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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2014

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2014 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities of the past year of travel on our little road trip through the Americas including SCUBA diving with whale sharks and hammerheads in the Galapagos Islands, rescuing a drowning monkey in the Amazon and being spit on by a shaman in the Andes. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2014, Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year and Part 4 tells you all about our Travel Gear of the Year.

In 2014 the Trans-Americas Journey explored Colombia and Ecuador and we drove 7,074 miles (11,385 km) doing it. Want more road trip numbers? Check out the Trip Facts & Figures page.

And now, in no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2014

Best river trip: First of all, its nickname is the “Liquid Rainbow.” Second of all, it’s in an area of Colombia that’s only recently became FARC-free enough to visit. Third? Who needs a third? In 2014 we made it to this one-of-a-kind river on assignment for BBC Travel with Eco Turismo Macarena. The destination lives up to the hype with flowing water filled with waves of vibrant reds, greens, yellows and blues caused by a water plant unique to this area (check it out, below). We were also impressed with the quality of the local guides, the environmental protections that are in place and the truly community-based tourism that’s going on in the gateway town of La Macarena.

Cano Cristales Colombia

Best adventure destination: 2014 was the year that we got to travel to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador not once but TWICE. During the first visit we spent nine days in the islands including a week on board the M/Y Grace yacht so that we could produce a story about the yacht, once owned and honeymooned on by Grace Kelly, for the Biography channel’s website. A highlight of that trip was the discovery of the best snorkeling site of the year: Punto Vicente Roca off Isabela Island where we bobbed in the water as sea turtles, penguins, sea lions, dozens of species of fish, a shark or two and much more investigated us and went about their watery lives all around us. It was like being in our own interactive aquarium. Our second visit to the Galapagos Islands took an even more adventurous turn with a week on board the very, VERY good value M/Y Eric followed by a week on board her sister ship, the M/V Galapagos Sky live aboard dive boat. That’s when we discovered the best SCUBA diving site of the year: Darwin and Wolf Islands, in the far north of the archipelago, where we spent hours underwater with hundreds of scalloped hammerhead sharks and, incredibly, even a few whales sharks and manta rays even though it wasn’t prime season for spotting those species. We’d go back in a minute because we’re sure this wonderful place has many, many more adventures in store.

Galapagos Islands Blue footed booby, penguins, marine iguana

Best under-visited national park: Ecuador has more than 30 national parks, ecological preserves and wildlife refuges. In 2012, President Rafael Correa waived the entry fee to all of them (except Galapagos Islands National Park) in an effort to get more Ecuadorans out into their wild spaces. It’s a great idea and we certainly appreciate breezing right through the entry gates to national parks, but many parks in Ecuador are still virtually visitor free. Take El Angel Ecological Reserve in northern Ecuador, for example. Despite containing some of the country’s most gorgeous high-altitude páramo (pictured below), including three of the four species of Seuss-like frailejon plants on the planet, and the world’s only known stand of a certain species of polylepis tree, we saw a grand total of five other people in this stunning park.

Parano El Angel park  Ecuador

Best wild animal rescue: We were motoring slowly along the Napo River in Ecuador’s Amazon Basin, happily observing a large troupe of squirrel monkeys in the trees at the water’s edge, when we heard a small splash followed by frantic screeching. For a moment it seemed as if a child had fallen into the fast-moving, current-filled river. Then we saw a tiny monkey being swept down river. Our guide, Fredy Alvarado, who operates Pangea Expeditions and was working as our guide on the Anakonda Amazon river boat we were traveling on, dipped an oar into the water just as the monkey was pulled underwater once again. When it’s drenched, furry head finally popped up the animal reached for the oar in exactly the way a drowning human would. Safely on our boat, the dripping monkey scrambled to a far corner as we motored to the shore where his troupe was waiting for his return. Fredy had to pry the frightened monkey off the boat in order to release him and he got a bite on the hand for his trouble. However, we are happy to report that both monkey and guide are fine.

