Back to the adventure…
From Granada, Marjolein (the Dutch woman I met in León who became my travel buddy) and I headed up to Managua, the capital on Nicaragua, the following afternoon to catch our flight to the Corn Islands. I had been stating over and over how I wanted to avoid staying the night in the capital city at all costs since I classified Managua to be both dangerous and boring, but of course I spoke too soon: our flight was cancelled supposedly due to a popped tire on the little hopper plane and we were put up in a hotel in Managua for the night by the La Costeña airline and scheduled to be on the first flight out in the morning. The Managua experience wasn’t actually so bad since the hotel was nice, transportation was covered for us, and they provided us with a nice dinner. Apparently all of Central America can be classified as the “Land of the Eternal Unpredictability,” not just Guatemala.
By the time we finally boarded our flight the next day we were getting really excited. The Corn Islands (Big Corn and Little Corn) are located in the Caribbean Sea off the coast of Nicaragua and supposedly offer some of the best diving in clear, turquoise waters. I was hoping to do another SCUBA course for my Advanced Open Water certification while I was there and Marjolein was looking for some serious island time and hoping to squeeze in a handful of dives during the week as well. After flying into Big Corn Island, we immediately headed for the ferry station to boat over to Little Corn Island where we stepped into a place completely designed for relaxation and rustic adventure: the unwritten standards of the island were along the lines of “no cars, no shoes, and no hot water.” Without vehicles, hearing and spotting crabs, hermit crabs, and salamanders scurrying all over the small island was feasible and common. Instead of shoes, we went barefoot for nearly the entire week, and, finally, there was no real need for hot water in the tropics.
Unfortunately, we ran into some issues right off the bat with both our lodging options and our dive shop options. We had been misled regarding the availability of cabanas at one lodge where we were trying to set up a deal for a discount in lodging paired with a course and dives at the sister dive shop. Not only did the owner not realize that there were no cabins available for the five consecutive nights we were going to be on the island, but the dive shop she owns was out of commission for most of the week due to a broken down air compressor that has been acting up for 10 years and she refuses to fix—according to all the residents on the rest of the island.
This woman, Mary, demonstrates a great example of an irresponsible international investor. She lives in Chicago and supposedly doesn’t know a thing about diving yet owns Little Corn Dive Shop and Casa Iguana Lodge and, while she doesn’t really maintain quality upkeep, she collects all the tourist profits at the same time paying her employees late, if at all. There is even a drink named after her called “Scary Mary Rum Punch—it makes you crazy and steals your paycheck” at one of the restaurants on the island. She is notorious on Little Corn Island and nobody likes her because of all the problems she causes, but she is an investor and her money is her shield. It was interesting to hear the local perspective on this as we were directly affected by it.
She left us in a lurch because we had no other reservations anywhere else for diving or lodging so we had a lot of work to do despite an attempt to arrive prepared to the island. The first night, we stayed in a bungalow with a private bathroom right on the beach, literally built on stilts in golden sand maybe 30 paces from the bright blue sparkling sea. But we only stayed one night there—Marjolein felt that it was too expensive for such a rustic set-up. The lodging hunt that followed was frustrating, to say the least. Some of the “no” reasons are listed: too expensive, not nice enough, there was only one bed, or there wasn’t a fan. But we couldn’t be too picky because there wasn’t much to choose from and we were going to be there all week. Had I been traveling alone, I probably would have taken any of those places; having to satisfy two people’s preferences on that island proved difficult. We eventually decided on a hotel that was right next to the only other dive shop on the island and we ended up getting a deal on both lodging and diving there instead.
Once we settled in, we were finally able to relax a tiny bit. On the second day, I squeezed in last-minute to the only Advanced Open Water course being offered at Dolphin Dive that week, joining two other women and a female instructor, Jenn, this time. The “specialty” dives included during the course were a deep dive, a navigation dive, a peak performance buoyancy dive, an underwater photography dive, and a night dive. We did all five dives in just two days. It felt extremely rushed, but there wasn’t as much bookwork this time; instead the focus was practice. The main reason to do an advanced dive course is for the deep dive clearance so that the depth of a dive will not limit your diving location options in the future. By checking that off, you have underwater freedom. All three of us successfully finished the course and had a great time together!
Consistent with its reputation, Little Corn Island was a superb diving location with great visibility and a large variety of marine life. Some of the creatures that I had to opportunity to see up close and personal included lionfish, spiny lobsters, barracuda, trumpet fish, sea cucumbers, lionfish, sea anemones, starfish, cleaner shrimp, hermit crabs, sea slugs, green turtles, hawksbill turtles, sea urchins, porcupine fish, and some of my favorites—the very large and very beautiful parrotfish (both “midnight” and “rainbow”).
