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California Dreamin’…. in Nicaragua

Beach San Juan Del Sur Nicaragua

After browsing through the enormous selection of recent bestsellers (in English!) at El Gato Negro café and bookstore, Dani and I took a seat at one of the colorful tables by the window and ordered one creatively-named bagel breakfast and splurged on an overpriced but tummy flattening blueberry and spirulina health smoothie. While we waited for our food in the restaurant packed with Americans, we watched out the window as six very built blond surfers loaded up their truck with their boards for a day out on the waves.
San Juan del Sur house NicaraguaWith the sounds of surfer talk like ‘gnarly’ and ‘dude’ ringing in our ears, the morning sun could have easily been shining over Santa Monica or Venice, California, but we were actually seated at a restaurant thousands of miles south on the Pacific coast in small beach town called San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. After traveling through the country from Esteli in the north through Leon, Managua, the Corn Islands, Granada and the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua, it was hard to believe that this surfer town could possibly be in the same country.

San Juan del Sur street
Located 45 minutes from the border to Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur combines the laid back surfer culture of Costa Rica with a touch a North American infrastructure and culture, all at Nicaraguan prices. You will find the bright colored houses which are typical for Central America but also a few new modern-style apartment buildings, which are clearly aimed at the North American expats – of which there are plenty.

The range of accommodation, from hostels to beach resorts, fits all budgets for surfers and family holidaymakers alike. For visitors who speak no Spanish, there are plenty of ‘gringos’ here to talk to, but many people who come to San Juan del Sur find it to be the perfect place to take Spanish classes in between surf lessons or lying on the beach.Beach in San Juan Del Sur NicaraguaFar from an ‘authentic’ Nicaraguan feeling, San Juan is well-loved by international tourists – a fact which is reflected in the relatively high prices, easily comparable to California, in restaurants and bars throughout the town.

However, eating cheap is still possible by eating in the inexpensive sodas, or local eateries. The term ‘soda’ actually describes cheap Costa Rican food spots, and the tradition has crossed the border thanks to the high number of Costa Rican tourists who choose San Juan del Sur as their own beach getaway. Several budget hostals also have kitchens, making it possible to feel right at home in San Juan del Sur – the perfect place to kick back for several days.

House in San Juan del Sur NicaraguaThe long, sandy beach in town, never very full, is set in a beautiful bay, where the water has nearly no waves at all. There are even better beaches 10 – 20 minutes outside of the town (especially for surfing), and can be reached by one of the surfer shuttles which leave at 10am each day from outside of the countless surf shops, or you can take a taxi for around $10 or rent a bicycle which allows you to explore several of the nearly-deserted beaches up and down the coast. San Juan del Sur has long, wide streets with next to no traffic, safe for both bicycles and pedestrians alike.

Tona Victoria Frost Beer San Juan del Sur NicaraguaNo matter how much of that California feeling you may get, San Juan del Sur has managed to maintain its Nicaraguan charm. Front porches are lined with rocking chairs, vendors selling granizados and Chicha push their carts through the streets and the people are open and genuinely friendly. While the store shelves are lined with Pop Tarts and Oreos, the famous Flor de Caña rum is still cheap as chips, so make sure to have at least one good rum night out , or at least take advantage of the countless happy hour 2×1 beer and cocktail specials.

Starting early is a tradition here, so grab a drink at one of the many beach bars and catch a breathtaking sunset in the bay over the Pacific Ocean, a phenomenon which happens like clockwork nearly every day in this relaxed beach town.
Sunset in San Juan del Sur Nicaragua

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The Corn Islands: Big Corn vs. Little Corn

East beach Little Corn Island

So you’ve read our article on Nicaragua’s Corn Islands and have decided that the off-the-beaten-path Caribbean adventure is indeed worth a visit. The key question now is which of the two islands, Big Corn or Little Corn is right for you.south beach on Big Corn IslandLocated 50 miles off Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, these two islands are nowhere near the better known Caribbean islands, but still have the same stunning features –white-sand beaches, crystal clear water, breathtaking sunsets and palm trees as far as the eye can see. What sets the Corn Islands apart from the more well-known Caribbean islands is the lack of 5* luxury resorts or fancy spa hotels and forget about an afternoon of cocktails at a swim up bar.

What sets the two islands apart is the fact that while Big Corn has an airport, roads, cars, international cuisine options and 24-hour electricity, just a 25 minute boat ride away Little Corn Island is a very remote island where aside from getting out on the water, the only thing to do is relax.

Little Corn Island

Getting to Little Corn is the only real adventure; the rest is truly about relaxation. Little Corn is reached first by flying in to Big Corn from Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, making your way down to the ‘dock’ and jumping in a simple motor boat which takes you to the smaller island. The day before we traveled to Little Corn, one of the boats had capsized at sea, and although rescue boats were immediately at hand and no one was hurt. Pack your belongings water-tight and hold on, because if you are up for that little adventure, you will land on a tiny island without any motorized vehicles and a laid-back way of life.

Little Corn ferryHere, wheelbarrows are the common means of transport. Don’t expect paved roads (although on the West side of the island there is a paved footpath), and there’s no electricity either – at least not before 2pm each day, so switch off your Blackberries, pull up a hammock and get ready to relax for a few days.

Walk around the 1.6 sq km island in about two hours, and cross from west to east side in about 10 to 15 minutes. During the day, you might meet Frank, who will climb up a tree and cut down a coconut for you for a buck. You can do it yourself for free, as did fellow vacationers we met here.

Frank cutting coconuts on Little Corn IslandIf crossing at night, bring a flashlight, as the main east-west path is actually a trail through the jungle, although the closer to the beach you get, the path is lit by the millions of stars in the sky. Take a boat trip out off the coast and snorkel, or join the many avid divers who enjoy the great diving off the coast of the Corn Islands.

In terms of food, don’t expect anything fancy. Shops sell basic essentials and there are a few simple restaurants along the main path on the West side of the island, including a pizza place, a café with muffins and quesadillas, and a few places that serve cheap, local food. The island doesn’t have an ATM (yet) and cash is essential, so make sure you get enough cash while you are on Big Corn Island.