Monkey rescue Napo River Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure in alternative healing: Sacha Ji Wellness Hotel, near Otavalo, Ecuador, is a rare example of eco-friendly construction (living roofs, rain water collection, solar panels, tire foundations) and a posh yoga and wellness retreat all in the shadow of massive volcanoes. The innovative owner has also harnessed the power of the local Kichwa community’s holistic healing traditions and guests can sign up for a cleansing by a local female shaman named Rosa.  Karen took off her shoes as Rosa arranged the tools of her trade: volcanic rocks, river rocks, kindling, two huge bunches of local herbs and branches, a pot for burning aromatic wood, a small gourd with liquid in it and two plastic bottles. Rosa spit liquid into Karen’s face and gently whacked her with herbs and branches. Wood was burned and smoke was read to determine the amount of “bad energy” that needed to be cleaned out (apparently, a lot) followed by more spitting before Rosa put some oil on Karen’s scalp and clasped her head while chanting about strong, clean energy. The whole thing was over in 15 minutes and was oddly relaxing despite the smoke and spit.

Andean Clensing Sacha Ji Ecuador

Best reason to get up early: Napo Wildlife Center Ecolodge, built, run and managed by members of the local Kichwa Anangu community in the Yasuni region of the Amazon Basin in Ecuador, offers many ways to get close to the toucans, giant otters, caimans and monkeys on their vast jungle property. One of the best is their canopy observation platform. A 10 minute canoe paddle and 15 minute jungle walk takes you from the lodge to the foot of a 130 foot (40 meter) tower. Climb the metal stairs to the platform at the top, carefully built around a massive ceiba tree, and you’ve reached the perfect place to look into the tree tops and down into the jungle (below). In the early morning hours we saw ivory billed toucans, a three-toed sloth, blue and yellow macaws in flight, squirrel monkeys, white front capuchin monkeys and more. Bring your binoculars and take advantage of the spotting scopes provided by the guides.

Napo Wildlefe Center Ecolodge canopy platform

Best national park drive: It’s not every day that you get the chance to drive your vehicle to over 15,500 feet (4,724 meters). To put that into perspective, that’s more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) higher than the top of Mount Whitney which is the highest point in the lower 48 in the US. In Los Nevados National Park in Colombia you can drive that high while checking out the Nevado del Ruiz Volcano (one of the most active in the world) and Andean condors (many of whom were transplanted from the San Diego Zoo to repopulate the park) soaring overhead.

PNN Nevados Colombia

Best feeding frenzy: There are a number of clay licks, where birds congregate to greedily eat soil rich in essential minerals, in the Amazon Basin in Ecuador. The one that attracts both parrots and macaws requires a short hike inland from the Napo River to a comfortable shelter/blind where we waited silently for two hours while the skittish birds worked up the courage to come to the ground to take in the minerals they need. Eventually hundreds (thousands?) of mealy parrots and some scarlet-shouldered parrotlettes descended. The sound of their wings and calls was deafening and even though the macaws remained safely in the trees above our heads, the spectacle was impressive.

Parrot Salt Lick Nap River Yasuni Ecuador Amazon

Best adventure on rails: Train trips don’t generally fall into the category of adventure unless you’re on a train that somehow navigates its way over a massive stone obstacle ominously called the Devil’s Nose and includes stops that let you meet the last glacial ice collector in the country and watch traditionally dressed women haggle for guinea pigs (aka, dinner) in a local weekly market. Passengers on Ecaudor’s Tren Crucero  (below) get all that and more during the four-day journey from the Andes to the Pacific (or vice versa). More details are in the story we did about our Tren Crucero adventure for the Dallas Morning News.