My best daytime dive was at a shallow location (max depth: 45 feet) called White Holes. During this early afternoon dive, we spotted 9 nurse sharks and 2 eagle rays!! And since it was relatively shallow, the colors of the reef and sea creatures living on it were bright and vibrant. It was so neat to swim behind the sharks, rays, and parrotfish, trailing them, just to observe their behavior and watch how they move. There is no reason to be afraid. The rule of thumb for interacting with marine creatures while diving is, “If you don’t bother them, then they won’t bother you.” Some species can be aggressive (tiger sharks, great whites, etc.) and it is recommended to maintain distance, but nurse sharks are mild-mannered.
I am glad I had the opportunity to use the underwater camera a couple times because I got a couple neat shots! Of course, without a flash, the true colors cannot be captured; the deeper you go in the ocean, the less available light there is.
My experience as a whole on Little Corn Island was totally different and not as enjoyable as my time on Roatán, where I had my initial SCUBA training and diving experiences. I didn’t feel that I connected very well with many people, and that may have been related to my own state of mind. I was craving alone time and the ability to make independent decisions but not getting much of either. We did, however, run into a super cool group of people from San Francisco who was on vacation for a week during the same time we were on the island. Laura from my Advanced Open Water course was one of them. She and her boyfriend, Rick, were AWESOME and fun to be around so Marjolein and I ended up hanging out with their group (shout out to Ken, Matt, the other Matt, Ebu, Evyenia, and Dane!) for most of the week. I have since reconnected with them in San Francisco having moved back to the Bay Area – and Laura and Rick actually got engaged just a few months ago! Did I mention what neat people they all are?
My week in Little Corn can serve as a great example of pros and cons of traveling. One of the PROS is that you can meet and connect with people from all over the world—even from your own backyard—and remain lifelong friends with them. And a CON, or more of a reality of traveling, is that it is not always the stereotypical exciting or relaxing vacation that we are conditioned to think of when someone mentions traveling to an exotic place. Things can go awry or you can be in one of the most beautiful places in the world and not be engaged with it. As I backpacked through Central America, I experienced these things as well as the many other pros and cons that come with the territory. Most, if not all, travelers do.
My very last dive of the week was a night dive I did after I completed my Advanced Open Water course, making this my third night dive overall – and by far the most amazing! The memory I have from this dive is easily one of my top memories ever. In addition to the amazing creatures we spotted and observed in their nocturnal routines, we also had the chance to experience bioluminescence in the dark again, just as we had done in Honduras. But this time, we kept all the flashlights off for 15 minutes straight, allowing everyone to float or drift however the current moved.
Instead of kneeling in the sand patch on the ocean floor, I floated up about 5-8 feet so I could be completely surrounded by the bioluminescent “strings of pearls” (the tiny crustacean called an ostracod), twinkling like little stars in a string-like pattern (which is a mating ritual). As I marveled at Nature’s work, I felt a complete loss of control—floating underwater in a pitch black ocean with no idea how close or far away I was from my companions—and I was at total peace with the fact that I was wrapped in Nature’s arms and at the mercy of God’s plan for the Universe. I felt wonderment and appreciation and, although I felt so tiny like I was traveling through an endless galaxy with only stars around me, I felt like this was exactly where I needed to be in that moment in time. My entire body was overcome with a peaceful feeling, completely relaxed in knowing that I wasn’t in control. It was an amazing experience.
When Marjolein and I left Little Corn Island, we headed back to Granada and spent one more night together there before she continued her journey on to Costa Rica. We had spent a total of 15 days together (probably my maximum time limit for travel buddies); I was ready to be alone again to get stable, re-center myself, and write more so I decided to stay in Granada for a couple more days because Granada has this fabulous coffee shop culture that is perfect for all of that. After Marjolein left, I switched to a hostel for $5 dorm beds. It also had free drinking water and Internet, plus I had the dorm to myself for 3 of the 5 nights I stayed there. It was awesome. I ate at Garden Café (my favorite restaurant there) for the majority of my meals, and I even had the opportunity to grab lunch with Nancy, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Suriname and now lives in Nicaragua, running Hotel Casa de San Francisco in Granada. The Peace Corps community is everywhere!
I came to really love Granada and my time there allowed me to learn a little more about the food and culture. Nicaragua, just as many of the Central American countries, considers rice and beans as their staple foods. The funny thing about it, though, is that each country has their own version of rice ‘n beans. Imagine that. In Nicaragua, they mix whole red beans together with rice and call it gallo pinto, or “painted rooster.” Although it is just rice ‘n beans, just like any other rice ‘n beans, it is delicious; I don’t know what they do differently to make it taste so good, but no complaints there! In addition to that, Nicaragua is well known for its variety of meats as well as quesillos, or toasted slabs of firm white cheese.
