving a sign with our names on it, and after he put our bags in a wheelbarrow, we followed him along a forest path through the middle of the island, as he took us to the eastern shore. And then, after ten minutes of weaving through the palm trees, we heard lapping waves, and the corn-blue Caribbean opened up in front of us on the other side of a pure golden beach, and suddenly all the effort made sense.
That first piña colada tasted really special, I can tell you...