I’ve decided on my number one piece of travel advice, at least for today: If in doubt, always follow a local.
I guess number two would be: try not to freak them out.
But this tac-tic saved from a good roasting as I travelled between two Caribbean islands last week.
The only way to get to Little Corn Island, Nicaragua, is to first get to Big Corn Island and then to take a small boat called a panga to Little Corn. This may be one of the hardest parts of Nicaragua to reach, but it still draws enough tourists to make your heart sink if, like me, you always want to be the only tourist in the village. So as the panga pulled up and all 48 passengers rushed to board, I applied my rule and picked out a local lady with her daughter who had clearly just been shopping on Big Corn. While everyone else piled into the main body of the boat, she tucked herself and her daughter on a little bench behind the driver, and I was right behind her, trying to look innocent. This was the first of the two boats that leave daily for the islita, as it is called by the Spanish-speaking locals, but it doesn’t leave until 10am, so already the sun was high in the sky and burning down on the 43 mostly pink bodies in front of the driver (a man selling sunglasses and a carpenter had also made room for themselves on our bench). 10am came and went, no driver. Life jackets were handed to most passengers, which some on the back seat used as a cushion to sit on; I abandoned my rule at that point, reasoning that it’s not so special that I should have to follow it to my death.
I must admit that I didn’t keep a check on exactly how long we waited, I was too busy gloating over the fact that while my fellow non-Nicaraguans wilted, I was bobbing along under the shade of a canopy that had clearly been put in place to protect the driver on his many journeys to and fro between the islands. It turned out that the hold-up was due to the manager of the port claiming that the boat was over-full, while the owner of the panga insisted that his papers authorised him to carry up to 50 passengers and he only had 48, so there was even room for two more!
Mutiny almost broke out when they took their argument to the shade of a nearby tree, leaving the passengers to roast. My fellow back-seaters urged the tourist to boycott the boat in protest at being treated worse than animals, but of course they were not about to lead the way themselves, for fear of losing their first class seats. And anyway, the boat was full of tourists, most of them American, most of them still smiling and enjoying the cultural quirk of the boat not leaving on time.
One way or another, the problem was resolved and we sped off towards Little Corn, making up some of the lost time on the way and arriving well within the 55 minutes scheduled for the crossing. I stepped proudly onto the decking of the pier, sure that not only was I the only tourist to have arrived on Big Corn by boat rather than flying in from Managua, I was now also the only one not sporting a burnt face and wet clothes. I, more than anyone, deserved the nearest hammock.
This time last year, I was working for London Underground and a delay of just a few minutes during rush hour was a disaster. I’ve adapted quite quickly to the pace of life here, but knowing that if we missed this boat it would be almost a week for the next one was enough to make sure I jumped out of bed at 5am.
There exists an easier way to get to Corn Island. You can simply hop on a plane in Managua with a dozen or so other tourists, and you’ll be on the beach within the hour. So why did we decide to go on a seven-hour bus ride followed by a twelve-hour boat ride? Well, the practical reasons for my travelling companions were the cost and the fact that they wanted to transport, amongst other things, a motorbike. I was just a tag-along so my, more romantic, way of thinking was that this journey would be an end in itself; that after so long on the road, I would know my adopted country a little better; and that I would feel quite entitled to spend the next week alternating between beach and hammock, hammock and beach.
And so it came to pass. Yet it was not half as bad as it sounds, or as I had anticipated. The express bus leaves Managua for El Rama at 8:45am and, for the price of a bottle of Coke, there are plenty of men willing to help you out with your luggage. It's a long journey, but so long as you are mentally prepared for that, there’s not a lot else to worry about. The road to El Rama is paved the whole way, so it’s a very different story to the twenty or even thirty hour bus ride to Puerto Cabezas (which I’ll tell you about another day). There is even a very civilized toilet stop in Juilgalpa, which is exactly half way. The bus was, in typical Nica style, an old American school bus; but it was one of the more comfortable and less crowded ones.
What Nicaragua lacks in the way of services stations, it more than makes up for in the variety of hawkers, preachers, beggars (and even clowns this time) that make their way through the bus at each stop. You want for nothing. Vitamins, pens, cakes made with corn flour, a selection of seasonal fruits, boiled sweets, ‘purified’ water; the travel toothbrush was a big hit: “it folds away to stop cockroaches climbing on the bristles at night - they enjoy the feel of the bristles on their feet”. Who could say no?
And that was just the bus ride. The real adventure for me was going to be the boat. The Island Express II is a slow cargo boat that travels between El Rama and the Corn Islands, stopping en route in El Bluff. It creeps along so slowly that even once the island was in sight, I had to keep going away and taking a break before coming back in order to notice that we were getting any closer. But creep up on the island we did, without waking it from its natural dreamy state. Once the sun is up, they play some soft reggae music and you feel like you've left Nicaragua for another culture altogether. There are quicker boats leaving from Bluefields, which is the road more travelled, but the speed of the boats mean that the going is rough and all but the hardiest sea-dogs get sick. Add to that the journey by land to Bluefields, and I would rather let the Island Express rock me to sleep and wake me up to the smell of gallo pinto and coffee, the sound of Bob Marley and the sight of blue sea meeting white sand.
From when our bus pulled out of the bus station in Managua until we arrived on Corn Island, there was not another tourist in sight. Yet, counter intuitively, this most remote part of Nicaragua is actually one of the easiest to navigate since English is the default language. It may take a while to adapt your ear to the Caribbean accent but for many tourists the hardest part of the journey will be negotiating a taxi in Managua to get to the Mayoreo bus station.
Of course, the majority who come to Nicaragua for just a couple of weeks pass neither though Bluefields nor El Rama, but choose to fly. Perhaps if your timetable is limited, you won't realistically be able to wait a week for the boat. However, if you could even go one way by land and fly the other, you will add so much to your trip. You will save enough money to pay for a night in a decent hotel before or after; and by choosing the cheaper option, you will add so much to what could otherwise easily be a beach holiday anywhere in the Caribbean.