I savored every minute of my last day in Granada pushing relaxation to the max with a $3 haircut followed by an approximately $25 spa package that included a massage, facial, and a reflexology foot massage. Writing, gelato, nice dinner, and peace. It was perfect. My plan for the next day was to hop on a bus headed southwest to the San Juan del Sur coast for a couple days, but my plan was interrupted with a very unsettled stomach that resulted in several minutes of vomiting just as I was about to check out of the hostel. I hadn’t puked in over 5 years—even surviving my entire Peace Corps stint without throwing up—so this was very unusual. While once was the end of it, I stayed an extra night, just in case. Little did I know, this was the first symptom of something much more severe, but I’ll wait to tell you about that once we get to Costa Rica…
So my plan changed again and when I finally got on that bus heading for the coast, I decided to avoid the notorious party town beaches at San Juan del Sur and instead I hopped on a ferry on Lago de Nicaragua, Nicaragua’s massive lake, heading for Isla de Ometepe, the small island that is made of two volcanoes in the middle of the lake. I picked a quiet lodge on one of the edges of the lake facing West so I had spectacular sunset views; I only had two nights available to stay out there which wasn’t nearly enough time, so I’ll just have to go back out there someday because it is a magical place and I was sad to leave it behind.
The magic began just hours after I settled in when a tropical storm made its presence known through heavy rain and big gusts of wind, causing the power to go out for several hours. I couldn’t write during that time so I hung out in a hammock outside and just happened to start talking to a random stranger who was also sitting there outside in the dark, equally admiring the forces of Nature. His name was Paul and he was from New Mexico, also traveling solo—on vacation for a couple weeks. We discussed our plans for our island stay and decided to pair up to climb Volcano Maderas (4,573 feet) the next day. I was relieved to have found yet another travel buddy to join me for my adventure because it was not recommended to climb that volcano alone, especially as a female.
The following day was filled with such wonderful surprises, starting with a dog from the lodge befriending us. The lodge owners said the dog didn’t have an owner or a name so Paul decided to name him “Cáne” (pronounced KAH-nay) which means dog in Italian. Haha! When we left midday to begin our journey to the waterfalls on the volcano, Cáne decided to follow us. We didn’t know how long he would trail us, but he ended up staying with us for the entire hike and all the way back home! It was like he adopted us. And it was really nice to have that extra companionship. He was such a good pup.
In addition to Cáne, we were also graced by the presence of wild horses and howler monkeys. The horses were just grazing on the mountainside so it gave us a good resting point to stop and watch them. They let us get close enough to touch them, and although the baby colt was a little skittish, his curiosity got the best of him and he came up to investigate us, sniff us out some, before running off again to nurse on his mama. It was definitely a treat!
Once we finally found the waterfall, we were already getting a little tired and both dripping sweat due to the heat and the humidity so the thing to do was definitely jump in!! The freshwater pool was only maybe three to four feet deep and freezing, but it felt refreshing. We also ran into another group of hikers while we were there; incidentally, I knew one of them, Judy, whom I had met at the Surfing Turtle Lodge just a few weeks prior. This is a regular occurrence: when traveling in the same parts of the world, you will likely run into the friends and other travelers you already met along the way.
So proud of Cáne keeping up, we decided it was time to turn around as it had taken us several hours to get to the waterfall and we only had a little bit of daylight left. All through the jungle, we could hear howler monkeys at a distance singing among the trees, but it wasn’t until we were back on the main road that we spotted a couple in the nearby trees, swinging, playing, and chasing each other. (They were a little too far away for any clear photos.) Once Cáne and the monkeys saw each other, though, they calmed down and just watched each other for a few minutes. But we couldn’t stay too long because it was nearly sunset and we still had a ways to go.
It was an exhausting day, but well worth every minute spent out in nature. Poor Paul was stuck with me talking his ear off for 6 or 7 hours straight that day, but he was a good sport about it. The next day we decided to travel back to Granada together before going our separate ways. And guess who followed us as we left the lodge and walked ten minutes down the road to the bus stop? Cáne did, of course! And he even got on the bus, knowing that that was where we were headed. He SO badly wanted to come with us. Talk about loyalty! And he had only known us for a day!! It was sad to leave him behind, but we trusted that he would make new friends.
In total, I spent about a month in Nicaragua and it was the perfect trip because I had no time pressure and I just moved along as I felt like it at a slow pace. I did and saw what I wanted to do and see. I had alone time and social time; I hiked in canyons and on volcanoes, I swam on beaches and in freshwater pools, and I embraced as many underwater adventures as I could fit in. I witnessed some of the most magnificent displays of nature, made friends, ate good food, and studied the culture. Nicaragua was kind to me, for the most part, and will always have a special in my heart.