THE darkness was as deep and pure as squid ink. I swiped my foot across the ground, feeling for rocks, roots and voids. Around me there was rustling, scurrying and crashing -- the sounds of creatures meeting branches and leaves. Startled by some unseen threat, I stopped abruptly, colliding with my travel companion, Ashley, who followed close behind. Each time we slammed into each other, hapless as slapstick Stooges, we were reduced to fits of hysterical laughter -- laughter masking fear and frustration.
It was our first night on Little Corn Island, 45 or so miles off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. We had just checked Ashley into her hotel on the north end of the mile-long Cocal beach, and now, as dusk turned to darkness, we were hiking to my more humble cabana, at Casa Iguana, perched on a cliff at the beach's south end. But with no lights to guide us, we had overshot the hotel and ended up on a former pineapple plantation, overgrown with mango, banana and hibiscus.
The fact that we could get so badly lost on what we had been told would be a 10-minute walk is typical of Little Corn, where electricity is scarce and most nights are reserved for board games, books and the occasional bonfire. Though only a puddle jump from the Nicaraguan coast, the Corn Islands -- Big Corn and Little Corn, a half-hour boat ride apart -- are among the few Caribbean destinations that are relatively unknown to international tourists.
But over the last two decades, a slowly growing number of intrepid American, European and Israeli travelers have found their way to these Creole-speaking islands, which are free from the designer boutiques and sprawling resorts that are ubiquitous in the Caribbean. Instead, there are stilted purple and yellow thatch-roofed cabanas, and hammocks strung between sagging palms. The islands' charm lies in how little there is to do, in days spent walking the narrow beaches of tan sand and driftwood, drinking $1 cervezas on a shaded balcony, and snorkeling in waters flush with neon fish, sea turtles, barracudas and even hammerhead sharks.
Our journey to the islands wasn't without challenges. Having failed to secure tickets on the only airline that serves Big Corn, the domestic La Costeña, Ashley and I paid $100 each to travel four hours by hired car from Managua to the river town of El Rama, then two hours by river boat to Bluefields, a gritty port town, where we stayed overnight in a bare-bones posada. The following day, after hours of waiting in a three-room airport, we flew by 12-seat prop plane to Big Corn, where we took a quick taxi ride to the island's boat launch and traveled by open ocean panga, a small outboard-powered motorboat, to Little Corn, a two-mile-long drumstick of a tropical island.
Our plan was to split five days between the two islands. But, having lost a day and a half to travel, we decided to focus on Little Corn -- swimming in the smooth, tepid sea, sampling rum drinks and hiking the hill to the island's highest point, where Ashley would later horrify me by climbing a rusty lookout tower. By the time our small boat arrived at Little Corn's concrete pier, we were exhausted. An hour later, lost in the dark, we were also famished. Then, at last, there was a porch light. It was the lodge-like main building at Casa Iguana, where the bar was serving weak Nicaraguan cerveza and potent Nicaraguan rum. We were relieved to learn we had not yet missed the nightly communal meal. The hotel kitchen was clanking with the preparation of that night's dinner, a monstrously large lobster, which would soon be served on a covered deck perched two stories above the languid Caribbean.
While Big Corn (population about 6,000) has just one road, which loops the periphery of the 2.3-square-mile island, Little Corn, where the year-round population is less than 1,000, is completely free of cars. The only "road" is a well-trodden foot path through a jungle that's home to chicken-eating boa constrictors, raccoon-size iguanas and sand-colored crabs that bolt underfoot. The island's only town has no name.
For Carl Archibold, whose family traces its roots on the island to the 1800s, the thin stream of visitors who find their way to Little Corn is enough. Mr. Archibald, who has a shaved head and wears thick gold chains, owns some rustic cabanas called Carlito's Place (one of 16 or so accommodations on the island). Like many locals, he left home for work, spending 30 years as a commercial fisherman before returning a decade or so ago. There aren't many jobs on the islands, but those that exist are mostly in the still-modest tourist trade or the fishing industry.
"After 20 years now, it's changed a lot," Mr. Archibald said in Creole-inflected English. "We didn't have nothing on the beach here. It was just sea and woodland."
