Northern Mountains and Islands of Corn

Our ventures to the mountainous north of Nicaragua took us first to the town of Matagalpa. Altitude seems to make quite a difference to climate in this country and the intense heat of Leon and Granada soon felt like a thing of the past.

As in much of Nicaragua, murals are a regular sight. The causes almost always being worthy ones.

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We took one of the many suggested hikes in the area, finding our way through farmland and coffee / banana plantations and were treated to the occasional impressive panoramic view of the town as well as surrounding peaks along the way.

A large variety of shops – closely packed around the centre – appeared whichever direction we walked in. Some more brightly presented than others to attract custom in such competitive trading conditions!

One of our top eating spots, a Mexican restaurant run by a friendly Mexican / Nicaraguan husband and wife, features a full wall dedication to Frida Kahlo. Commissioned by the wife and painted by the husband, it is a true team effort. The same could be said of their young daughter, named Frida in honour of her mother’s obsession. Also, much to the confusion of German tourists given the German origin of the name!

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We moved on to nearby Estelí, which has a bit of the ‘Wild West’ about it (apparently the place to get your cowboy boots) and where reminders of the region’s renowned coffee producers can be seen and purchased in various places.

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Once again we came across murals in abundance, the worthiness of causes a continuing theme.

‘Chicken bus’ continues to be our most used method of transport. They’re rarely comfortable and often overcrowded, but the downsides are easily offset by their far-reaching network, extremely frequent departures and affordability (usually less than $2). At some point all of these vehicles carried North American children safely to school but now their nickname suggests they transport chickens, although we’re yet to actually see one aboard!

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As we reached mid-December it was once again time to move on. This time to two destinations we’d booked months in advance (it was for the holiday season after all) for our Christmas and New Year ‘break’. The Corn Islands (Great Corn and Little Corn), about 50km off the east coast are about as Caribbean as Nicaragua gets. We reluctantly chose to fly from the capital (Managua) over the slightly convoluted land-river-land-sea route that would’ve been more in keeping with our slow, sustainable travel ideal. This was due to us finding out that the usually erratic boat schedule from the mainland to Great Corn had slid to non-existent during the festive period.

The slow Caribbean pace was evident on our arrival and contrasted well with the hectic environment of the capital.

The view from Picnic Beach on Great Corn is generally of turquoise sea, with the occasional cruise yacht shoring up on the horizon.

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Other sights around the island indicate a more everyday or rustic feel. We’re sad to say we did not actually see any crabs crossing the road.

Christmas Eve saw us checking out Long Bay, the other major beach on the island.

Christmas Day surprised us with some truly English weather (especially to make us feel at home, no doubt) and Boxing Day saw us make the exhilarating 40-minute speedboat trip to Little Corn, the more tourist-friendly of the two islands, where we were to spend New Year. With no roads or traffic, things slow down yet another notch here.

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We found the waters to be even more stunning than those of the bigger isle, with the beaches smaller, more remote and more wild! Although the only means of getting around is on foot, the island is very small and the reward for a small amount of effort is having secluded coves and wonderful views all to yourself.

Perfect diving waters and a few days in the same place combined to present a great opportunity to undertake a PADI Open Water qualification, so Roger – quite literally – took the plunge! Seeing coral, angel fish, lion fish and nurse sharks (amongst many other species) in their own habitat a few metres down was a humbling experience.

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Our stay on Little Corn did give us a strong impression of the vulnerability of such small places with limited resources. Power generation (by generator – no budget for solar / wind at this time) and drinkable water are both restricted in their own ways, visitors often outnumber permanent residents in the high season and removal of waste – particularly at such times – is a serious problem.

We also noted with disappointment on both islands the quantity of rubbish (particularly plastic bottles) being deposited along the high tide line. Although this obviously doesn’t necessarily pertain to local waste policies as it comes from the sea, it clearly points to a wider, global problem.

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That said, certain locals have been making an effort to demonstrate alternative options available to those stuck with a piece of used plastic they’re not quite sure what to do with.

Where before we might not have given so much thought to how well equipped a destination is to cope with the burden of disproportionate numbers of visitors, it will be a major consideration for us going forward.

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