Eighty-three kilometers due east of Bluefields Bay’s brackish brown water, the Corn Islands are a pair of Tertiary-period volcanic basalt bumps in the Caribbean. Formerly home base for lobster fishermen and their families, the islanders are increasingly turning to tourism for their future. How well the fragile island ecosystem will support it will determine the fate of the islands.
Big Corn Island
Big Corn Island is 10 square kilometers of forested hills, mangrove swamps, and stretches of white coral beaches. The mangrove swamps and estuaries that line several stretches of coastline are crucial to the island’s water supply, and the islanders have fiercely resisted attempts by foreign investors to drain or fill them. Of the six sea turtle species swimming off Nicaragua’s shores, four live in Caribbean waters. On land, Corn Island boasts three endemic species of reptiles and amphibians, all threatened by the continued swamp draining. The highest points are Quinn Hill, Little Hill (55 and 57 meters above sea level, respectively), and Mount Pleasant (97 meters).
Three distinct layers of reef, composed of more than 40 species of coral, protect the north side of the island. The diving and snorkeling are impressive, and divers regularly see nurse sharks, eagle rays, and lots of colorful fish. Unfortunately, the reefs closest to shore have deteriorated over the past decades, victims of overfishing, predatory algae (which grow as a result of increased nutrient levels in the water from sewage runoff), sedimentation, storm damage, and global warming. Blowing Rock is a rock formation with lots of color and dozens of varieties of tropical fish. Any of the island’s dive shops will take you there. A few sandy stretches of beach along the north shore allow you to get into the water. One good one is in front of Dorsey Campbell’s Yellowtail House.
A mother and son from the U.S. co-own a full-service, modern dive shop in North End. Dos Tiburones Dive Shop (tel. 505/2575-5167) offers scuba gear and the services of PADI- and SSI-affiliated dive-masters. They offer an introductory course ($335), a two-tank dive ($65), and a dive at Blowing Rock ($95). The shop’s Dive Café offers fresh-ground coffee and smoothies you can sip from a lawn chair on the beach out back. Corn Island Dive Center (across from Best View Hotel in North End, tel. 505/8851-5704 or 505/8735-0667) is PADI-affiliated and offers similar services: a dive at Blowing Rock ($85), two tanks ($65), and snorkeling ($25). Not sure if you want to get certified? Or, need to brush up on rusty skills? Try it out or do a review ($65) at either shop.
Little Corn Island
A humble, wilder version of Big Corn, “La Islita” is a mere three square kilometers of sand and trees, laced with footpaths and encircled by nine kilometers of coral reef. Little Corn is a delicate destination, visited by an increasing number of travelers each year. There are clever accommodations for several budgets to meet the demand, but rough boat transport from Big Corn—an experience one traveler likened to pursuing a narco-panga across 15 kilometers of open swell—will help hold the masses at bay. Bring a flashlight, your snorkel gear, and a good book.
Little Corn Island is irregularly policed by volunteers and has experienced a handful of violent attacks on tourists in recent years. The security situation is sometimes better, sometimes worse. Ask at your hotel for the latest news and advice on staying safe. Above all, don’t walk alone on the beaches, or at night. For medical needs, you can find a meager health clinic just south of the Hotel Los Delfines. Anything complicated requires a panga ride back to the big island, or even Bluefields.
Little Corn’s delicate reef system is unique for its abundance of wildlife and coral formations, including overhangs, swim-throughs, and the infamous shark cave. Most dives around the island are shallow (less than 60 feet), but a few deeper dives exist as well. The island’s bigger scuba shop, Dive Little Corn (south of the new pier on Pelican Beach, tel. 505/8856-5888), operates out of a wooden building. They offer morning and afternoon dives for novice through advanced divers, night dives by appointment, hourly and all-day snorkel trips, PADI certification, and kayak rentals. Hotel Los Delfines has Dolphin Dive (tel. 505/8917-9717, info@Dolphindivelittlecorn.com), which offers PADI certification.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.