Tren Crucero Ecuador

Best horseback riding: Hacienda Zuleta, a historic farm-turned luxury hotel dating back to the 1600s in northern Ecuador, should be on every hotel and food lovers’ list. If you’re also a horse lover then make your reservation now. Zuleta’s stable is filled with their own breed, called Zuleteños, which are a mix of thoroughbred, quarter horse and Andalusian carefully crafted over the years to produce smart, gentle and beautiful horses. The tack is all hand made locally, the volcano-filled geography is gorgeous to ride through and the guides are capable and fun to be with whether you’re out for an hour or a week. Bonus: sore muscles are easily soothed by the hot water bottles and bath salts provided in each guest room at Hacienda Zuleta.

Hacienda Zuleta Ecuador Horseback Riding

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Beyond the Beauty of the Kuna – San Blas Islands, Panama

The world is increasingly full of hotels and resorts run by local communities and indigenous groups. Many claim to give guests the chance to gain true insights into the cultures they’re visiting but, too often, what travelers get is a pre-packaged, buffed up, sideshow version of reality. Yandup Island Lodge, run by the Kuna (or Guna) people, goes beyond the beauty of the Kuna by actually delivering on its promise to help guests understand Kuna life, traditions and challenges in the San Blas Islands of Panama.

Kuna San Blas Islands - Yandup Island Lodge, Panama

Our destination: Yandup Island Lodge in the Kuna Yala, or San Blas Islands, of Panama.

But first you have to get there

The only way to reach Yandup Island Lodge is to fly from Panama City to the Playon Chico air strip, then take a short boat ride to Yandup island in the San Blas Archipelago of islands, also known as the Kuna Yala. Our Air Panama plane carried just six passengers and was piloted by what appeared to be interns. They applied sunscreen before take off and warned of a bumpy ride. A sign near the plane’s control panels said “You have to step outside to smoke.”

Flying over Plyon Chico, Kuna Yala, Panama San Blas Islands

Though most of the islands in the San Blas Archipelago, also known as the Kuna Yala, are uninhabited, some are packed with Kuna villages, like this island we flew over on our way to Yandup Island Lodge.

Any time you get into a small plane you know that take off and landing are going to be extra exciting. Still, we weren’t quite prepared for the fly-straight-at-the-mountain-bank-hard-then-drop-straight-down-onto-the-ground landing that the pilot artfully made into the dinky, waterside Playon Chico airstrip. 

flight to Playon Chico San Blas Islands Panama

Safely landed at the Playon Chico air strip on our way to Yandup Island.

Back on solid ground, we got our first glimpse of the San Blas Islands or Kuna Yala archipelago, the name given to a chain of more than 350 islands, mostly uninhabited, that is governed by the autonomous Kuna people within Panama.

Deserted islands -Kuna Yala, Panama San Blas Islands

One of the many tiny uninhabited islands in the Kuna Yala archipelago of Panama, also known as the San Blas Islands.

While most of the islands in the Kuna Yala are uninhabited, some are packed wall to wall with Kuna villages. A few others, like Yandup Island, are used for hotels.

Boat Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

Transportation at Yandup Island Lodge.

 A different kind of luxury

After a five minute boat ride from the air strip we arrived at Yandup Island Lodge which occupies a small island owned and run by a Kuna family. The round, stand-alone, stilted bungalows are basic but comfortable with nets over the beads, private bathrooms and hammocks on the porches.

Yandup Island Lodge Kuna San Blas Islands, Panama

Bungalows at Yandup Island Lodge.

The island is picture perfect with lapping waves, swaying palm trees and gentle breezes and no WiFi or TVs. The place is partly run on solar power and water is piped in from a waterfall on the mainland. If you can’t relax here there’s no hope for you.

Kuna mola pillow

A traditional Kuna mola decorates a bed pillow at Yandup Island Lodge.

Beyond the beauty of the Kuna: culture today

The Kuna, the largest indigenous group in Panama, came to Panama from Colombia and successfully resisted assimilation during Spanish colonial times and thwarted later Panamanian efforts to suppress their culture. In 1925 the Kuna staged a revolution and were officially granted cultural autonomy by the Panamanian government.

