The Corn Islands, most notably Little Corn, have been a true highlight of our trip and somewhere we would recommend all to visit. However, getting there turned out to be one of the most epic journeys we have ever undertaken.
We are budget-backpackers. As lovely as it would be to hop on a plane and forgo some of this adventure's more 'uncomfortable' journeys, we simply cannot condone extra cost if there is a cheaper DIY alternative - even if it does mean spending 31 hours on a cargo ship!
We did quite a lot of research before we left on how to get to the Corn Islands from Managua but unfortunately, the majority of this left us either more confused or a little depressed about the upcoming journey.
There are a number of different ways to get to the Islands, none of which are very comfortable, convenient or convivial. So, we've listed below the two routes which, from our experience and from talking to other travellers who made the trip, are the cheapest and most straight-forward.
If you can't afford the plane but still want to visit a Caribbean paradise, here's our guide (and some advice we wish we had been given before we set off) on how to get to Little Corn as cheaply as possible (and, after you've read this, why not check out our Backpacker's Guide to the Corn Islands).
**Update April 2017: There have been reports that the Captain D was in a collision with a larger ship in March 2017, and has sunk. All passengers survived but, obviously, this now creates a big change in options to reach the Corn Islands by boat. If you're in Nicaragua and can provide us with an update on transport options, please let us know in the comments. Thousands of travellers read this post every month and we want to keep you informed. **
step one - bus from managua to el rama
The main boats to Big Corn leave on Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning, so you need to catch a bus from Managua early on the Tuesday. There are two bus options:
Expresso: Departs from 'Ivan Montenegro' at 6 a.m. or 9 p.m. This is (usually) a more modern and comfortable bus with reserved seating. As it doesn't stop en-route to pick up anyone, it is a more pleasant ride.
It can fill up so we'd highly recommend trying to buy your ticket the day before to guarantee a seat.
Telephone: +2253 2879
Cost: C$160 per person | Time: 5-6 hours.
Ordinario: Departing from 'Mayoreo' relatively frequently throughout the day, with the first bus at 5/6 a.m. This does pick up passengers along the route, so can take considerably longer than the expresso.
Cost: C$140 per person | Time: 7-9 hours
step two - getting from el rama to big corn
option a - pangas and the rio escondido
#1 Panga from El Rama to Bluefields
There are frequent pangas during daylight hours (starting at 5 a.m, with the last departing at around 3 p.m.). These are essentially speed-boats which will take you down the river to Bluefields.
Cost: C$ 250 | Time: 1.5-2hrs
#2 Rio Escondido from Bluefields to Big Corn
Departs on Wednesday morning 9 a.m - arrive a couple of hours earlier to ensure a ticket.
This small passenger ferry (carrying around 60 people) is the most reliable and efficient means of getting from Bluefields to the islands. There are a few benches and seats, but not much else.
Unlike other options (Captain D below) it leaves on time and generally takes five hours (including a short stop at El Bluff).
Cost: C$255 | Time: 5-7 hours
For this route, you will almost certainly require a lay-over in either El Rama or Bluefields - which one is dependent upon what time your bus arrives from Managua. The last panga to Bluefields leaves at around 3 p.m. - arrive later than this and you will need to stay in El Rama and catch the 5 a.m. panga to Bluefields.
We took this route on our way back from the Islands and - as the sea was relatively calm - the journey was pleasant enough. However, we did meet other travellers who took this option when the sea was very rough and, were so traumatised, that they decided to either book a flight or take the Captain D option for the return leg.
Overall, this is definitely the quickest way to reach the Corn Islands if you're on a tight schedule, but if the weather isn't great, be prepared for a very rough ride on the Rio Escondido
option b - captain d. cargo boat
Ah, Captain D. With your non-existent schedule, lies and half-truths and bloody slow boat.
Captain D. is a cargo boat which, theoretically, leaves El Rama at 9 p.m. on Tuesday evening. HOWEVER, this is completely subject to change, chance and the Captain's whim.
It is extremely slow and stops-over in both Bluefields and El Bluff for an unspecified amount of time each journey.
If you miss the Rio Escondido in Bluefields, then you will need to hop on this when it arrives there on Wednesday morning (again, this is listed as 10 a.m. but is very subject to change).
