Just 6 weeks before we were traveling to Nicaragua’s Corn Island we’d never heard of the place. But for travelers on a budget Central America has a few important things going for it. It’s easily accessible. It’s affordable. And it’s off the beaten path. Traveling in Central America is a breath of fresh air from traveling in the States if you can get over a few initial quirks. I suggest getting over the quirks because Corn Island is paradise. We flew to Managua from Houston on Continental Airlines, but you’re not flying to Corn Island on Continental.
To get to Corn Island you either make your way across the mainland and go by ferry, or you book a flight on La Costena Airlines. Booking a flight on La Costena Airlines is unlike anything a domestic US traveler has ever done. You send an email. Yes, there’s a guy you email and he emails you back and you have your reservation. You can give him your credit card number or you can just pay when you get there before you board your flight. We paid with cash just before boarding.
Once we’d paid our fare it was time to get weighed. Seriously. Each passenger held their bags and/or kids and got on a scale to be weighed. As we boarded our flight I noticed a pole hanging from the back of the plane. If that pole touches the ground it means there is too much weight for the aircraft.
Little things like this can be unnerving to some travelers. But there are no annoying announcements. Then again there’s no beverage service either. Or pressurized cabins.
But the best part about flying in Central America is the flexibility. Once you book your ticket your date is entirely flexible. You have a date booked and you are guaranteed a seat on that particular date. But you can also fly any day you choose on that particular flight so long as there are seats available. So we booked our return trip to Managua from Corn Island on the last possible date we’d potentially want to return but then when we were actually ready to leave the island and head back to the mainland we simply called and confirmed there were seats available and then flew the same day.
When my wife and I told both of our parents we were going to Nicaragua they all thought we were crazy. Perhaps they were thinking about Contras and Sandanistas and Oliver North and Iran Contra. I think I remember my mother in law commenting about how our son would be a prime target for kidnapping.
The world is a dangerous place and people, myself included, tend to fear what they do not know or understand. Our experiences in Nicaragua in general and Corn Island in particular though left us with the impression that the people of Nicaragua were some of the finest Planet Earth has to offer.
A night on Corn Island could look something like this:
We arrive at Paraiso Hotel for dinner. We’re told their restaurant, The Buccaneer, is one of the best on the island. Our first impression is holding up to expectations. Very cool spot. Island, and yes, I would say even a pirate feel. Large sand pit just off the restaurant is great for Jackson. We look through the palm trees to the beach about 50 yards away.
Start with drinks, mine, a Coco Loco, is literally just a coconut opened up with rum added. We get talking with the guy at the table next to us, who we learn, is the owner. Believe it our not, this little hotel with 12 guest rooms on this little island shows up on Wikipedia. Wiki tells us the owner, Mike, will do anything for his patrons. We will find this to be true later on. I comment to Mike how good the food is. With a sort of shoulder shrug he just said, “I have to eat here.”
Jackson plays with Benson, the owners son throughout dinner. Our conversation continues and before we know it we’re touring the facilities. Rooms are cool little huts with thatch roofs. He is in the process of renovating. Rooms now are nice and perfect for the island, but the future looks even brighter. This is a really cool place.
Before leaving on the trip my wife asked me if I was bringing any cigars. I asked her why I’d take cigars to Nicaragua when some of the word’s best cigars come out of this country. But much to my surprise there was not a cigar to be found on the island. They’re a luxury the locals just can’t afford. I mentioned my plight to Mike who almost immediately pulled out his phone to make a call. As it rings he tells me he is working on getting his own cigars for the hotel but the purpose of this call is to take care of me now. After dinner he’s arranged for our taxi to take us to a friend of his who has cigars. Dinner finished, bill settled, and loaded in the taxi we don’t go to a local shop but literally to a house. I go inside and Mike’s friend has a few dozen cigars on the kitchen table. He asks me how many I want, whether I have a cutter, etc. I try to pay and he won’t let me. “You are in Nicaragua. The cigars are yours as long as you let me call you friend.”
We arrive back at the hotel and as we settle in we realize that something is missing. My wife’s iPhone. We knew we had it at dinner because we were taking pictures. We had a faint memory of checking the time on the phone while we were in the taxi. My wife heads to the lobby of our hotel and phones the owner of The Paraiso. He was the person who’d called our taxi so he knew who the taxi driver was. He makes a phone call back to the same cabbie who checks his back seat, find the phone, and delivers it back to us.
It’s a Big Corn Night.
These were typical experiences. The people were marvelous. They loved us. They showed the greatest affection for our son. He laughed with local children who showed the greatest interest in him. And he was equally interested in them. I’ll never forget the experience of giving so many of the local kids rides on our golf cart with my son sitting there taking it all in.
While as parents we’re often hesitant to travel as a family because of the toll we think it takes on our kids, the fact is, our kids settle in to the new environments very quickly. It’s really us parents who need to get over our hesitancies. In America we’re so accustomed to having what we want and when we want it. But so much of what we think are daily necessities these people live without. There is no Costco on the Great Corn Island. There’s nothing that resembles a modern American grocery store. We packed several diapers for our trip to Corn Island, but not enough for our entire stay. A few days after arriving we enquired about diapers at a shop near our hotel that we’d frequented. She informed us to come back Monday after the ferry arrived. When we went on Monday she told us the ferry did not bring any diapers. When we did find diapers they were sold individually.
All of these little quirks meant nothing to our son. He was rolling with the punches. The question when traveling as a family isn’t whether the kids can handle it. The question is whether Mom and Dad can.
If you can handle it–there’s an island–the most westerly in the Caribbean. You can sit out at Seva’s in the morning for breakfast. You can dine in the evening on a $11 lobster dinner. You can eat coco bread which you buy right out of someone’s kitchen. You can do the best snorkeling of your life. If you catch a lobster while your snorkeling you can take that into the restaurant and save yourself a few bucks. And you can even do all of this easily while only speaking English.
There may be some modern amenities you’ll have to do without. Your kids won’t even notice. And what you will have is margin time. There’s time to sit on the beach, drink a cerveza, and read a few more chapters of your Jimmy Buffett book while your kids take a nap.
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