Updated October 2017
Firstly, dear traveller, the Corn Islands are totally worth it. We met a lot of people (exclusively those who didn't make it there) saying "Oh we heard it's not that great", "it's too expensive" or "Caye Caulker's supposed to be loads better".
We won't mince our words: they are wrong.
Our misanthropic friend summed it up, after watching the sunset on our third night, when he declared that "this is probably the best island I've ever been to". We agreed. There are some places we visited that we liked a lot, but didn't love. We loved this place.
So that's our first piece of advice to you - if you can go, then go! Here are 16 other things to know before you go!
#1 - if you're not flying, get ready for an epic journey
Unless you have the money for flights, the Corn Islands are difficult to get to - but for those of us that do make the epic boat adventure, paradise - and an air of smugness for having been one of the few hardy souls to make the voyage - awaits.
Unless you have the money for flights, the Corn Islands can be a nightmare to get to. Buses, boats, pangas, ferries and six-hour delays mean that you can't help but feel a slight smugness over those who took the easy option and flew.
We've written in detail in this post on the easiest, most direct ways to reach the Corn Islands if you can't afford to fly.
#2 - bring your own rum supply
….and porridge and pasta sauce.
Little Corn is a tiny island, 70km off the coast of Nicaragua - it is not therefore an easy place to get supplies to! As such, anything you want to buy that has required shipping will come at a premium.
It's not easy if you already have a bulging backpack but any extra food items you can carry will save you more than a few dollars on the island. For example, 1 litre of 5 year old Flor de Cana in Manuaga is C$150, on Little Corn this was more than C$250.
Prior to our journey, we went on a budget backpacker shopping spree in Managua and stocked up on the following: pasta, pasta sauce, rum, porridge, oil, rice, peanut butter, rum, frijoles, tortillas, dried milk powder, suncream and rum.
#3 - bring your cash
Although a few of the fancier hotels accept payment by credit card (and Tranquilo has a cashback arrangement with certain cards), the rest of Little Corn is strictly a cash business. As there is no ATM, be realistic about how long you might stay, and then bring a little extra. In case of emergency, you could always catch the early morning ferry over to Big Corn where there is an ATM.
#4 - you CAN do it on a budget
Little Corn seems to have got a bit of a bad rep amongst budget backpackers, and whilst a lot of things are definitely a little bit more expensive, with some planning and sensible accommodation choices you can still enjoy meals out and cold beers.
As we found a double room for $12/night (at Three Brothers), brought our own food from the mainland and only ate out once a day, we ended up staying under budget most of the time.
#5 - don't write off big corn
Absurdly, after spending time on Little Corn, your return to the cars and atmosphere of Big Corn can make it feel like you've already returned to the mainland and that your time in paradise has ended. On the advice of other travellers, we wrote off Big Corn and spent only 36 hours there, but this did include one blissful afternoon on an empty and pristine beach which was the match of anything on Little Corn. In hindsight, we should have given it more of a chance.
#6 - no cars, no motorbikes, no worries
On our first night, it really struck us that we hadn't been anywhere with so little background noise in a very very long time. The only way to get around the island is by foot, bike or horse. Deliveries from the main cargo ships are either loaded up on speed-boats or else there are dozens of guys transporting it by hand-drawn rickshaw.
A regular at the Reggae Bar (his nickname turned out to be 'Sexy' ... go figure) told us that one guy had turned up with a motorbike and was promptly told where to go! Let's hope it stays this way.
#7 the beaches are amazing but...
Little Corn is not a luxury resort replete with over-manicured beaches and upscale hotels - thank goodness! The fact that it remains rugged in parts is one of the reasons it remains a viable Caribbean island destination for budget backpackers. And whilst this means that some stretches of beach are dotted with seaweed, flotsam and jetsam, it also means that everybody can go out and discover their own slice of paradise for the afternoon. We spent days looking out at turquoise clear waters with barely another person on sight.
For those that crave a more picture-postcard experience, your best bet is to head to the section of beach fronting Yemaya - the only fancy hotel in the island. For $300/night (this is not a typo) they clear the sand everyday but what they probably fail to mention to the rich clientele is that any scruffy backpacker can also lay claim to the beach!