Huevos Rancheros on Little Corn Island

Who might prefer Little Corn Island?

  • Adventurous travelers who don’t mind packing a flashlight and insect repellent when going on vacation
  • Travelers who like to get to know a place and its people well, and meet other travelers
  • Families with kids looking for family-friendly adventure
  • People who don’t mind basic accommodation, are not freaked out by the occasional spider or mind eating at local hole-in-the-walls

Fresh catch on Little Corn Island

Where to stay on Little Corn Island

We loved that even with quite a few hotels for such a small island, it felt like an unexplored piece of land in the middle of the ocean. The beaches are gorgeous and yet completely empty, the people are friendly and you can get a good feeling of how the islanders live rather than being tucked away in a resort somewhere.los delfinos hotel room Little Corn Island

  • Grace’s – Cool Spot for shoestring travelers with no fear of insects (US$15 for a beachfront bungalow for 2 people with shared bathroom, US$25 with private bathroom, no wi-fi)
  • Carlito’s for travelers who don’t need much comfort (Beachfront bungalows with private bathroom US$30, no wi-fi)
  • Hotel Los Delfinos for the budget conscious (US$50 for a double room with hot shower, free wi-fi)
  • Little Corn Beach & Bungalow for a bit more comfort (from US$32 + 15% tax for a double room with hot shower, free wi-fi) You can read our full review here.
  • Yemaya Island Hideaway – The most exquisite hotel on Little Corn Island. The bungalows are stylish and spacious and each one comes with its own private plunge pool. Pure luxury! Rates start at US$98, depending on the season.

corn island hotels

Big Corn Island

Coming from the mainland, Big Corn feels tiny, but returning here from Little Corn, the island earns its name. The population is 7 times that of Little Corn, and yet Big Corn still feels sleepy. The island is still walkable at 6sq km, although here hopping in a cheap cab makes much more sense to get from A to B. You can easily cut across the airport runway whenever the two planes that fly in and out each day are gone.

big corn island beach Despite the more developed infrastructure on Big Corn, there is not an awful lot to do here either. No shopping, little entertainment and relatively few hotels scattered around the isle. The electricity is on 24 hours a day, which makes getting online easier, and lazing around watching TV possibly an all-day activity.

Diving and snorkeling are possible from here, as is cruising around in a golf cart. enjoy the fabulous beaches, drink cocktails while watching the sun set on Southwest Bay beach, where the Arenas hotel even has white leather lounge sofas right on the beach. Nicaragua is big into baseball, so fans of the sport (or anyone looking for entertainment) can head to the well-built baseball stadium which turns into the place to be for the entire island once a week.

Sunset on Big Corn IslandBig Corn Island does not feel as secluded as Little Corn and is missing that deserted island feeling. Whereas on Little Corn, you can spend your days walking through the luscious green coconut palm tree woods to find small beaches around the island, Big Corn has only a few beaches (though bigger than the ones on LC). In fact, the whole north part of the island seems rather rough and not suitable for swimming.

The food choices on Big Corn are considerably more expensive, but the island has everything from Caribbean and Indian curries, to Italian, vegetarian and top sea food choices.

Who might prefer Big Corn Island?

  • Travelers who prefer a little bit more luxury and easier travel options.
  • Those who prefer taxis or golf carts rather than doing everything on foot.
  • Tourists who just want to relax in one place rather than doing much exploring.

south beach big corn island

Where to stay on Big Corn Island

The range of hotels is wider on Big Corn, with more shoestring cheapies as well as a higher level of luxury.

  • Beachview Hotel for shoestring travelers (US$15 for a double with shared bathroom, US$25 with private bathroom, TV and AC)
  • Martha’s B&B – great rooms, brand new TVs and delicious breakfast (US$50 + 15% tax, free wi-fi)
  • Arenas Hotel for a comfortable beach vacation (rooms starting at US$75 for 2 people, free wi-fi)
  • Casa Canada for the most luxurious getaway and the only infinity pool on the island (US$65 + 15% tax, free wi-fi, including breakfast)

Marthas B&B Big Corn IslandHave you visited the Corn Islands? Which island do you prefer: Little Corn or Big Corn? Where would you go for the perfect Caribbean vacation?

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Reflections: 300 days on the road

Jessie & Jaime cycling along Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast

300 days on the road… almost exactly 10 months of backpacking, or flashpacking, as it were. Looking back on Day 1 arriving in Las Vegas back in April to where we are now, we still can not believe how much life, experience, adventure – and work! – we have been able to squeeze into these 300 days. Although the distance covered takes up a tiny amount of space on a world map, the quality time we have spent in the 8 countries has given us a deep understanding of Central America, Mexico, and Southwestern USA.

The most recent 100 days starts way back in Guatemala, where we finished up a ten week stay – including a much longer stint at Lake Atitlan than we had intended. We also finally said goodbye to Antigua for good (well, for now) and experienced the relaxed vibe on Guatemala’s Caribbean coast, worlds apart from the rest of the country.

After Livingston we spent a couple of weeks in Honduras, including Christmas and New Years. With the exception of Copan Ruinas, the very popular Maya ruins, we felt that we had the country to ourselves, as very few fellow travelers pass through there it seems. We enjoyed the country’s colonial towns of Gracias and Santa Rose, plus the well off-the-beaten track Lake Yojoa. It was here where we spent New Year’s Eve, with nobody but the owners of our hotel, their family, and the 377 different kinds of birds that live around the lake.

Then it was on to Nicaragua, which is Guatemala’s main contender as our favorite country in Central America. We spent six weeks here in January and February and would gladly have stayed longer. We fell in love with the city of Leon (click here our guest post on Suzyguese.com), boarded down a volcano, saw the first wild monkeys on our trip, and ticked the little known Corn Islands off our ‘1000 places to see before you die’ list. We snorkeled off of Little Corn island, and discovered that Belize is still by far the best snorkeling in Central America. We also learned that Honduras is still far from being a tourist-friendly destination whereas Costa Rica is almost an eco-Disneyland.

