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November 9
Around mid-day, I catch a short flight to Managua and check into the Best Western Hotel.  It’s not our preferred type of accommodation, but it has the big advantage of being directly across the street from the airport.  It also has air conditioning and real hot water (that doesn’t trickle out of a terrifying electric shower head) and, as I shortly discover, a congenial outdoor bar beside a swimming pool.  This is very convenient for me, as Susan doesn’t arrive until 10:45 pm.  By the time I walk across the street to meet her flight this evening, I am feeling quite mellow.  She, on the other hand, having gotten up at 4:00 am in Fort McMurray to catch the first of her three flights, does not particularly share my mood!

November 10
Another 4:00 am wake-up to catch our La Costeña flight to the Corn Islands.  Fortunately, we decide to take the free hotel shuttle across to the terminal as we discover La Costeña doesn’t use the big shiny international terminal.  If we had walked over, it would have taken us some time to find the shabby little regional terminal building on our own.

The plane stops in Bluefields, a small, regional centre on the Caribbean coast, and a short time later, lands on Big Corn Island.  The Corn Islands are two tiny specks in the ocean, off the eastern coast of Nicaragua   A selection of dilapidated taxis waits outside the tiny terminal building to take us to Brig Bay for the next phase of our journey.  We have an hour and a half to wait before the panga leaves for the trip to Little Corn, so the taxi driver offers a sightseeing tour of Big Corn Island.  “Oh sure – why not?”  We circumnavigate the island on its only road, (the word, “road” might be a little generous, as dilapidated taxis are apparently quite capable of navigating through the woods, over rocks, around trees and mudholes in order to give visitors the best views of the beaches) while our driver points out the scenic views, the various resorts, the hospital, the local campus of the University of the Caribbean and, with obvious pride, the only lighted baseball stadium on the Caribbean coast. 

We have been warned that the trip to Little Corn Island, across 18 Km of open ocean can be rough, uncomfortable and WET!  The heavy, fiberglass panga is about 30 feet long with bench seats for the passengers and two big outboard engines.  Our luggage is stowed and the crew hands out lifejackets.  When they start giving us big sheets of 6 mil plastic, we realize we are in for it.  There has been a storm for the last day or two, with a wind blowing across the prevailing current, so the seas are big, short and steep.  In calm weather, the panga ride takes about eighteen minutes, at a speed of forty mph.  Not today!  As soon as we clear the harbor, our fate is clear.  The boat roars up the face of each 12-foot wave, the driver cuts the engines at the top and we crash down into the trough.  A huge wall of seawater is thrown into the air on either side of the bow and the wind blows most of it onto us.  This sequence is repeated continuously for the better part of the hour it takes us to reach the haven of Little Corn harbor.  The water is warm enough, but it is like standing in front of a fire hose; the sheer volume makes it difficult to even keep our eyes open.  We are soaked to the skin; even our shoes are squishy. ...and my fingers were pruny Our passports and the bills in our wallets are saturated and later have to be spread out to dry.  Unfortunately, my best efforts to protect my netbook computer are in vain.  It later refuses to boot up!

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The panga to Little Corn Island – the small one in front, not the bigger one behind

All ready for the trip

Little Corn Island has no motor vehicles.  Two young men are waiting on the dock, with wheelbarrows, to carry our luggage. We strike out on a muddy path through the jungle, for the fifteen-minute walk to our resort on the other side of the island.  Little Corn Beach Bungalows   is a little piece of paradise at the end of the world!  Beautiful rustic cabins sit fifty feet from a small pristine beach.  The excellent, Turned Turtle Restaurant serves delicious gourmet meals (but never turtle!).  The staff is friendly, helpful and dedicated to making sure we have a wonderful stay.  This is no glitzy all-inclusive resort; we sleep under mosquito netting, island electricity (and therefore hot water) is only available from 2:00 pm to 5:00 am, but we fall asleep to the sound of the surf, just outside our door (and sometimes to the rain drumming on the tin roof).  If you would like to know more about this lovely place, read some of the glowing reviews in TripAdvisor

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Island freight trucks

The main “road

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Our cabin

View from our porch

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Turned Turtle restaurant

Beautiful beach

A carafe of fresh coffee magically appears on our porch, each morning, at 6:45 am.  We greet the day by reading on our Kindles, drinking the delicious coffee and watching the sea change colour as the sun rises.  After breakfast, we set out to explore the island.  We walk down the beach for a few hundred yards, past funky restaurants and mini-resorts that are even more primitive (and less expensive) than ours. We encounter a unistone pathway through the jungle, which leads us to what passes for “downtown”, or one might say, the “business section”. The west-facing side of the island is less windy and contains most of the resorts, cafes and restaurants as well as a few small shops.  The weather is warm and humid and occasional showers (the term “deluge” might be a little closer to the reality, but it is always warm) remind us that the rainy season is still in progress.  We discover Tranquilo Café, owned by an ex-pat from Virginia.  It has a comfortable porch to wait out the rain showers, an internet café, excellent food and a specialty drink (oh yum!) called “The Monkey” – coffee, rum, chocolate and banana – all the important food groups!  More importantly, Tranquilo Cafe is the usual hangout of Roland, an ex-pat, who is the island computer guru.  He takes my netbook off to see if there is any hope for it.