Kuna mola blouse

A Kuna woman wearing a traditional top which incorporates vibrant, geometrically designed, hand-made fabric squares known as molas.

Kuna their culture remains remarkably intact including the beautiful traditional dress of Kuna women and their hand-made fabric molas which are known around the world.

That’s about all we knew about the Kuna before we arrived at Yandup, but that was about to change thanks to the lodge’s wonderful Kuna staff who were open, friendly and patient as we peppered them with questions.

Colorful Kuna indiginous tribe Panama

When we asked these Kuna employees of Yandup Island Lodge why they didn’t wear the traditional arm and leg beads they proudly explained that they were “modern”.

For example, when we noticed that some of the female staff members did not wear the traditional Kuna leg beads (called wini) and arm beads (called chaquira) and we asked them why. Ruby, who could make a stone smile, proudly answered soy moderno (I’m modern), then laughed. Another female employee explained that she had chosen not to cut her hair for the same reason even though short, almost mannish hairstyles are common among Kuna women mostly, we were told, for comfort in the heat.

Examnples of Kuna Beaded Bracelets (Chaquira)  and leg beads (Wini)

It takes Kuna women about a day to make each of the traditional beaded leg and arm wraps, called wini and chaquira respectively, though some Kuna women are choosing not to wear them at all.

 Playon Chico, life in a Kuna village

While it was easy to imagine an idyllic Kuna lifestyle while relaxing at Yandup Island Lodge with its views and spacious lawns we saw a different reality when we visited Playon Chico for a guided look at life in a Kuna village. The first thing we were struck by was the crowding. When the majority of your land is composed of islands, many of them tiny and some of them sinking and eroding due to environmental pressures, space is a luxury.

Kuna woman sewing a mola, Panama

A Kuna woman in Playon Chico works on a mola which is traditionally made using two colors depicting a geometric pattern which can be abstract or represent individual animals or more elaborate scenes.

Playon Chico is the largest Kuna village with more than 3,000 people living shoulder to shoulder on a small island which seemed as if every square inch was covered in something man-made. Kuna families typically have five to seven kids, so children make up more than 60% of the population in Playon Chico which gave the village a “Lord of the Flies” vibe.Garbage was a problem and visible everywhere and the community was struggling to find garbage management options that were better than simply making huge piles along the water line.

Kuna crafts and molas Playon Chico Panama San Blas Islands

Kuna women on Playon Chico set up stands along the village’s sand roads where they sell their hand-made molas, traditional beaded leg and arm wraps and more.

Mixed in among the traditional thatch-roof houses, tiny shops selling daily necessities and the volleyball courts (the Kuna love volleyball, perhaps because they don’t have space for soccer fields) we walked past a number of make shift open-air shops where Kuna women were selling beads and items made from their most famous handicraft, the mola. Made almost exclusively by women, each vendor seemed to have her own particular style when it came to colors and designs.

Though Kuna men have mostly stopped wearing traditional clothes in favor of jeans and t-shirts, most Kuna women still wear blouses made from molas and elaborately patterned sheer fabric, colorful arm and leg beads and bright head scarfs. In Playon Chico we learned that even within this traditional outfit there was room for fashion with colors going in and out of style and women making trips to specific fabric stores in Panama City to get the latest patterns for blouses.

Children Playon Chico Kuna Yala Panama San Blas Islands, Panama

Kids make up 60% of the population of the Kuna village of Playon Chico.

Other things we learned during our visit to Playon Chico:

  • Kuna men and women attend church services separately (men in the morning and women in the  afternoon)
  • It takes about a day for Kuna women to make new leg or arm beads and they do this frequently to keep up with changing fashions
  • Albinos are revered in Kuna culture
  • When a Kuna dies they are placed in a hammock for 48 hours then buried in their hammock along with some of their favorite possessions
  • The word for “thank you” in the Kuna language is “nuedi” and they say it a lot

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Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 2: Where to Sleep – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 2 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 2 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget. Check out part 1 to learn about what to do and what to eat in Bocas del Toro.