Costa Rica has been the most surprising country on our trip so far. I first came to the land of Pura Vida back in 1996, returned to live one year here from 1999-2000 and have made a few visits since. Although changes in Costa Rica were always evident, it has been shocking to see just how Americanized the country has become in recent years. My favorite beach in the world and former hippie paradise Montezuma has been overrun by the over 60s no-hablo-espanol crowd wearing socks and sandals. Manuel Antonio was even more of a tourist destination, but at least this area always has been. While you’re spoiled for choice in terms of activities here, and the quality of goods and services in Costa Rica are leaps and bounds ahead of the rest of Central America, the high prices and influx of U.S. ex-pats and their imported US culture has completely altered the easy-going uber-eco-friendly country I fell in love with all those years ago.

Into the Swing of Things

The period of travel fatigue we felt at the 200 days mark seems forever ago, and we are now fully ‘acclimatized’ to the rhythm of balancing travel and work. Our travel skills (trip-planning, awareness, alertness) have massively improved, so that we managed not to have a single terrible travel experience in the past 100 days. As we write this post on our 300th day of travel, the digital nomad lifestyle is so fulfilling that we have no desire to stop and can not wait for the next 100 days.

Globetrottergirls.com – The Re-design

Our website developed the longer we were on the road, and we realized that in order to create a useful resource for budget travelers and tell our own story along the way, Globetrottergirls.com needed a re-design. The site has also become an additional income stream, and we needed a layout which was compatible for ads, as well as optimized for readers to share our posts and participate in conversation through a much better comment system.

Thankfully we found Bundled.co, run by Joanne and Jon, who as digital nomads themselves really understood our needs. We had mentioned using Peopleperhour to land remote gigs in order to support your work & travel habit, so we posted our ad there and could not have been happier with our decision. The pair was always available for us, got back to us quickly, and perfectly understood what we wanted. We can highly recommend them to any bloggers who are looking to re-design their site.The site overhaul was easily the best decision we could have made, as our readership has been steadily growing, we have been able to begin the monetization process, and we have been contacted by countless readers who find our site useful and appreciate our tips, as well as new friends and business partners looking for collaborations on a few exciting travel projects. Watch this space for info on our most recent e-book contribution, coming soon.

Meeting fellow travel bloggers

Since setting off last year, we have met loads of travelers along the way, several of whom we ran in to again even two or three countries later along this Central American Gringo Trail.

However, our tweet-ups with fellow travel bloggers are the most memorable. We all share so much in common, combining a lifestyle of long-term travel and a lot of hard work. We have been lucky to meet up with two great bloggers in the travel community so far in Costa Rica.

We stopped by Playa del Coco, where we had drinks with The Traveling Philosopher, Spencer Spellman, before we meeting up with Nomadic Matt on the Nicoya peninsula and traveling to Manuel Antonio together where we spent our days working, hiking and seeing who could get tanner faster. (Anyone care to guess who won…sorry, I’m gloating…)

In the next couple of weeks, we are hoping to have two more tweet-ups and we’re very excited for both. In Panama hopefully we will spend some time with Breakaway Backpacker, Jaime, before meeting up with Erin and Simon from NeverEndingVoyage (a fellow digital nomad couple who left England for good!), in Panama City before we hop on a plane to Munich.

Change of plans

Yes, that’s right….we’re headed to Europe in our next 100 days. While we originally thought we would move on to South America after Panama, our plans have changed rather unexpected. A huge advantage of this digital nomad deal is that there are no rules. We have no set itinerary, and we are free to change our plans whenever we’d like. A fantastic house-sit opportunity in German Alps came our way, and after 9 months straight of Central America travel, we were more than ready for a spontaneously refreshing change.

We will use the house in the Alps as a base to explore Newschwanstein Castle, go up on Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze, eat hundreds of pretzels, see some more of Austria and breathe in buckets of fresh spring air while hiking in the mountains. Oh, plus catch up on a million and one projects, ideas, and blog posts we have on our minds.

After our house-sit we’ll travel to Italy and Spain before returning to North America in June, when we are headed to Canada, we are doing another house-sit, and exploring Montreal, Toronto and the Canadian countryside. From there it’s New York City mid-August….and then our plans are not certain. Road trip through the U.S. South to New Orleans? Down the eastern Seaboard? Will we continue our journey through Latin America afterwards or go to Asia first? We don’t know! But then again, we don’t know if any of these plans are certain. If there is one thing we have learned in the past 100 days, is that we are free to be anywhere in the whole world the two of us would like to be!

Continue here for our tops and flops of our last 100 days on the road.

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The Tops and Flops of 300 days of travel

Dani at work on Little Corn Island Nicaragua

Last week we celebrated our ‘300 days of travel’ milestone and reflected on the last 100 days, which we spent in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Here’s where talk about the best and the worst things to happen to us in the last 100 days. It’s not all suntans and glamour (although, most of it actually was this time!)

Top travel moments

Hiking volcanoes
The Central American isthmus is located on what’s known as the Ring of Fire – a chain of volcanoes which stretches down the pacific side of each country. The volcanoes, some active and some dormant, can often be climbed, and in the last 100 days we climbed two volcanoes. First Dani conquered Pacaya, the popular active volcano outside of Antigua. She saw glowing lava and amazing views of other volcanoes after the intense climb.

Two countries later, in Leon, Nicaragua, the both of us climbed Cerro Negro volcano. Twice. In a row. We signed up to go Volcano Boarding with Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit organization who offer two runs for $30. We took the ‘deal’, but didn’t realize that volcano boarding down twice would mean climbing up the steep black giant twice in the blazing ninety degree sun (35 Celcius). The heat, the climb, the speeding down a volcano on toboggans we schlepped up the volcano was an intense, but one-of-a-kind experience.

Going on vacation
This part might confuse those readers who think we are on a permanent vacation…but we took a week-long vacation during the last 100 days. Traveling and working full time can be exhausting, and especially after speeding through Eastern Guatemala and Honduras, we were in need of some rest and relaxation when we arrived to Leon, Nicaragua. So we went to a good old-fashioned travel agency and booked two hand-written tickets to the Corn Islands, off of Nicaragua’s Moskito Coast in the Caribbean. We spent a week on these tiny remote islands in the Caribbean, doing nothing but relaxing in a hammock, exploring the islands and swimming in the ocean (and worked a little bit, we have to admit, but really only a little…each day).

