BIG CORNISLAND – Hugging Nicaragua’s largely untouched AtlanticCoast, the CornIslands are more removed from the mainland than the quick plane ride from Managua would suggest.
Separated from the rest of the country by history and geography, the two islands lack the same Spanish influences that dominate other popular tourist spots.
The result is a distinctly Caribbean feel just 50 miles off the Nicaraguan coast. What you hear on the islands is mostly Creole English and reggae music. The waters are turquoise blue and the beaches are tranquil.
It’s a hard-to-beat combination that feels all the more remarkable once you realize you’re still in Nicaragua.
Just a few kilometers off the CornIslands is an even greater treasure for underwater enthusiasts: a coral reef that stretches down from Belize and offers some of the best diving in Central America.
The islands remain relatively undiscovered by tourists, and the surrounding waters are teaming with colorful marine life.
The two islands – BigCornIsland and Little Corn Island – offer an impressive array of diving options, each equipped with its own professional dive shop. Two popular dive companies are Nautilus on Big Corn, and, across the 15-kilometer stretch of blue ocean separating the two islands, Dive Little Corn. As with anywhere, the two shops require special dive certification before they will take you down.
They both offer professional lessons that can get you underwater and exploring relatively quickly. They also offer snorkeling tours, which for a trip that can run as short as two hours, puts you in close range to spotted sea rays, nurse sharks and giant turtles.
Regine Herzog, who runs the Nautilus dive store with her husband, Chema, explains that the relatively small number of visitors has kept the natural habit of the dive spots intact, whereas, divers complain, popular spots off the Virgin Islands and other Caribbean destinations have become overrun with tourists. Hurricanes have chipped away at some of the reef near the CornIslands, but there are a number of submerged shipwrecks that add to the marine habitat.
Those who dive or snorkel here can expect to see anything from small, bright trigger fish to menacing-looking barracudas. A recent snorkeling excursion by two tourists reported spotting a ray and a variety of colorful tropical fish. The main attraction of their snorkeling was seeing an olive ridley sea turtle, which swooped by like an underwater cargo plane.
The main thing keeping the bigger crowds away, Herzog says, is the price of the plane ticket from Managua to BigCornIsland, which has nearly doubled in recent years.
But the island’s growing reputation and sprinkling of fancier, new hotels is starting to draw higher-end tourists with more money in their pockets.
“It’s a different group now,” Herzog says, adding that no one goes away unhappy. Despite the wealthier clientele, Herzog has kept her prices the same. A two-tank dive with instructor and equipment still costs only $75.
A range of spots can be enjoyed by divers of all levels. But the must-see spot for more experienced divers is “Blowing Rock,” a jagged formation that sits a few kilometers off Big Corn. The large, underwater cliff climbs 150 feet from the ocean floor, making it an attractive spot for all types of sea life.
Off Little Corn, there are a series of small, underwater caves that have become dive favorites there.
While the tourists who dive here go away pleased, few seem as happy as the Nautilus owners. Chema and Regine are both avid musicians who, after a day of diving, open their restaurant on weekends to local performers.
They sometimes join in on the music act themselves.
“It’s a great way of life out here,” says Chema.
For more information, contact Nautilus at 575-5077, www.divebigcorn.com. You can contact Dive Little Corn by e-mail at: [email protected].