Make sure you spend at least one afternoon circumnavigating the entire island on foot to try and find the best secret spots.
#8 sleeping by the beach might not be the best option
Where better to stay on a rugged Caribbean island than on a wooden beach shack where you can wander out half-asleep and dive straight into the sea? Accommodation on Little Corn is split up between the hostels and hotels on the main street next to the port, and then little clusters of cabanas on the beach.
If you are staying at the beach, just be aware that it can mean a 15-minute walk home in the pitch dark along secluded paths if you have a late night and that the security on some of the accommodation there is not the best.
Due to the limited internet, there are not many hostels/guest houses that allow you to book online. If having something organised prior to your arrival is really important, there are a couple that allow advance bookings such as The Three Brothers, the popular Lighthouse or Greenhouse Hostel.
#9 - you can eat seafood every night and not break the bank
Missing from our shopping spree in Managua was our budget staple of canned tuna. That's because we drew a line at eating fish from a can when we were on an island famed for its seafood. So, our agreement was that - for one week only - we'd try and save money where we could, but not scrimp on shrimp (or fish or lobster).
And when we found Rosa's and 'The Restaurant of the Forest' right next to each other in a lovely location - both of whom serve delicious fresh seafood plates for C$150 ($6 USD) - we quickly became regulars.
Here's our overview of some of the cheaper places we found.
#10 - go snorkelling….
There are a variety of hostels, hotels and random men offering snorkelling tours, with a going rate of $20 per person for 2-3 hours. We went with Captain Roy - a young guy looking to be the next Donald Trump of the islands - and saw several nurse sharks, manta-rays, sting-rays and four stunning eagle-rays. Totally worth it!
#11 - ….or learn to dive
There are a couple of dive shops on the islands, where you can get PADI certified for less than $300 USD (if you stay at certain hostels you get a further discount). A single dive costs $35/tank.
#12 - leave your Facebook and e-mail addiction on the mainland
With a wi-fi connection on Little Corn costing around $450/month, it's little wonder that only a handful of places are connected (Tranquilo's and Delfines are your best bets, but at happy hour everyone has the same thought so connection is verrrry slow). Rather than getting frustrated by this, just embrace it; you can post all the envy-inducing pictures you want once you're back on Big Corn.
#13 - the lights, and electricity, go out at 6 a.m.
Just in case you forget that you are now living on a remote island, and that resources need to be rationed, all electricity gets turned off between 6 a.m. and at least 1 p.m. (although it is frequently longer…). That means no cooling fans to soothe last night's hangover or the option to charge the phone or camera (however some bars do have generators).
#14 - be sure to look up at the stars
Having lived in London for the last few years, neither of us have seen much in the night sky beyond blackness and the occasional police helicopter, but the sky out here, once you're off the main street, is like no other.
A blanket of stars, a glimpse of the milky way with a soundtrack provided by the breaking waves of the Caribbean.
#15 - every night will end up in the reggae bar
It's the only place that's really open after midnight and is usually good mix of locals and backpackers. Expect to be hustled at pool, multiple times.
#16 - this won't last forever
Most people visiting Nicaragua simply don't make it here. Inevitably, this will change.
Captain D will get organised, and cut his journey time by 50% (perhaps even leave on time?!), some inventive chap will find a new, faster route or speedier boat, or the airline companies will drop their fees.
Either way, an island paradise such as this will not remain secret for long and the fragile equilibrium between an island which welcomes tourists and one which is overrun by them will start to tip in the wrong direction. We feel privileged that we got to see it before this happens.
And.... A bonus tip
Don't travel here without travel insurance. Seriously.
Little Corn, as we've already mentioned, is in the middle of nowhere - in the middle of the ocean to be specific. This is not the sort of place where you want to get desperately unwell without having the travel insurance to cover all eventualities, including the option to be airlifted to the mainland. Of course, given that security isn't paramount in a number of villas, it may be nice to have a little coverage for your valuables, but in honesty, it's your health you should be prioritising.
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