Cooking Indio Viejo with Doña Ana
While in Leon, we signed up to learn to cook a traditional Nicaraguan dish, Indio Viejo (veggie version minus the chicken). We went to the market and bought those strange ingredients we never know what they are for (little bags of red powder, for example, which turn out to perfectly flavor and color the dish we made). We learned next how to make tortillas at a very busy but basic tortilleria in Leon’s indigenous neighborhood before bringing the tortillas up the street to the welcoming Dona Aña’s house. We had a great time not only learning to prepare and cook the dish, but also spending quality time chatting away with her and her daughter while enjoying the fruits of our labor.

Favorite places

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
More than once we have proclaimed our love for Lake Atitlan, the most beautiful lake in Central America. We have see many of the lakes in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, but hands down, Lake Atitlan is the most beautiful and peaceful lake of all.

Leon, Nicaragua
Leon, Nicaragua is not only one of our favorite places in all of Central America, but on our trip so far. The second biggest city in Nicaragua after Managua, Leon has all the mod-cons you would expect from a city of nearly 200,000, but you could easily forget what century you are in when joining the Nicas in their circle of rocking chairs watching the sunset behind the constant stream of horse and buggy transportation galloping by.  The spirit of the Sandinista revolution still can be felt among the people and from the bullet holes in buildings, the murals around town, and the fact that this city has completely blocked out any big American fast food chains.

San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
A little town on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast just over the border to Costa Rica, San Juan del Sur’s wide streets, clean well-constructed beach promenade, colorful little beach houses plus a mix of blonde-haired surfer boys and dark-skinned locals make San Juan del Sur feel like a Nicaraguan version of Venice Beach. Gringo ex-pats who love that California feelin’ have stayed to open several breakfast spots, restaurants and bars. The locally-owned, most seafood, eateries are geared toward Costa Rican weekend tourists. The vast beach in town is set within a large cove, which keeps waves to a minimum for easy dips into the water while sunbathing, and the string of beaches outside of San Juan are even more stunning with perfect surfing. The sunsets on all the beaches are heaven.

Samara Beach, Costa Rica
Looking back, we have spent time on quite a few beaches over the last 100 days – the Corn Islands off Nicaragua’s Caribbean, Poneloya and San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, and a stint on Honduras’ stretch of the Caribbean, but the best has been the beaches of Costa Rica. Our personal favorite, so far, is Samara Beach, located on the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Ocean. While the ex-pat community has moved in, the relaxed small village feeling remains. Samara beach is set in a picture perfect bay, with its sprawling white sand lined with palm trees stretching for miles so you can walk for hours. This is a great spot to play in the waves and to relax for a few days.

Most disappointing places

Omoa, Honduras
According to our 2009 guide book, Omoa is a cute little fishing village off the tourist track with perfect, deserted Caribbean beaches. Sounds right up our alley, and shortly after crossing the border from Guatemala, we arrived with high expectations. Beach? What beach? Due to construction of the oil and gas company nearby, the beaches in town were completely eroded, with water coming right up to the edge of beachside restaurants. Beaches outside of town down ‘lush, secluded paths’ actually wind through shady, litter-strewn neighborhoods. The beaches here are deserted, but this is due to the piles of garbage all over the beach. After a 10-minute rest and water re-fueling, we left without dunking so much as a toe in the water, back into town.

Granada, Nicaragua
Granada is almost always referred to as the prettiest town in Nicaragua – and its well-manicured town center, freshly painted cathedral and colonial houses are certainly the best maintained in the country. Taking all this in takes, at most, two hours – stroll through the park and up the Calle La Calzada restaurant strip, around some of the nicer hotels. Other than that, we couldn’t find anything special about Granada. Gone was the authentic charm of Leon, filled with passion and enjoyment of life. With everything in Granada geared at impressing tourists, we found tons of over-priced tourist traps, supersize tour groups and harassing, greedy street vendors. Had we known what to expect in Granada, we probably would have spent more time in Leon.

Montezuma, Costa Rica
The year is 1999 and Montezuma is a tiny hippie town at the very base of the Nicoya peninsula with roughly ten hotels, a string of beaches each totally different and equally beautiful, and an average visitor/local age of 25. Fast forward to 2011, and the hippie factor has doubled, but the old American geezers in socks and sandals factor has gone from 0 to in the dozens. There is a supermarket with German chocolate, American chips, Italian wine, even two different kinds of tofu. Hotels, of which there must now be 50, have room rates reaching well into the hundreds, and the once tranquil town is now choked with rental SUVs and 4x4s. The long walk along all the beaches is still gorgeous, and we had the best beach day swimming in the waves, but the bliss was bittersweet.

Travel recommendations

In addition to Samara, Leon and San Juan del Sur, we recommend the following places which we visited during our last 100 days:

Livingston, Guatemala

Only reachable by boat, Livingston is home to Guatemala’s Caribbean culture, a world away from the Maya culture prevalent throughout the rest of the country. Combined with a boat ride from Rio Dulce along a lush, animal filled jungle scenery, followed by impressive white cliffs of the Cueva de la Vaca gorge and finally reaching the estuary to the Caribbean sea Livingston makes a great trip, even though it doesn’t have any spectacular beaches (though there are some nicer beaches a half hour boat ride north of town).

Corn Islands, Nicaragua
If you are looking to combine an affordable Caribbean island vacation with a trip to an off-the-beaten track destination, the Corn Islands are the perfect place. Located about 70 km off Nicaraguan’s Caribbean coast, the two tiny islands of Big Corn and Little Corn offer endless, empty white-sand beaches, adequate snorkeling, hundreds of palm trees and friendly locals who hook you up with fresh coconuts or fish fresh out of the ocean.

