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Diving Nicaragua: Corn Islands, Pacific and Fresh Water

Nicaragua has many quiet dive spots. The Corn Islands in the Caribbean offer a step-back in time to the Caribbean as it used to be. There is freshwater diving in volcanic crater lakes and diving on the rocky reefs of the Pacific coast.

The water is warm all year round.

Diving into Caribbean Yesteryear - Corn Islands Nicaragua

An article by Bill Mashek

The Corn Islands are located about 50 miles east off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Little Corn is an interesting place; it is only about 1.5 sq miles in size, no cars, motorcycles or golf carts, but full of amiable folks, great diving, diverse cuisine, and lots of charm. You can walk an Island loop in about 45 minutes. Little Corn was the only destination where I experienced gregarious encounters with "friendly" nurse sharks on every dive.

Bill Mashek diving with nurse shark off Little Corn Island
Bill Mashek diving with nurse shark off Little Corn Island

Nicaragua is a great location for a variety of adventure sports. There is great surfing on the pacific, even an accessible whitewater run. Going inland you have the colonial cities of Leon and Granada which is bordered by the imposing, Lake Nicaragua with the Volcanic Islands of Omatepe and of course The Corn Islands on the Caribbean. The Corn Islands have always been on my "bucket list" as a dive destination. When I got invited to a wedding in Nicaragua I got my excuse to go. We spent 6 days on the pacific, 2 inland and 8 days on the Corn Islands.

Getting there

First of all, travel in Nicaragua is situated out of Managua. All domestic flights and buses are based at the international airport in Managua as well. You can use a travel agency to get to Managua, (I just made my reservations online) but you have to book your own domestic flight to get to Corn Islands. It is recommended to do this a couple days in advance online. Hard core photographers should go light on your gear as there is a 30 pound limit on stored luggage. I just took my Cannon g-12 in an Ikelite case, no strobe, it fit fine in my carry on and I got great shots.

Though I had no problems with flights, I have been informed that La Costena airlines can be subject to delays, and on occasions your bag may arrive the day after you do! In other words don't have a tight schedule. Allow for chaos, as anything can happen, especially during busy season (December to May). You will hear stories about saving money by taking a 6-8 hour bus trip to Bluefields and departing by freighter across the channel to Big Corn - don't do it.

Tip: I found about this online: Domestic online booking fees can be expensive and they are going up. To get around this and to get the cheapest prices you can call La Costena's office in Managua airport on (505) 2298 5360 (option 2) to get the standard fares without online fees.

As with most of Nicaragua, you can use either the local Cordoba currency here (cheapest) but US dollars are also accepted everywhere, provided they are in good condition with no rips, tears or defacing. There is one ATM machine on Big Corn Island. Many places including our hotel, some of the restaurants and the dive shops accept credit cards however you will have a 6% Nicaraguan fee plus what every your local bank charges for international use. I used both Cordobas and US dollars. But mostly US dollars as I didn't want to come home with useless Cordobas. I also booked with the hotel directly instead of going through the 3rd party sites. It was actually cheaper.

Once we landed in Big Corn, we took a taxi to our guesthouse and next day to the harbor to catch the panga ($6.00/person) to Little Corn. Check out: Again, plan for delays; If the ocean is too rough, you may not get across that day. And it can be a "wet and wild" ride, I would recommend bringing a garbage bag to cover your personal gear.

I was told that they are soon going to have a bigger enclosed boat which will handle the larger swells but this is a poor country and who knows when.

Big Corn

We spent the night on Big Corn at Comedor Maris Danet's Phone: (+505) 2575-5135, A very good location, excellent food. There is also a quaint little bakery next door with savory treats and great coffee. There are several dive sites off Big Corn including the infamous Blowing rock. If for some reason you can't get to Little Corn you have other options.

Big Corn Island signs
Bill Mashek

Little Corn

I was watching the weather with anxious anticipation (mistake) and it looked like hostile conditions, I even called Adam at Dolphin Divers to see if they were going out. His response: "of course, we have great conditions, a little wind and bump but all is fine". Unless there is a hurricane or 35 plus knot winds, you will still dive.

I made advanced reservations with Sunshine Hotel. The website said "only 2 rooms available". I think there were only 4 or 5 other folks staying in this 20 plus room hotel. During busy season it is probably a good idea to make advanced reservations. Our stay at the Sunshine hotel included a simple but classic Nicaraguan breakfast each morning and 5% discount with Dolphin Divers. Sunshine is also the only hotel I found that had air conditioned rooms. The folks who run the place were nice and at $55/night a bargain. They also had the only (mini) "farmica" on the island. I would recommend staying here. There are several rustic piquant eateries nearby and It was less than a five minute walk to Dolphin Divers from the hotel.