Beautiful beaches Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is why you want to travel to the Bocas de Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. The main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas Town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas Town wouldn’t exist if not for the United Fruit Company  (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now-defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas Town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily.

Hotels & hostels - Isla Colon, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town on Isla Colon has many hostels like this one.

The number of buildings in Bocas Town has increased, but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five story maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas Town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Where to sleep in Bocas del Toro

We spent two weeks exploring Bocas del Toro which gave us plenty of time to try lots of different accommodation options including a hostel and a boutique hotel on Isla Colon (Bocas Town), over the water bungalows in the middle of the Caribbean and a real stunner on Isla Bastimento.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Tropical sunset, Bocas del Toro style.

Beach boutique:  Take the best of a small waterfront apartment and add in attentive hotel staff and you’ve got Tropical Suites. The hotel was built in 2005 and renovated in 2010 by new owners Jamie and Chip, a couple from the southern US. They’ve crafted the perfect balance of laid back island style with spot-on North American service and southern hospitality.

All of the 16 suites (six have ocean views) at this waterfront hotel right on main street just a few blocks from the ferry docks are sunny, large and have air conditioning, furnished patios and fully equipped kitchens. Breakfast at Lili’s (one of the highlights of our previous post about what to do and what to eat in Bocas del Toro) is included in rates.

Tropical Suites also has good quality bikes for hire (around US$15 per day) which is how we got out to Playa Bluff (another travel highlight in our previous post about what to do in Bocas del Toro). Since we were at the hotel, they’ve opened up a “glass bottom Starfish suite” which sounds totally intriguing too. Tell us how it is…

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town, on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

Bocas on a budget: If you’re on a tighter travel budget don’t worry. Bocas Town is full of hostels, but if you’re not interested in a party atmosphere head to Hostal Hansi (big thanks to our friends at Globetrotter Girls for tipping us off about this place). Located just off Main Street, Hostal Hansi has a wide range of different room types from singles with shared bath (from US$11) to private doubles (from US$25). WiFi and use of a spotless kitchen is included. It’s a quiet and clean (there is a resident cat) and it’s extremely popular. Hansi does not take reservations so get there as early as you can to see about available rooms.

When we were in Bocas an absolutely enormous building was going up next door to the Hansi and the rumor was that was going to be a 100 bed hostal. That sounds like hell on earth to us, but fyi.

Eco immersion: The place is called Al Natural Resort and it really is one of the most stunning places we’ve stayed at on our Trans-Americas Journey. For starters, stand-alone stilted bunglaows, built using techniques and materials the indigenous Ngöbe-Buglé people have used for decades, are mostly open air with very, very few walls. Heavy canvas curtains can be pulled shut it you want.

Al Natural Resort bungalow - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Our virtually wall-free bungalow at Al Natural in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Each wood, bamboo and thatch bungalow was built by local Ngöbe-Buglé workers, many of whom had forgotten the traditional techniques until they were asked to resurrect them to build Al Natural.

Bathrooms were covered in tiles in designs inspired by Ngöbe-Buglé weaving patterns. Bungalows were intentionally placed near the high tide line, giving the feeling of being in the calm Chiriqui Bay when you’re really just lazing around in your hammock. Again. Great mattresses, custom-made super-bug-proof nets and cooling fans inside the nets plus the sound of the Caribbean ensure restful nights.

Over water Bungalow View Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bungalows at Al Natural are built at the high-tide line giving you the feeling of begin in the peaceful bay right from your room.

Al Natural’s owner, Michel, a reformed NYC lawyer from Belgium, calls his bungalows “natural houses” and they range from single rooms with a small bathroom to a three bedroom house. He says he created Al Natural to be “the place I always hoped I’d find in my travels but never did.” He explored Madagascar, Costa Rica and other countries looking for the right location for his vision before he returned to Bocas del Toro (a place he’d visited nearly 20 years earlier) and was shown beach front property on the southern tip of Bastimentos Island.