Worst travel moments

Getting sick in the Honduran fishing village, Omoa
Omoa (see ‘Most disappointing places’ above) is so tiny, it doesn’t have a supermarket, or even a bank. It was a Sunday when Dani began to suffer the wrath of tourist sickness, which meant that if there was a pharmacy, it certainly wasn’t open on a Sunday. Plus, we were about to run out of money, already depleting our limited emergency supply of dollars. Luckily, after two days, Dani was able to take the bus, and we left for Copan, where we knew there would be a clinic, but it sucked being stuck in a place like Omoa when sick.

Bug bites
Bugs love me (Jess). You name it, and if it bites or stings, that bug is aimed at me and my ‘sweet blood’. In Granada, mosquitoes ate me, more specifically my legs, alive. The mosquitoes are so bad in this city on a lake that some of the restaurants keep Off! bug spray on hand for diners. During my time in the city, however, I would imagine incidence of bites for everyone else was at an all-time low as these little vampire sucked my blood exclusively. Especially after the Dengue incident in Guatemala, I am especially spiteful toward mosquitoes. Luckily I dodged dengue this time around, but the scars on my legs will long remain.

Top travel mishaps

Bad planning: Stranded in Tegucigalpa on New Year’s Day
On 1 January we packed our stuff and left the beautiful lake Yojoa at 9am in hopes of reaching Esteli, Nicaragua by nightfall. An ambitious journey, but doable in a day. Not on a Holi-day however. First we waited an hour on the side of a highway for a bus to take us to Tegucigulpa. From there, we jumped in a taxi to where the buses to the border leave – but not on holidays. After all the to-ing and fro-ing, and re-planning, and locals telling us without a doubt that we couldn’t make it before dark, we accepted our fate of spending the night in Central America’s least safe capital. The first budget option in our guide book was shut down and the second one may have been a by-the-hour type place. We ended up overpaying for a mid-range hotel and an over-priced pizza as we comfort-ate a Pizza Hut and waiting for trip to Nicaragua to start again in the morning. The next morning we headed out to grab a coffee and have a look around the city center, and Tegucigalpa turned out not to be as scary as we thought (aside from all the gun shots and subsequent police sirens all night).

Top food moments

Gallo Pinto
This dish of rice and beans, cooked together with peppers, onions and Salsa Lizano, is the typical dish of Nicaragua and Costa Rica. It is mostly eaten for breakfast but can also come with lunch or dinner. We both cannot get enough of it, no matter what time of day it is!

Baleadas
Baleadas are traditional Honduran food – a big flour tortilla, filled with eggs, refried beans, cream and sometimes avocado, it is usually eaten for breakfast and actually very similar to a breakfast burrito. Dani loved baleadas, but they didn’t do much for me.

Pizzeria Monna Lisa in Granada, Nicaragua
Spoiler alert: This is not street food, it’s not cheap, and it’s not even local. However, Monna Lisa serves the best pizza in all of Central America. Dani, in her love-induced post-pizza haze, would even go as far as saying the best pizza outside of Italy. The pizzas are thin crust with mouth-watering dough, baked in a real Italian stone oven. Monna Lisa also invented to-die-for dessert: Chocolate Calzones. Sure, they call it the Monna Lisa special or something, but it is pizza dough formed into a long parcel, filled with nearly an entire bar of melted chocolate and served with more chocolate sauce on top. Dani would have stayed in Granada just for this dish!

El Desayunazo in Leon, Nicaragua
This little breakfast place is a hot spot in Leon, especially at the weekends you have to come early to secure a table. Equally loved by locals, expats and tourists, El Desayunazo deserves the crown for Leon’s (or even Nicaragua’s) best breakfast place. You can choose between a large variety of Nica breakfasts (gallo pinto, eggs, cheese) and ‘Gringo’ breakfasts such as pancakes or waffles. And the best: bottomless coffee!

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Polaroid of the week: Morning deliveries in Granada, Nicaragua

polaroidoftheweekphoto11

One of the things that do not stop to amaze us during our travels through Central America is how much the women in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras or Nicaragua manage to carry on their heads, even balancing their load while getting on and off buses, without ever using their hands.

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The day we cooked an Old Indian

Orange truck in Leon Nicaragua

We arrived sweaty and hopeful at the La Siesta Perdida hotel in Leon for our Indio Viejo cooking course – sweaty, thanks to a ten-minute walk through the unforgiving 9am heat; and hopeful, since the course had already been rescheduled once the day before. We stepped through the still-closed hostel doors and the bar reeked of that unmistakable morning-after party smell. A Dutch girl sitting behind the bar jumped up and introduced herself as our guide for the day.

Not exactly who we had expected to teach us to prepare a traditional Nicaraguan dish, our looks turned confused, before she explained she would accompany us to the market, help us pick up the necessary ingredients and together we head over to Doña Ana’s house, where the cooking course would take place.

By 9.30am, Leon’s market is always buzzing. Fruit and vegetable sellers interrupt gossip sessions to shout prices and deals to passersby who bargain their way along the rows of stands. The two of us feel right at home shopping in Central American markets, and were excited when handed a list of ingredients and set off to hunt out all the ingredients for Indio Viejo, or ‘Old Indian’, a traditional Nicaraguan dish (though normally cooked with meat, we were making a special vegetarian version).

Market leonDespite being fluent in Spanish, there were several items we did not know, like achiote, a red powder that both flavors and colors soups and stews. We chatted more than usual to the vendors, learning about new spices. We were introduced to a national drink, a pink milky corn-based drink called Chicha, sampled some very salty cubes of fried cheese and were shocked to discover the dubious culinary specialty of freshly prepared lizards. Of these, thankfully only the achiote was on our list, along with fresh tomatoes, peppers, plantains, oranges, onions, corn meal, salt and oil.

Hands full with small plastic bags, we joined 20 locals in the back of a pick up truck, the local public transportation, and held on for dear life as we lurched forward and slammed on the brakes across town to Subtiava, the indigenous area of Leon. Although it was fascinating to see this part of town where few tourists visit, this neighborhood was not quite what we pictured when we signed up. This was our first cooking class ever, and we had both always imagined standing behind a large counter with stainless steel knives and large pots and pans sizzling and boiling away on a fancy electric stove. Perhaps we had been picturing the course in Italy, not in Nicaragua.

