The Slow Road to Corn Island
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.
Thoughts and anecdotes from here and there.