I hereby apologize to the people of Nicaragua who cannot truly be blamed for the worst trip we ever took.
Now onto the worst trip we ever took and why it’s relevant today.
As we prepare to go to a new destination, a somewhat, shall we say, fraught destination, the fears begin to creep in. We travel as often as we can, but not so often that every trip doesn’t matter. It’s an expenditure of time and money and the concern that it won’t be worth either is ever present. And part of the excitement of travel is the unpredictability, but there is such a thing as too much unpredictability especially when the results of said unpredictability are, if not catastrophic, then simply sad.
Such was our trip in 2010 to Little Corn Island in Nicaragua.
We had some restrictions on our travel: most notably, it had to be cheap.
Cheap, in my experience can go one of two ways and that this trip went the bad one of those ways is mostly my fault. We looked at two kinda hard to get to islands in the Mesoamerican Reef: Isla de Providencia in Colombia and Little Corn in Nicaragua. We had initially settled on Providencia, planned a trip, and then had to cancel it (fortunately before paying for it) because of work conflicts. When we went to rebook later in the year, the prices had gone up, the flights didn’t work, and we ended up choosing Little Corn. I’ll always wonder what would have happened had the first trip worked out.
On paper, Little Corn sounded right up our alley: off the beaten track, great natural beauty, kind of hard to get to, eco-friendly.
Wait, did you bump on that last part? Good. You’re paying attention. Eco-friendly can also be code for: WE HAVE NO ELECTRICITY OR RUNNING WATER.
But before we get to the island, we have to get to the island. You fly into Big Corn Island having stopped in Managua first. Actually your plane briefly stops in a town called Bluefields. Once you get to Big Corn Island, you and all your luggage gets on a boat. You should recalibrate your expectations of “boat.” The panga we took on the 90 minute journey to Little Corn was both overcrowded and uncomfortable, made more so by the choppy seas. Every time the boat crested a swell it smacked down hard on the water after, generally having hoisted you 3 feet in the air. Fortunately, what your ass crashed down on was a hard wooden bench. Please repeat every 45 seconds for 90 minutes.
Once on the island we made our way to the hotel. There were two “hotels” to choose from. One was right by the dive shop and “in town,” the other was on the other side of the island and had no AC. AC is, if not a dealbreaker, certainly a dealmaker, so we went with that place. The tripadvisor photos could not have prepared us for what we found.
I’ve never seen any of the Saw movies, but I’ve seen enough Saw parodies to be pretty comfortable saying that our room was an exact replica of where the Saw victims are kept. Also where Cold War interrogations happened. One naked lightbulb hung from the ceiling. One double metal bed. One open stall shower and toilet. All contained in an atmospheric cement box. “We have ways of making you talk.”
The next problem was somewhat unavoidable. We went in June which can either be just hot or just hot and hurricane-y. We got the latter. We were so desperate that on the second day of the trip, with the 16 minutes of internet access we could find per day, we desperately searched for any other place in the greater Caribbean that had sun. Nope it was rainy everywhere. Even Aruba. So it was muggy and wet and that AC we wanted so much was only on in the evenings, provided there wasn’t a power outage (there was; constantly).
I was lucky enough to contract some form of gastrointestinal distress despite my best precautions. So much gastrointestinal distress that I was confined to my cement box for the better part of three days. Oh, and there’s also no water during the day. When you are the victim of gastrointestinal distress that doesn’t discriminate between upper and lower chambers of egress, you need water – lots of water – because you are very much not clean on a very regular basis. Jim finally bribed someone to let us have water during the day. No light, mind you, but water. So I lay on my metal cot in the dark and, when I wasn’t rushing to the bathroom, spent my time rewatching the same 3 episodes of Top Gear I had on my iPod and listening (more than once) to the audiobook of Dune. That is until the battery ran out and I had to wait for a drip of electricity that evening to recharge. I will spare you the truly horrifying photo we took of me during this time. I look at it from time to time to remember that things can always be worse.
While I convalesced, Jim dove – more rear end-destroying panga trips! When I was healthy enough (truly relative term) to join him, I experienced acute difficulty equalizing my ears and rather lackluster diving. The coral wasn’t healthy in the way you expect a place no one visits to be healthy, I assume due to overfishing and absolutely no governance of trash disposal. And given how terrible it was to get to the dive sites, you just weren’t that psyched about anything. There was one restaurant in town that served mediocre fare and played soccer on the TV all day (no one knows whom they bribed for TV electricity). We trekked around the tiny island and satisfied our curiosity about the other hotel which was more of an open-air backpackers orgy – so who’s to say which choice was the better one?
We went to the other “restaurants” on the island which were an adventure in and of themselves since there were no lights anywhere and no signs and really nothing in the way of directions save for “over there a ways.” When we got there, each time, we were predictably disappointed. In my opinion, it is really difficult to mess up fresh fish when all you need to do is salt it and grill it, but what do I know? And there were never any of the many feral animals of the island around when you wanted to ditch your dinner without upsetting the proprietor.
On the plus side, the people at the dive shop were really nice. Far more lost-soulsy than at other places we’ve been, possibly because it would have been difficult to get more remote – these were people who didn’t especially want to be found. We played poker with them and drank with them (once the plague had subsided) and talked shop with them. They say that people make a vacation and I dearly want to be able to tell you that was true in this case, but it was not. No people exist on earth now, or at any time in history, who would have been able to turn this deeply uncomfortable, unsatisfying trip into even a C-. We don’t even have good stories (that don’t involve diarrhea or vomit) to tell from this trip.
So as I start locating the things I’ll need to pack for Sudan, I have a certain amount of trepidation. And State Department warnings make up nearly none of that trepidation. Despite having a raft of travel planned for this year, I don’t want this trip to be a dud. Since I’m the idiot who initiates discussions that begin, “hey, let’s dive Sudan!” I am sensitive to the successes and failures of such a trip. I’m not fatalistic, just wary, despite our near perfect record on trip success.
Nicaragua stands alone. And I hold a grudge.