We hopped off the still moving truck, walked ten minutes, turned into a dirt yard, walked past a wooden ring used for cock fighting and were greeted by Doña Ana, who showed us where we could set down the ingredients in the outdoor kitchen next to her tiny tin house.  Here we would prepare the ingredients, and the cooking itself was to be done in a giant steel pot on an open flame out in the yard.

nicaragua indio viejo
But first we were led three houses up the dirt road to prepare our own tortillas to accompany the dish. The four women who work here each make over 2,000 tortillas per day at this mini tortilla factory – some for the neighbors, a few restaurants, but mostly enough for the hospital in town. The women were too busy flattening, patting, twisting and flipping tortillas (and singing along to evangelical gospel music between giggly gossip sessions) to do more than quickly show us the ropes.

Tortilla making Jess
Tortillas were surprisingly difficult to make, and the two of us must have looked pretty silly saddled up to the table making one tortilla every five minutes. After we churned out ten, we paid the ladies and went back to make lunch.

Doña Ana couldn’t have been a better teacher, and while we prepared the Indio Viejo, we learned all about her husband, her children, the grandchildren, and many of the neighbors as well, played with the cats, laughed at the roosters and ooh-ed and aw-ed over the week old puppies in the back yard.
The dish itself is actually a breeze to make, similar to a nice, thick stew, and as soon as it was ready, we sat down with Doña Ana and her daughter, who told us more stories as we stuffed ourselves silly with our vegetarian version of this classic Nica dish.

nicaragua indio viejoAlthough cooking this old Indian wasn’t exactly the type of cooking class we may have had in mind, the entire experience went way beyond preparing a recipe. The insight into the Nicaraguan way of life was priceless, from meeting the tortilla makers to seeing inside Dona Ana’s very simple two-room house, meeting her family and hearing all the neighborhood gossip. It was an unforgettable cultural experience which we can highly recommend to anyone. Speaking Spanish is a definite advantage, and this is definitely the perfect way to practice your skills as well.

Cook an Old Indian in Leon Nicaragua

This tour was available through Nicasi Tours at La Siesta Perdida. The company focuses on intercultural experiences rather than adventure tours.

How to Cook an Indio Viejo / Old Indian

(for the veggie version, just leave out the meat)

Ingredients for four people

3 yellow plantains
Tomatoes to taste
Onions to taste
2 tsp of achiote paste (similar to paprika)
Orange juice to taste
¼ liter of vegetable oil
1 bunch of peppermint
Salt
Tortilla dough (enough for 10 tortillas)
500 gr of beef

Vegetables for Indio Viejo nicaraguaPreparation

If making a non-vegetarian version, cook the meat with salt until it softens. In the meantime, cut the veggies into long slices and plantains in cubes. Mix two liters of water with the tortilla dough and achiote and mix until there are no lumps. Mix in salt and orange juice. Add beef and vegetables into the pot and place pot over a high flame. Stir often while mixture boils –  lumps will occur if you don’t stir. To thicken, add more dough. For a more colorful dish, add more achiote.

Enjoy!

 
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Nicaragua’s Caribbean: Are the Corn Islands worth a visit?

big corn at sunset

Before we had even eaten the free cookie and coffee, the captain had already turned on the fasten seat belt signs and just 50 minutes after the flight took off from Managua International Airport, we were landing on an air strip set in green fields dotted with tin houses, palm trees and Caribbean English speakers. We had arrived on Big Corn Island, one of two Caribbean islands of Nicaragua (the other, smaller island is very appropriately named Little Corn Island). We had decided to visit the Corn Islands on a whim – we were in Leon, in mainland Nicaragua, where we were sweating so profusely in the unbearable heat that we ended up walking into the next best travel agency we could find and asked them to book us on the next flight to the Corn Islands.

There is no feeling like stepping out into the Caribbean. No matter where you are – The Dominican Republic, Barbados, Belize, or here on the Corn Islands, the air, the white sand and that easygoing feeling hit immediately and from the time your feet are on solid Caribbean ground, your hand feels empty whenever not clutching an alcoholic beverage.  However, if you are looking for an all-inclusive beach getaway involving hours on a sprawling white sand beach, swim-up bars and all night dancing, the Corn Islands are not for you.Big Corn Beach from plane

What are the Corn Islands?

The Corn Islands are two dots in the ocean 70 kilometers (50 miles) east of Nicaragua’s (in)famous Moskito coast. Their population, combined, is just under 8000 people, with Big Corn being home to over 3/4 of the total. Although tourism plays a major economic role on both Corn Islands, both Big Corn and Little Corn maintain a well-kept-secret feeling. Hotels don’t line the shores but rather dot them, and while there are four-star hotels, none are over-sized or even large and there is plenty of budget accommodation on the Corn Islands as well.

Beach shacksDrinkers can stay out late on either island, but are stuck with tiny tiki bars or hotel rooms, as there are no nightclubs on either island. Upon landing on Big Corn we couldn’t help but giggle at the arrogance of this place calling itself ‘big’. Upon returning from the 45 minute boat ride back from Little Corn a week later, however, Big Corn’s paved streets, horn-honking taxis and larger hotels felt like the big city next to Little Corn Island, where there are only paths, no paved roads at all, no cars, no golf carts, not even many bicycles. The island is so small and relaxed, the only gear you need to get around are your two feet and fins and a mask should you decide to dive or snorkel while on the island. Little Corn just got electricity a few years back, and still only comes on for half the day.

Sure, Big Corn has 24 hour electricity, but this doesn’t make it the luxurious island destination you might imagine before booking tickets. Life on both islands is quiet, people don’t have much and no one really seems to care. The remote location means that many times things don’t work, or they run out. This makes the holiday to the Corn Islands more venturesome, but in the end, especially on Little Corn Island, there is nothing more to do than read a book, snorkel or dive, and relax in the 30 C / 85 F year-round temperature.

visit the corn islands

Who would want to visit the Corn Islands?