Michel Natalis owner of Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Owner Michel during the commute to his remarkable Al Natural eco bungalow hideaway in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

Michel bought the land directly from the local owners who still live on an adjoining piece of property. Don’t miss the chance to take a short jungle walk with Michel to visit Niato,and his family. When we visited Niato he told us how a friend had just drowned while free diving for lobster. Niato was convinced that his friend’s death had been foretold in a dream and that an evil mermaid had lured him deeper with visions of giant lobsters. He said many local men see mermaids all the time but the secret is not to pursue them. Good advice.

Bocas

Niato told us local men see mermaids all the time. The secret, he said,  is not to follow them deeper to a watery grave.

Despite the semi-remote location (it’s a 30 minute boat ride to Al Natural from Bocas Town), the food at Al Natural rivals anything in the region. Every single thing we ate was delicious from fresh juices to buttery soft grilled octopus to fragrant chicken cooked with mushrooms and orange peel. Even better, all meals, which are included in room rates including wine at dinner, are served family style with Michel at the head of the table telling stories and making friends.

Restaurant Al Natural Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Pre-dinner drinks at Al Natural.

Over-rated over-the-water: To say we were excited to be staying at Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge would be an understatement. This long-standing place is basically the poster child for over-the-water bungalows and classic Caribbean island accommodation in Panama and photos of the place are used in many tourism promotional materials.

Pulling up to Punta Caracol Acqua Lodge, after a 10 minute boat ride from a private dock on Isla Colon, was dramatic.The whole thing is built over the water a short distance from a mangrove-covered shoreline. We disembarked and got settled into our over-the-water bungalow, one of nine at the lodge.

Punta Caracol Resort - Bocas del Toro, Panama

The over-water bungalows at Punta Caracol just might be the most photographed hotel rooms in Panama.

All are two-storey affairs built out of wood with thatch roofs and powered by the sun. They’re romantic in a rustic, castaway kind of way. Conch shells are used instead of door handles. Your back deck has loungers, hammocks and a ladder directly into the clear Caribbean below you. It’s certainly not basic, but the only truly luxurious thing is privacy, views and lack of WiFi/TV.

Snorkel gear (including fins) is provided and you can jump in for a snorkel right off your deck. We saw parrot fish, pipefish, starfish and even some coral without ever venturing too far away from the lodge and that was pretty awesome as was kayaking through nearby mangroves.

Punta Caracol Resort Kayaking  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Kayaking through nearby mangroves and snorkeling right off your back deck are just some of the activities at Punta Caracol in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

However, our food at Punta Caracol was mediocre at best and some dishes, like rubber-tough squid, were downright terrible. The service was even worse. Staff members spent more time on their phones than doing anything constructive or helpful. Morning coffee was repeatedly delivered to the bungalow without the benefit of cups.

To be fair, Punta Caracol was for sale when we were there and that sort of limbo invariably creates an environment where employees feel like they don’t have to be on top of their game. However, that’s an excuse not a justification and with rates starting from US$330 (including breakfast and dinner but not lunch for some reason) let’s hope this place finds the owner and management that it and its guests deserve.

Hammock-life-Bocas-del-Toro-Panama

Karen testing out the hammock on the back deck of our bungalow at Punta Caracol.

 

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly.”
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

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Bocas del Toro Travel Guide Part 1: What to Do & What to Eat – Bocas del Toro, Panama

This post is part 1 of 2 in the series Bocas del Toro Guide

Christopher Columbus arrived in Bocas del Toro, Panama in 1502. In the 17th century, pirates used the sheltered bays in the area to repair their ships. Rumors of buried treasure persist. British author Graham Greene finally got to Bocas in the early ’80s on his third attempt to reach the area. These days the conquistadors, pirates and old-school adventure travel writers are long gone, replaced by a growing number of tourists. Here’s part 1 of our 2 part  Bocas del Toro Travel Guide. This one is focused on what to do and what to eat. Check out part 2 to find out where to sleep in Bocas del Toro on any travel budget.