Every day after my second dive I would go to Havanas, a Cuban cuisine, between our hotel and Dolphin divers and get a delicious ham and cheese sandwich or fish sandwich on coconut bread.

Dolphin divers offer up to 3 dives per day and night dives. Since there are only a couple of dive shops on the island, I would recommend making advanced reservations during the busy winter season.

Because of all the weight restrictions and the extensive traveling we were doing. The only dive gear I brought was my Sunto "zoot" wrist computer, underwater camera set up, a mask and snorkel. Dolphin Divers supplies all equipment including wetsuit, if needed at no extra cost. They did not supply computers; I think you can rent one. Their regulators and BC vest were well maintained and in good condition. For photographers, the boats are too small to hold heavy gear but they do have a shower and dunk tank at the shop.

Diving Little Corn

Because of the underwater topography in Corn Islands, we dived reefs and small canyons but not walls. Subsequently, most dives are between 50-80 ft (15-25 m), except for Blowing Rock which is a small volcanic seamount, about an hour boat ride away.. It is considered the best dive site on the Corn Islands primarily because of its preponderance and variety of fish. There are no deep channels and spectacular walls like Cozumel. The water temperature was a consistent 84 oF (29 oC), making wetsuits optional.

I never prepaid for my dives, just showed up every day at the shop. However, the more you dive the cheaper the price is. A two tank dive is 65. And a 10 dive package is 280. I had 12 dives and at the end of the trip paid 28/dive plus my 5% discount. The boats launch from the beach less than 50 ft from the shop. The divemasters loaded our tanks and BCs, we were only responsible for carrying them back after the dive. Dive times varied, though usually 45 minutes unless folks were low on air. When it was just our group, we stayed down longer, especially in the shallower dives.

There were many good sites but my favorite was Suenos, It was about a 15 minute boat ride to get there. It was our last dive, the ocean was calm and pellucid blue-green. Visibility was well over 150 ft (45 m). Here we saw several reef sharks. They were not as friendly as the nurse sharks and didn't want to be approached. They did however, provide for interesting encounters. I saw several eagle rays, and a goliath Grouper the size of a wine barrel. We saw Parrot fish for the first time and more trigger fish. Also saw a hawksbill turtle here. Surprisingly, I saw only 2 turtles. I guess they don't nest here.

Hawksbill turtle
Hawksbill Turtle. Bigstock

Sunshine Hotel: basic but nice rooms, air conditioned 55/night including breakfast. Coffee was ready by 7 am each morning.

Before travel, one should check for recommended vaccines for Nicaragua by the Center of Disease Control. And don't forget your diving insurance.

We had no bug problems but Zitka virus and dengue fever have been identified in Nicaragua hence, it is recommended to bring a good supply of insect repellent and of course sun screen. Since there is limited night lighting and power can go out at any time I would bring a good flashlight. I brought a LED headlamp and small 350 lumen flashlight and used them both.

The easy access, clear water, minimal currents and healthy flora and fauna made Little Corn a nice dive destination for me. I also enjoyed the "island vibe" and delicious eateries. Though, this destination is (thankfully) not for everyone. LCI is somewhat isolated. It has no regular power, no mail service, no bank, ATM or Western Union and minimally reliable phone, internet and electrical service. Lodging here is mostly simple and inexpensive. There are no resorts - no 5 star hotels, but you can pay over 400/night to stay at a yoga retreat, One has to be flexible and willing to change plans if you encounter adverse weather/ocean conditions. The diving is good but not fantastic; you will see better coral reefs in Bonaire, Cozumel and other places which are much easier to access.

Nonetheless, If you like to dive in a "low key" uncrowded environment, with small groups of divers, mix with the locals, relax with a cold beer, meet new friends of diverse cultures and enjoy tasty haute cuisine of fresh, local seafood daily, Little Corn can be a journeys end.

by Bill Mashek

Bill Mashek is a member of the American Academy of Under Water Sciences. He serves on the board of the Bay area storm water project and volunteers as a survey diver for "Reef Check". His work career started as a river guide on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon when he was 17. From that point he worked and ran rivers all over the world. Rubicon Adventures began in the early 1970s and is still going strong today. He was an early member of "Friends of the River" and active with river politics and environmental issues.

Dive Shops

Little Corn Island
Dolphin Dive

Small family-owned PADI dive resort.

Dolphin Dive
Little Corn Island
Tel: +505 8917 9717

Big Corn Island
Corn Island Dive Center

North end of Brig Bay across from Hostel Mi Mundo
Corn Island
Tel: 505 8735-0667 - 8851-5704

Managua - Volcanic Lakes
Dive Nicaragua

Contiguo a restaurante Maria Bonita
Tel: 83888512

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