Holidaymakers

The Corn Islands really are the perfect get-away for stressed-out city folk, but only for those looking for an exotic, off-the-beaten path location reachable only by a flight to Managua, short flight over to Big Corn, and then a 40 minute boat-ride to Little Corn and back again. For families with kids in particular, Little Corn island seems a great option, as the hotels on the far side of the island are remote, have plenty of space, and the kids can play all day. At the Little Corn Beach and Bungalow, we watched two families with a combined total of seven kids tie coconuts to ropes and make up games which required dragging them around a makeshift racecourse for at least five hours. Bet they were in bed early that night! For all-inclusive types, the Corn Islands are a no go, you might rather look into Barbados holidays where you can find plenty of inexpensive vacation resorts.

Visitors to Nicaragua

For those who visit Nicaragua’s well-worn tourist sites, we would definitely recommend adding the Corn Islands to your itinerary. Sure you might get enough beach in San Juan del Sur and island like on Ometepe Island, but the Corn Islands are a bumpy five to eight hours boat ride off the coast, and offer a Caribbean side of Nicaragua that can only be felt here. If you are a fan of Nicaragua, then the islanders living out in the middle of the wide ocean are an integral and irreplaceable piece of the Nicaraguan cultural identity puzzle. We met a great Alaskan couple who chose Nicaragua as their honeymoon destination, and they chose the Corn Islands as the beach getaway portion and spent the rest of the time exploring Granada, Leon and a couple of country/lakeside locations. In their case, the Corn Islands were the perfect relaxation part of an exciting three week getaway.

For city breakers and culture vultures, the Corn Islands are not recommended.

visit the corn islands

Backpackers and Budget Travelers

Despite the silver-haired tourists that flood the mainland town of Granada, Nicaragua most tourists in Nicaragua appear to still be young backpackers or budget travelers working their way either North or South through Central America. During our time on the Corn Islands, we did not come across many of these travelers at all. Mostly couples and families who were either on vacation or were seriously into diving.

During our stay on the Corn Islands, we spent  shockingly over our budget. This was a full-blown Caribbean vacation rather than just another place to travel to, putting both Big Corn and Little Corn Island out of reach of the average backpacker.

visit the corn islandsThe journey to arrive on the Corn Islands is either complicated or generally above a backpacker’s budget. Travelers can choose to take the six hour bus ride east from Managua through the jungle and the Moskito coast to Bluefields, overnight, and then take a choppy five to eight hour boat ride to Big Corn island which comes out cheaper than booking an $170 round-trip flight from Managua to Big Corn… but not by enough to make that trip worth it. Once you get to the islands, you can stay to a strict budget, but it is a challenge. All basic supplies are flown in and therefore more expensive and hotel rates run high. Travelers on a tight budget should stick to San Juan del Sur (or all of Costa Rica) for beaches, wait until the Mexican Riviera Maya where the sand is just as white, the water just as deliciously chartreuse and there are plenty of hostels just a short walk from an easy to reach bus station.corn island hotels

In general, is it worth it to visit the Corn Islands?

The snorkeling and diving off Belize or Honduras is better, the Caribbean feel can be had in  Bocas del Toro (Panama), Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast (Puerto Viejo / Manzanillo) or on Caye Caulker in Belize for less money and with less effort. However, if you’ve got the extra cash or the desire to check off one of the 1,000 places to see before you die off your list, go for it.

If you are a frequent Caribbean traveler who is tired of the culture-less package deals, then a trip to the Corn Islands is worth it, just to see the unchanged multi-lingual, multi-cultural mix that is truly Caribbean and at the same time 100% Nicaraguan, then the Corn Islands, both Big Corn and Little Corn, could not be more worth a visit.

Little Corn bay1
If you decide to visit the Corn Islands, check out our post: Big Corn vs. Little Corn Island.

Have you heard of the Corn Islands? Are they on your list of places to see? Or have you been to the Corn Islands? Would you agree with our opinion?

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Our full review of Little Corn Beach & Bungalow, Nicaragua

big corn at sunset

This is our review of Little Corn Beach & Bungalow – if you’re not sure if Little Corn Island is for you, read our article The Corn Islands: Little Corn vs Big Corn.

Arriving at Little Corn Beach & Bungalow (LCBB) feels like how Tom Hanks must have felt in the movie Castaway, except we were there on purpose. The remote Caribbean island is either a six to eight hour boat ride from Nicaragua’s Moskito Coast or a one-hour flight from Managua to Big Corn Island, followed by an adventurous 25-minute boat ride to Little Corn, the appropriately named smaller of the two islands.

Assuming you have called ahead to reserve a room (a must!), you will be greeted at the dock by an English speaking member of LCBB staff, all of whom outside of the owners Kristine and Scott are native Nicaraguans. The owners are from Colorado and only opened Little Corn Beach and Bungalow at the end of 2009, which makes their inclusion into the book 1,000 Things to Do before you die just that much more impressive.

Suitcases belonging to LCBB guests, or in our case backpacks, are loaded into a wheelbarrow and the long trek to the hotel begins along a dirt path which ends at the beach on the other side of the island. The twenty-minute walk snakes between plots of land, past houses and shortly, deep into the forest. No signs indicate your path, just the well-worn grass and it would have been impossible to find the hotel otherwise, which lies just a three minute walk along the nearly deserted white sand beach.Little Corn Beach & Bungalow reviewOnce we (finally) reached Little Corn Beach & Bungalow the owners welcomed us and gave us a run down of how the eco-friendly island hotel works, from recycling and purifying rainwater to drink and reduced rate water bottle refills to water-saving shower methods and Little Corn’s reduced electricity. The island’s generator is not turned on until 2pm each day, which means no electricity to make the breakfast and no wi-fi until mid-afternoon each day, all the way until the wee hours of the morning, around 3am, when power is cut again.