But more travelers are coming all the time. More often than not, they are drawn by the island's undersea life, which helps make the diving here some of the best in the region. The island is also, I was told, one of the most affordable places to become certified to dive: $309 for open-water PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) certification at Dive Little Corn, Nicaragua's only PADI five-star dive center). My experience with the water, however, was limited to swimming and snorkeling. On the recommendation of Casa Iguana's resident dive master, I strapped on my mask and fins on the beach beneath the hotel, where I found schools of shimmering fish with electric blue accents, and heads of sand-colored coral.
Some of the island's visitors are staying, setting up hotels, dive shops and organic farms that serve elaborate dinners with tropical ingredients. Along with mainland Nicaraguans and eccentric expatriates from the United States, Italians are well represented on the Corn Islands. At Café Desideri, a restaurant run by a Canadian-Italian couple and known around Little Corn as simply "the Italian place," I struck up a conversation with Sergio, a gray-haired Milano in a pink dress shirt. He was staying on the north side of the island at Farm Peace & Love, the homestead of Paola Carminiani, a former nature writer from Rome.
Paola travels the mile or so between her farm and the island's only town by horseback. A handsome woman with a deeply lined, tanned face, Paola reminded me of an Argentine gaucho, her blue eyes blazing, her posture strident. Sergio, a retired oil industry contractor, prefers a boat and driver to shuttle him back and forth to the town, which consists of a handful of restaurants, three dive shops, two dance clubs and a Baptist church.
With an entire panga to himself, Sergio was giving away spare seats the day we met him. Curious to see Paola's place, Ashley and I took him up on his offer. It was August, and the height of hurricane season, but the Caribbean was as calm as bath water and the color of glacier melt. "It's full of -- " Sergio began before laughing and cutting himself off. "I was going to say seafood, but no, fish."
We turned a bend and ahead, on a rocky point, was a makeshift wind turbine that powers Paola's house, a graceful, airy two-story home behind a bamboo gate and surrounded by animals. We were greeted by a lumbering mastiff, a Great Dane and a howling corgi. There were horses, goats and chickens, a red-foot turtle named Arturo and the crabs that menace Paola's lettuce, but which she tolerates nonetheless ("There is a place for everybody"). The garden is planted with dragon fruit, cassava, papaya, cinnamon, lavender, star fruit and sugar cane, which she processes with a horse-drawn sugar mill.
On our walk back to the village, Ashley and I stopped for a cerveza at Derek's Place, a hotel of thatched-roofed cabins spread across a lawn of mosslike grass. Paola's neighbor, Derek Sharp, from Maryland, whose red beard was tied in a long braid, has lived on Little Corn for about 15 years. As college-aged backpackers sprawled in hammocks around us, Derek told stories, stories about waking at night to a "chicken holler" and finding a seven-foot boa "like the Far Side cartoon, with six or seven lumps" where his chicks had been. He talked about the indigenous Miskito laborers who build his cabana roofs, arriving from the coast in one-man wooden boats with sails made of plastic sheeting.
Derek was taking his own panga to town, he said, for the opening of the island's first radio station, and he offered us a ride. As we raced against the diminishing sunlight, smoke rose from shore as barbecue pits were stoked with dried coconut husks. It was Saturday night on Little Corn, our last on the island. After four days, I wasn't ready to leave. I thought of Derek and the other expats I'd met, people who had come and stayed. Then we pulled up beside a boat painted with red, blue and yellow stripes. Its name: Temptation.
It might as well have been an invitation.
IF YOU GO
A note about money: The United States dollar is the dominant currency on the Corn Islands, though the Nicaraguan Córdoba is accepted. There's no A.T.M. on Little Corn Island.
La Costeña (Airport Internacional, kilometer 10.5, Carretera Norte, Managua; 505-2263-2142; lacostena.com.ni) is the only airline currently serving the islands. Flights between Managua and Big Corn Island recently cost about $165 round trip. They should be reserved one to two weeks in advance. To reach Little Corn, take a taxi from the airport ($1 per person) and a 30-minute panga ride to Little Corn ($6 each way).
For free Wi-Fi, views of the water and a casually festive ambience, try Café Desideri (ask on the island for "the Italian place"), where the menu includes carpaccio ($6), a spicy vegetarian burrito ($6) and an 11-ounce lobster ($16).
Ocean-view casitas at Casa Iguana (casaiguana.net; no phone) are $35 to $75 (rates rise during the high season, from mid-December through mid-January and mid-February through mid-April). Those with reservations will be met at the pier.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.