Getting to Bocas del Toro and Bocas town

Generally speaking, when people say Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) they’re referring to the whole Bocas del Toro Archipelago of nine islands. But it gets confusing since the main town in the archipelago, located on Isla Colon, is called Bocas town. This is where you will get off the ferry from Almirante on the mainland (30 minutes, US$5 per person in an open sided motor boat) or off your flight from San Jose, Costa Rica or Panama City.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro in Panama is not short on charm, as this guest house proves.

Bocas town wouldn’t exist at all if not for the United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita Brands) which created the town as part of its now defunct banana operations in the area. Today, Bocas town still has more bicycles than cars, though a vehicle ferry makes the run between Isla Colon and the mainland daily. The number of buildings in Bocas town has increased but they’re still mostly small, wooden structures (there’s a five storey maximum) simply built and brightly painted in true Caribbean style. Electricity is supplied from massive, and massively unreliable, diesel generators.

Bocas town has the charm and pace that beach towns in Belize wish they had and a smaller price tag to boot. It’s like a Central American version of Key West from 50 years ago and it makes the perfect base for exploring the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, which we did for two weeks.

Panama Beer  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Beer on the beach, just another day in Bocas del Toro, Panama.

What to do in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Playa Bluff: You have to work a bit for it–a five mile (eight km) bike ride from Bocas town (about 45 minutes)–but your effort delivers you to one of the most beautiful beaches we have ever seen. The sand at Playa Bluff is gold. The beach is wide and flat. And nearly deserted. Shade-giving sea grape trees hug the high tide line. The waves crash mercilessly, so much so that you can’t actually swim at Playa Bluff. No problem. That allows you to focus on settling into the chair or hammock you’ve claimed and downing your cold beverage of choice, supplied by nearby Playa Bluff Lodge. If you had your heart set on swimming, we hear Mimbi Timbi Beach, further down the coast, has a naturally protected pool.

Playa Bluff  - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We told you the sand on Playa Bluff, in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago, is gold.

Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach): You’ll need to catch a public bus (US$3 round trip from the small central park in Bocas town) going to Boca del Drago (Mouth of the Dragon) if you want to visit Playa Estrella (Starfish Beach), and you most certainly want to visit Starfish Beach unless you’ve got something against giant, bright red starfish. They’re common in the archipelago but they love this beach in particular for some reason. Buses leave town for Boca del Drago on even hours and come back from Boca del Drago to town on odd hours. From Boca del Drago you can catch a water taxi to Starfish Beach (US$1.50 per person) or walk for 30 minutes along the coastline.

Starfish Beach - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Two of the starfish that congregate in the calm, warm, shallow bay off Starfish Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

Playa Estrella - Bocas del Toro, Panama

A water taxi waits to take travelers to and from Starfish Beach (Playa Estrella) in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama.

To be honest, we were expecting to be tripping over starfish but there were only a dozen or so around when we were at Starfish Beach. The smart ones fled. We watched in horror as person after person picked up the fragile creatures for photos or just for the heck of it despite signs all over the area telling people to keep their hands off so they don’t kill the starfish.

Don't touch the starfish sign - Starfish Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Despite warning signs like this all over Starfish Beach, many, many visitors still insist on touching and picking up the starfish which can be deadly.

Enterprising locals have set up makeshift kitchens on Starfish Beach and we were delighted with our fresh grilled fish lunch. Fried chicken and even lobster were available too (US$7-US$12). We rented beach chairs (US$4 each for the day) and enjoyed cold beer (US$2) before getting back into the crystal clear, warm, protected water in the bay. It was like floating in a salty, warm pool full of pipefish and humans tormenting starfish.

Starfish - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Don’t touch the starfish in the bay at Starfish Beach!