Little Corn Beach & Bungalow: The full review

The LCBB is set up as nine bungalows in a slight U shape, all open onto the beach, with two chairs on a front porch facing the sea. Each bungalow is named after a famous shipwreck – we stayed in the Gilligan Bungalow. The theme in each room is subtle, not cheesy, and the beds are so deliciously comfortable that falling asleep to the sound of the waves, not 60 feet away, couldn’t be more relaxing. We would love to be able to give more information about the rooms, but it was very difficult to nail down the owners for more than a few seconds at a time  to learn more about the place.Little Corn Beach & BungalowThe open area between the bungalows and the beach is filled with no less than five hammocks slung between the perfect hammock-hanging palm trees. Although it appears that nature created this amazing setting naturally, watching the way Kristine and Scott spend the day hard at work makes us think that even this area was all part of a master plan to create the most relaxing, secluded space on the Corn Islands. This goal would be an undeniable accomplishment, judging by our sloth-like behavior on our Corn Island vacation. This is all a carefully constructed illusion, indeed, as there is a $10 a night cheapy just next door (no particular name, these cabins are very basic, but the ‘hotel’ also comes with a kitchen, great for saving money on the overpriced island.)Little Corn Beach & Bungalow reviewThe hotel beach restaurant, charmingly named the ‘Turning Turtle’, is also right out front, with five tables and a games corner. The food left much to be desired (See Room for Improvement below), but Jack Johnson and Bob Marley wafting softly from the speakers  kept alive the perfect beach feeling at Little Corn Beach and Bungalow. Admittedly, breakfast was a treat each morning. Meals start at US$3.50 and are all under US$6. Creative dishes include the ‘Island Benedict’ or ‘Caribbean French Toast’, plus a fairly authentic “Nica”, or local Nicaraguan, breakfast. There is also bottomless coffee for US$1.50 during breakfast.

Stand Out Features: Little Corn Beach & Bungalow

The beach front hammocks

The hammock area at LCBB sits within a well-maintained garden with perfect beach views is ridiculously relaxing. The on-site bar and restaurant makes it too easy to grab  a bite or have a drink in the hammocks as well.

Little Corn Beach & Bungalow review

The games corner

The beach front restaurant has a little games corner with couches for those bad weather days, as well as in the evenings, when the secluded beach area offers nothing more than a walk on the beach instead.

Snorkeling equipment for rent

LCBB’s prices are in dollars rather than the local cordobas, making drinks, dinner and snacks very overpriced. One great deal at LCBB is the daily snorkeling equipment rental, available for $5 for 24 hours. Go on a tour, possibly arranged by the hotel, rather than snorkeling alone near the shore. You will see much more this way for only $10, as the water near land is dark and not meant for snorkeling.

Room for improvement:

Vegetarian food options

For all it’s quirkiness and creative name choices, this supposedly eco-friendly hotel does not spread its passion to animals or air miles. There are next to no veggie-friendly meals, and the four-course meal for dinner each night (around $13, not cheap by Nicaraguan standards) just leaves out the meat portion of the main dish (leaving rice, veggies and a little salad) without reducing the price or offering a vegetarian main dish.

The menu is a meat-heavy American menu compared to its remote island location, and while some of the fish is locally sourced, the large list of meat options for lunch and dinner must need to be flown in (the cake, on the other hand, is deliciously and locally handmade). Also, the four-course dinner happens every night, and no other smaller or a la carte options are available, so diners are forced to eat the whole dinner or walk in the dark to another restaurant. Safety isn’t an issue on this tiny island, but it would be more comfortable to be able to order off the lunch menu or maybe just a side of fries with a beer.

The bunkhouse

We could only reserve a spot in the bunkhouse for two of our nights, as LCBB is really that popular. The bunkhouse is the ‘budget’ accommodation option at $35-$40. A normal-sized cabin is split in two, and we slept on bunk beds. The building quality was much worse than the beautiful cabins out front, the bathroom was so see-through so guests can hear and smell the other guests doing their business. The walls were also so thin you can hear even the slightest bit of ‘business’ going on in the bedroom, too.  We felt immense relief once we moved into our own little Gilligan cabin.

Little Corn Beach & Bungalow

For more recent reviews of Little Corn Beach & Bungalow, check out the verified guest reviews on Booking.com.

Little Corn Beach & Bungalow Review: The Verdict

Little Corn Beach & Bungalow is an excellent Caribbean getaway for any budget traveler who is ready for a relaxing splurge, for families who need a safe place to let their kids run around while relaxing with a book in a hammock, or as a couple looking for a romantic beach-getaway in an off-the-beaten-path destination. LCBB is probably the best spot to enjoy is the perfect Robinson Crusoe island vacation – as long as you are not a vegetarian, not on a strict budget and do not require very personalized attention.

Location: On the South East side of the island, follow the cross-island path through the jungle or get picked up from the ferry boat

Price: Standard cabin with en-suite bathroom US$64 low season/ $74 high season, deluxe cabin with kitchen US$85/$94, bunk bed with shared bathroom US$17.50/$20 per person

LGBT Friendly: not especially, this is a family-oriented hotel and we are pretty sure they thought we were ‘friends’.

Amenities: Wi-fi, games  & books, beach, on-site restaurant, hammocks

Digital Nomad Friendly: The Wi-Fi here is satellite and works great, but only from 2pm due to electricity rationing.

Website: http://www.littlecornbb.com/

Little Corn Beach & Bungalow

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Polaroid of the week: Climbing for coconuts on Little Corn Island

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We met Frank walking through the jungle on Little Corn Island. For $1.50, he offered to climb up the tree and cut two coconuts open with his machete for us. You don’t turn down coconuts, and you sure don’t turn down a man with a machete in a jungle. So, Frank made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, and we had a delicious lunch of fresh coconut and coconut milk. You can’t beat this island life.

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Polaroid of the week: Old school transportation in Leon, Nicaragua

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The streets of Nicaragua are filled with all kinds of transportation – cars, buses, bikes, bici-taxis, and the covered pick-up truck stuffed with locals. No form of transportation is as near to our hearts, however, as the horse-drawn carriage. These are not over-priced tourist rides around Central Park. Whether the ‘drivers’ are cowboys, workers or entire families, not an hour  goes by without seeing horses proudly and equally sharing the streets with cars and buses.

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