Roland is quite a character and well-suited to the atmosphere of Little Corn.  He is very laid back and has lived in and travelled to many parts of the world.  His stories are colourful and entertaining and cause us to add a couple of ideas to our list of places to see and things to do when we get there.

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“Downtown” Little Corn – Main Street

Tranquilo Cafe

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Local restaurant

Lots of places to stay on Little Corn Island

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Cool Spot Grace’s Place:  food, drink, cabins

Little Corn harbor; Big Corn Island in the distance

We meet Madeline and her friend, Mary; two American ladies that we spoke with briefly on the plane.  They overnighted on Big Corn and took the panga the next day.  Madeline and her husband are retired teachers, who moved permanently to Nicaragua six years ago and now own a house in Granada.  It turns out they live a block and half from the hotel we have booked.  Mary lives in Connecticut and is visiting for a few weeks.  Madeline has taken the same CELTA course for teaching English that I have, so we have lots to talk about.

Each day is much the same:  read (and nap) in a hammock at the resort, (one of the staff occasionally inquires if they can bring us a cold beer); walk on the beach; stroll “downtown” and choose a little restaurant for lunch; head to the Turned Turtle restaurant each evening, for a gourmet meal and an excellent bottle of wine (or two).  The tres leches cake is a big hit!  We consider a snorkeling expedition, but the ocean is still rough after the storm, so we take a pass.  We explore nearly the whole island and find plants and flowers that even Susan can’t identify.

Little Corn has a well-established canine population and there are a couple of characters who provide hours of entertainment for visitors.  The head dog is Bushman, a German Shepherd-looking fellow, who visits every establishment on the island at least daily.  Bushman is a great communicator and it doesn’t take us long to figure out that as long as we keep talking to him, he will talk back. If you speak to Bushman, he whines and growls and howls and sounds for all the world like he is carrying on a conversation with you.  Discussion over, he accompanies us on our walk.  There is also a slightly mad pit-bull, who appears from time-to-time, running full tilt down the beach, through the surf and the spray with his eyes tightly shut and a huge, goofy grin on his face.  He is a picture of sheer joy and makes me laugh out loud.  Nothing like the usual image of a pit bull.

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Our favourite activities on Little Corn Island

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Beautiful Beaches on the windward side of the island

Roland shows up at Tranquilo Café with my netbook and a lugubrious expression.  Electrical terminals have green corrosion and seawater has gotten to the motherboard.  ¡Está muerto!

November 15
Much to our dismay, it is time to leave our rustic island paradise.  We laze around on the beach until the wheelbarrows arrive to take our bags to the panga.  We are sad to leave and vow to return before too long. It would be fun to come back with a group of friends someday.  The sea is calm today and we make the trip to Big Corn at high speed with only a little spray.  The taxi to the airport takes only minutes and before long we are landing in Managua.

Our La Costeña flight lands at Managua airport and, as promised, there is a man from Paxeos waiting with a van to drive us to Granada.  It is a trip of about an hour over very good highways.  We pass through a zona maquilladora, with huge textile factories, mostly owned by Koreans.  It is just at shift-change and thousands of workers are arriving and departing on dozens of buses.  These factories provide employment for many local people, but the wages are only minimal, at best.

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Hotel Kekoldi

Fran, our driver, chats away to us during the trip and is nice enough to compliment my Spanish.  I guess my three weeks in Spanish school did some good.  Fran drops us at Hotel Kekoldi about 6:30 and we check in and get settled.  Kekoldi  is a small boutique hotel in an old colonial building, on Calle El Consulado, only six blocks from the central square.  It has two courtyards, one of which has a small swimming pool.  It is well-run and very comfortable.

We ask for a suggestion for a place for dinner and then set out to walk through the central square to La Calzada, a pedestrian-only street.  Here we find a restaurant whose name promises the kind of food we like best:  Comidas Typicas.  Our outdoor table lets us watch the ever-changing crowd; mostly Nicas, with a smattering of gringo tourists.  Street performers, buskers and vendors compete for our attention (and tips) and we enjoy a couple of cold beers while waiting for our Typicas #5 to arrive.  The food is delicious:  scrambled eggs with sausage and, of course, gallo pinto, the national dish of Nicaragua.  Gallo pinto, literally: “spotted rooster”, is rice and black beans cooked together and served with EVERY meal.  An amazing salsa goes wonderfully with the meal.

