Arenas beach

It’s been hard to open up a travel magazine the past few months and not see something on the Corn Islands of Nicaragua. What’s all the fuss about? My take first, then the secret behind all those magazine spreads at the end.

There are plenty of great places to visit in Nicaragua. This country is roughly the size of New York State, after all, just a lot warmer. And if you’re the type who is allergic to places filled with tour buses, you’ll be very happy here. If value is at the top of your priority list, even better.

Most travelers stick to the mainland since you’ve got the colonial city of Granada close to the main international airport and you can skip down the coast checking out great beaches for chilling out or surfing. Also close by is a huge lake, where you can take a ferry to explore the volcanic islands of Ometepe.

If you head out to the Corn Islands, you are doing something only a small fraction of the already not-so-large numbers of tourists do. Enough do though that you need to make plane reservations ahead of time with La Costeña and get to the airport plenty early since flights are often full and it’s open seating. This is a monopoly carrier, a turboprop plane stopping off in Bluefields on the way, but it’s reasonably comfortable and not too pricey at around $164 round trip. (Less if you just go to Bluefields on the return and take your time going overland by bus.) In theory you can get to Big Corn by boat, but the island is 70 kms off the east coast and the boat only leaves once a week from a port town called El Rama.

fish and tostones Nicaragua

Once you get there, prices are higher than on the mainland, but still not bad. You can get a fresh catch meal like this one pictured here at a nice restaurant on the beach—with a view of waves lapping the shore or the sun going down—for $12, or a full-blown lobster one for $15. If ambiance is not at the top of your list, you can cut that price in half in the more rustic places. Dollar beers are common and it’s rare you’ll see a Toña going for more than $1.40 even at the best places.  You can order rum drinks made with good Flor de Caña for $2 or get a bottle and mixers to share with friends for $8-$10.

Big Corn Island resortRates top out at 20 cordobas per person for a taxi on Big Corn, which is US 80 cents. You can navigate the whole island by bicycle if your hotel is near a rental place (mine on the south side wasn’t, unfortunately.) You can find a cheap place to bunk down on either island for around $10 if you just show up and look around. If you book ahead you’ll pay more. If your budget is higher, you can often find a room at the best beachfront places on Big Corn for under $100 a night, or $120 for a bungalow that sleeps four. In between those two extremes are plenty of choices. This is certainly one of the best bargains in the Caribbean for lodging, especially considering how nice the beaches are.

Most people travel to Little Corn island because the snorkeling and diving are better and it’s even more chilled out, with no cars. Getting there is straightforward. You show up early for the ferry at the main dock, buy a $6 ticket, and slather on lots of sunscreen. Your half-hour trip across the water is in a little open boat crammed with as many people as they can fit on. If there are a lot of tickets sold, they’ll send two boats. Rumor is the ferry boat is never going to get any larger because the ruling elders on Little Corn don’t really want any more tourists coming than they’ve already got. But hey, the price was $6 in 2008 and it still is, so give them credit for that.

getting to Little Corn Island

Here’s why you’re now reading so much about Little Corn Island though and why Condé Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, and others of their ilk are suddenly gushing about why it’s a hot destination and “where to go in 2014.” A nice new hotel called Yemaya just opened there and it’s a yoga retreat/healthy eating kind of upscale resort opened by an Australian who also has three beach hotels in Tulum, Mexico. This is really all that’s required to suddenly get a destination on the radar of those magazines: a new hotel that goes for more than $300 per night. And has fancy $8 smoothies.

Little Corn Island Nicaragua

It is really nice though. That photo above is one of their beaches…