Cost: C$ 400 (for a bunk). You can only enter the port in El Rama (not the same port as the pangas but rather a 15-minute walk away) from 5 p.m. onwards, and tickets are purchased on-board.
Total time: Budget at least a day and a half but we have heard rumours of it taking up to three.
The plus side of this option is that it's a 'direct' boat to Big Corn from El Rama. You also save on one night's accommodation as there are 'bunks' on board. Before your journey, bear in mind that these are in no way private cabins or comfy beds, but rather shoddily constructed triple decker bunks at very close proximity with thin mattresses replete with suspicious stains. They are perfectly adequate for a nights sleep though, especially if you bring a sheet/sleeping bag liner and something to use as a pillow.
It's also a much larger boat than the Rio Escondido, so fares a lot better in bad weather and rough seas. And there's a cat on board!
Although you are able to step off the boat in Bluefields to grab some food, bring plenty of supplies with you - there is a comedor on-board but we never once saw it open.
The main negative about this option (apart from the longer journey time), is that nobody can give you a guaranteed answer about what time the boat will leave, and what time it is meant to arrive. We spoke to lots of locals and, although Captain D is one of their only options to travel home from the mainland, this uncertainty is a long-standing frustration and not just the bane of backpackers.
Although the travel time was actually only 19 hours (just two more than we expected), the lack of certainty of scheduled departure times (not helped from every person giving us a different answer) meant that we spent 31 hours on-board the Captain D - a little more honesty would have prevented a great deal of annoyance.
To give you a little sample, we were initially told they would leave El Rama at 7 p.m. This then changed to 9 p.m. Then midnight.
The boat eventually left at 6 a.m.
step three - big corn to little corn
Twice daily pangas depart at 10 a.m. and 4.30 p.m. Arrive at the ticket booth at least an hour before to buy your ticket.
If the weather is against you, these can be very wet and very bumpy, so make sure you have cover for your backpack (or improvise with a bin liner!)
On days of severe weather, these pangas will be cancelled.
Cost: C$155 | Time: 30 minutes
So, with any route you take to the Corn Islands, it's going to take some patience. We've summarised the three main (and most direct) routes below.*
We really recommend that, if you are only travelling for a few weeks, then the flight is the best option by far to travel there and back - otherwise, 3-4 days of your holiday will be lost at sea.
If you are travelling long-term, or on a really tight budget, then take Route Two or Three as it will cost around 50% less. That first ice cold beer overlooking the pristine turquoise waters of the Caribbean will also end up tasting all the better.
route one - flying
One-way flight - $106 USD approx. ($160 for return flights)
Baggage is limited to 13kgs per person, with charges for each extra kg
Night on Big Corn - C$250 - 350
Panga to Little Corn - C$150
Port fees: C$5
Total Cost: C$3161 - 3261 / USD$ 122 - 125 (deduct C$250 - 350 if not spending the night on Big Corn)
Total travel time: 5 hours if you catch the last panga of the day, 22.5 hours if you have to spend the night on Big Corn.
route two - captain D
Express bus to El Rama - C$160
Bunk + Transit - C$400
Night of Big Corn - C$ 250 - 350
Panga to Little Corn - C$150
Port Fees - C$12
Total Cost: C$972 - 1072 / USD$ 37 - 41
Approx. travel time: 51 hours (this may be considerably less or considerably more depending on when Captain D leaves and how long he takes!)
route three - rio escondido
Express bus to El Rama - C$160
Panga to Bluefields - C$250
Night on Bluefields/El Rama - C$250
Rio Escondido ticket - C$250-350
Panga to Little Corn - C$150
Port Fees - C$10
Total Cost: C$ 1,070 - 1170 / USD$ 41 - 45
Approx. travel time: 33-36 hours
*The above costs do not include food and drink to sustain you on any journey, so please bear these in mind.
The journey may be long, you might get wet, sick and smelly, but it really is worth it for a slice of paradise (you also get to be smug when you meet anyone who flew!)
So, lower your expectations, be patient and put it all down as a travelling experience and - hopefully - it will all pass a little quicker.