LITTLE CORN ISLAND, Nicaragua -- We boarded an egg carton in Managua and bounced over clouds for an hour before setting down on Big Corn Island in the late afternoon of Feb. 11. It was a little later before my heart returned to its headquarters.
Off the tarmac, taxi drivers swarmed, and eight of us hurried into rides for the dock. There, no panga boat awaited us. We had missed the last one bound for Little Corn Island.
Our driver insisted we make the trip in the morning, but we all seemed to feel pulled. The eight of us formed a quick bond and approached a lobster boat that swayed against the dock with a rough-looking crew and 22 drums of diesel oil on board.
The captain said he would take us over.
A 15-minute ride by panga (a long, narrow speedboat that seats about 15) took us an hour and a half pitching over choppy water at 10 knots. The little island never seemed to get bigger as the sun set behind us. The crew had to revive the engine several times. I concentrated to divert my mind from the fact there were no life jackets on board.
Finally, the tiny lights from afar were illuminating doorways; a dog nosed around on the dock and we were against it and then stepping up over the oil drums and through the ropes. A couple from Toronto, a woman from Vancouver, photographer Annie O'Neill and I had conspired to walk together to the eastern side; some among us had flashlights. But Capt. Winne wanted our delivery to be complete and safe. He bade his young nephew to lead us across on what they call "the road."
The "road" between the dock and the eastern coast is a foot path that told us nothing beyond what fell under the dancing flashlight beams. We stumbled over tree roots as we moved in a slow, breathless parade, chuckling about having an adventure. About 15 minutes along, we heard the rhythmic roar and rushback of the tide, and I released the breath I had been holding.
It was too dark to know what we had "reached," as islanders call arriving at a Little Corn destination.
By morning, it would all be revealed. We were in one of Earth's last remaining paradises -- a paradise for the low-maintenance traveler.
You won't like Little Corn if you want water pressure or hot water. You won't like it if you think it's your right to flush the toilet, and toilet paper, after every use. You won't like it if you mind being awakened by a rooster at 4 a.m. or if you expect Internet without walking somewhere that advertises WiFi but doesn't always come through with it.
We walked "the road" many times in daylight, through meager jungle and swamp before leveling out and passing through scruffy yards past chickens, slinky cats and little kids on concrete slab porches.
A place where they call geckos "alligators" must be small, and Little Corn is. You can walk the sandy perimeter in two or three hours (having to scamper over rocks or detour inland in a few places). There are no motorized vehicles on Little Corn.
Both Corn Islands were settled by the British in 1655 and turned over to Nicaragua in 1894. Big Corn Island has about 12,000 residents. Little Corn, with about 1,200, is favored by tourists. English is the first language of natives, who are descended from British speculators and freed slaves. Over several decades, mainland Nicaraguans have settled on the island in search of work, of which there is not enough. Older residents say theft has become too common.
"You used to be able to sleep on the beach not 30 years ago," said Noel Tracy Hunter, who is 58 and grew up on the island. "Now if you do, if you have anything on you, people will steal it."
As a kid, he sold coconuts and lobster, which were much more plentiful then. "I used to get one cord for a lobster, and that was a lot of money." A cordoba is worth a U.S. nickel. "Now you can't afford to put your boat out for the price of lobster," he said. "People live off the tourists."
Carl Archibald, 52, runs a lodge called Carlito's Place. He spent most of his career as a commercial fisherman. In his childhood, he said, "you could count the houses" on the island on two hands.
Early tourists would pay $5 to occupy a hammock for a night, he said. Increasing numbers of visitors have brought worries to bear. "One plan we have is to bring a shredder to make garbage smaller" for the haul-away on boats. "Right now the [potable] water is all right, but too many people and the water will run to nothing." Back when everyone knew everyone, having no police was fine, he said, but today "you don't know who is whom, and I have to have a watchman."
The island is shaped like a drumstick, in which the wide part is the north. We were warned not to walk the northern "roads" at night. The island has a school, a baseball field and, in the village, dive shops where you can schedule snorkeling and scuba outings, several inns, a few stores and restaurants. Along the village's one paved sidewalk, signs on houses advertise coconut bread and frijoles for sale. Some house fronts are set up as stores.
Once there, Little Corn is an easy place to be. Many travelers extend their stays.
For me, Little Corn Beach and Bungalow's amenities were just right. A cool trickle of shower was good enough. The beds were surrounded by mosquito netting. The rooster woke me, but I fell asleep at midday in a hammock strung between coconut palms.
The Turned Turtle Restaurant ("turned turtle" is an expression for capsizing) is surrounded by tarps that are opened to the day and the breeze. It specializes in ribs, eggs benedict and margaritas.
Scot Smyth and Kristine Guilfoyle opened Little Corn Beach and Bungalow and the Turned Turtle a year ago after their first visit in 2007. Ms. Guilfoyle gave up a hair-styling business and Mr. Smyth left a contracting business in Fort Collins, Colo.; the couple maintain ties to their hometown with a life insurance business. They met my friend Donna Tabor when she brought visiting veterinarians to put on a three-day spay-and-neuter clinic for the island's dogs and cats.
Kristine Pleau and Ian Bloom of Toronto found the island searching Google for a cheap beach-hut vacation. The word is getting out, but there's only so much room for people, and the innkeepers there now seem resolved to guard the remaining space jealously.
It was OK for us to be there, we decided, but many more tourists will ruin it. Ian put it this way, as a warning: "Don't come here. It's too calm and tranquil. Stay away."
The island gets water from an aquifer. Island residents have wells. The bungalows hold rain water in barrels on the roofs for back-up. Mr. Smyth and Ms. Guilfoyle use and serve bottled water and give guests a discount for refilling the same bottle before it is recycled.
"We are eco-friendly but not eco-fanatic," Mr. Smyth told us. He gives all his guests "the little talk" about not flushing paper, flushing less often, turning the shower off to soap yourself and using natural sunscreens.
Several inns around the island appeal to eco-tourists. One has solar panels. Little Corn Beach and Bungalow has two giant recycling bins housed in an open-sided hut of palm fronds.
Food and drink, like on the Nicaraguan mainland, are very affordable. A meal that costs $25 in Pittsburgh may cost $9 or less. A bottle of beer, either Tona or Victoria, is about a dollar. A 12-year-old girl named Yendi strolled the village and the beach every day selling meat pies that cost the equivalent of a quarter.
The oldest man on the island, Mr. Otto, who will be 89 this month, let us visit his "farm" on a bluff at the north end, where chickens roam and a little porch looks out over turquoise water. His grandfather came to the island from Norway. "People ask me why and I don't know," he said. He and his father cleared the land where he lives with his wife. He used to be a lobster fisherman. Now people steal from him and tourists walk through his yard.
Although he and his wife have to go to Managua for medical care somewhat often, he said he has never thought about leaving the island. "I'll leave it when I die."
On a windy, rainy Monday, we wrapped our things in plastic bags and caught the 7 a.m. panga. I understood why some people sat on their life jackets when the boat took off. It was like what I imagine sitting on the boards of a fast-moving stagecoach must have been like.
Three young Nicaraguan guys stood on the prow, lean caballeros pulling ropes and laughing in the spray as the boat flew through the water, slamming up and down with the waves.
Diana Nelson Jones: email@example.com or 412-263-1626. Read her blog City Walkabout at post-gazette.com/localnews. First Published March 7, 2010 5:00 AM