Breakfasts at our hotel are served in the garden courtyard, under a porch, beside the tiny pool.  The food is good, with lots of fresh fruit and delicious coffee.  We are both fans of fried platanas (plantain) for breakfast and we discover we can order eggs and ham as an option as well.

After breakfast, we walk around the neighbourhood and find Madeline’s house just a few blocks away.  She and her husband Ron are retired teachers from the U.S. who moved permanently to Granada six years ago.  They bought a run-down older building and refurbished it into a beautiful and comfortable home.  We enjoy cups of delicious coffee and have a pleasant visit.  Madeline and Ron both volunteer teaching English, so I am keen to hear of their experiences.

Setting out to explore the town, we walk to the centre and stroll around the parque central.  As in all Central American cities, the square is busy and lively with crowds of people living their daily lives.  At one side, stands the beautiful cathedral, the signature landmark of Granada.  We continue on down the Calzada and eventually arrive at the lakeshore.  The most appealing feature of the city of Granada is that it is built on the shore of Lago Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua), a vast freshwater sea.  Although the weather can be very hot during the day, there are always cool breezes coming off the lake.

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La Catedral Nuestra Señora de la Asunción

Courtyard cafe

We are accosted by an incorrigible, one-legged rascal on crutches; a victim of the civil war and a self-proclaimed poet, with an irresistible grin.  He recites an original love poem, inserting our names, in the hope of extracting a few cordobas from us.  He is so engaging and charming that, naturally, it works.

“Every Nicaraguan is a poet, until proven otherwise”
Granada poet, Jose Coronel Urtecho

An inquiry at the hotel desk as to the availability of a guide leads us to make the acquaintance of Osman.  He is a licensed tour guide, speaks reasonably good English and has a car.  He also has very good connections with a real estate agency and, in case we are interested in staying longer, he could help us find an apartment to rent or even a house to buy.  We ask Osman for a tour of the city and the surroundings and soon we are in his car seeing the sights.  Of course, as we drive around the city, he points out various properties that are for sale or rent.

One of our first stops is the old railway station.  In most Latin America countries, the railways fell into disuse a decade or two ago and the tracks have been torn up or abandoned.  This picturesque former station building, though, has been refurbished and transformed into an adult education and trades training centre, with the help of Spain.  A lot of foreign investment is evident from countries like Spain, Korea, Denmark and China.  Osman seems hopeful that better days are coming with a more prosperous future.

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Old railway station

Parque central

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Iglesia de Guadelupe, a 17th century church

Osman, our trusty guide

Our next stop is a very old church, Catedral de la Merced, built in 1534 and one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas.  The façade is blackened with mold and the interior is plain, but we climb up narrow stone steps to the bell tower for a look out over the rooftops of the city.  From here, the views are stunning!  We look down on buildings with red clay tile roofs and into lovely garden courtyards, filled with flowers and plants.  To the east we can see the cathedral and the lake gleaming in the sun and to the west, Volcano Mombacho looms over the city.

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La Catedral with the lake in the background

Dome of La Merced

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View over the rooftops

An internal courtyard from above

Then we head to the lakefront, where we board a boat for a tour of Las Isletas.  Scattered just offshore from Granada’s waterfront is an archipelago of 365 tiny jungle islands.  They were formed ten thousand years ago, when nearby Volcano Mombacho exploded in a cataclysmic eruption.  The islets are literally pieces of the mountain that were hurled into the lake.  Some of the islets are occupied by poor campesino families that make a living by fishing. Others have small, primitive restaurants taking advantage of the tourist trade.  Many are privately owned and sport huge opulent mansions.  Osman quickly proves his worth as he identifies birds, plants and trees.

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Las Isletas

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What’s left of Volcano Mombacho

Huge private mansions on some of the Islets

The highlight of the day is a stop at a tiny islet that contains a spider monkey sanctuary.  Osman tells us that the monkeys are timid, but one particular female, Panchita, is especially fond of our boat driver and she might climb on board and visit him.  He suggests that we sit quietly and not try to touch her as she is uncomfortable with strangers.  Sure enough, as soon as the bow of the boat pokes into the overhanging trees, a young female swings on board and makes her way past us to climb onto the driver’s lap.  After a few minutes, she leaves him and starts forward, when we are all amazed to see her climb unhesitatingly onto Susan’s lap and give her a big five-part monkey hug – two arms, two legs and a prehensile tail!  Osman is as surprised as we are.

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Panchita and her friend, the boat driver

A five-point monkey hug

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Panchita, the spider monkey

Two new friends

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I wonder if she has fleas…

Time to go ashore, Panchita!

Now it is time to go, but Panchita doesn’t want to leave.  It takes us twice around the island before she reluctantly swings up into the overhanging trees.

 

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