Red Frog Beach: The most famous beach in the area requires a 15 minute water taxi ride form Bocas town (US$5 per person plus US$3 per person to walk through the private property at the dock) followed by a 10 minute walk to reach the beach itself. But famous doesn’t always mean fabulous and Red Frog Beach left us a bit non-plussed. It’s wide and the surf is swimable but we found Playa Bluff to be much more beautiful and much, much less crowded.

Red frog Beach - Bastamientos Island,  Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in Panama before the arrival of the day tripping crowds.

Yes, we saw the red frogs for which the beach is named. They’re strawberry frogs, actually, and visitors are so anxious to see them that local kids gather them up and charge you to take a picture of them. We’re fairly certain the captured frogs were dead by the end of the day. Luckily, we saw some in the wild too.

Strawberry poison dart frog - Red frog Beach, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Red Frog Beach gets its name from the strawberry frogs which live above the high tide line.

There are some hotels on Red Frog Beach, notably Palmar Tent Lodge and its bohemian tented beach safari vibe with solar power, outdoor showers, purified rain water and daily yoga. In late 2013 a mega resort called Red Frog Beach Island Resort & Spa opened as well.

Day trip to the Zapatilla islands: Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park was founded in 1988 and was Panama’s first marine park. It protects a vast area in and around the Bocas archipelago, including Zapatilla 1 and Zapatilla 2, a pair of neighboring island so named because someone thought they resembled a pair of shoes (zapato means shoe in Spanish and zapatilla means little shoe). The only way to visit the Zapatillas is on a day trip in a long motorized wooden boat with a driver (around US$40 per person including mask and snorkel plus US$10 per person park entry fee).

Zapatilla Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

We finally managed to find a stretch of beach on Zapatilla 1 that wasn’t strewn with washed-up garbage.

The day we decided to visit the area the sea was rough which meant we didn’t see any dolphins as we passed through Dolphin Bay. It also meant that it was too dangerous to reach Zapatilla 2 so we had to content ourselves with Zapatilla 1. This was not easy since Zapatilla 1 was ringed with a mini-moat of garbage, mostly plastic stuff probably brought there from Bocas town on the tides including a bunch of flip flops which struck us as ironic. And sad.

The Zapatilla tour includes a lunch stop at a small nearby restaurant. We enjoyed the snorkeling around and under the restaurant’s dock and pier more than what we’d done around Zapatilla 1 (no garbage for starters).We saw soft corals, starfish and baby reef fish. But be warned: meal prices were extremely high at this restaurant. We’d recommend bringing your own food for this long day outing.

Smithsonian Tropical Research Center: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Center about a mile (two km) from Bocas town can be toured as well though we never got to it.

Oggling at the sunset: Any local will tell you that the best place to watch the spectacular sunsets is from Bibi’s on the Beach, an open-air, thatch-roof restaurant and bar on the waterfront on Carnero Island just a stone’s throw across the bay from Bocas town. Water taxis will take you to and fro and there’s a generous happy hour nightly.

Sunset Bastamientos Island - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset in Panama’s Bocas del Toro Archipelago.

What to eat in Bocas Town

Lili’s Cafe, on main street, is a solid spot for moderately priced passable food served slowly on a pier. However, the real reason to come here is to try their famous, fiery-hot housemade Killin’ Me Man hot sauce which gets its considerable punch from habaneros, mustard and a slew of secret ingredients.

Eating in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main Street in Bocas Town is dotted with eateries like this one.

The Wine Bar, on the second floor of a building on the inland side of main street, has a proper climate-controlled cellar for wine storage (though we’re not sure how climate-controlled the wine’s journey to the archipelago is). They offer a wide range of wines by the glass (around US$4 per glass when we were there)  which change every day. There’s a breezy balcony and interior living rooms and dining rooms for tapas or more substantial plates. Art rotates in and out of the place and there’s life music on Friday nights.

The RipTide Bar & Restaurant has two things going for it: it’s located in a converted ship that still bobs in the water and they offer things like “chicken fried steak and Texas holdem” specials and broadcast events like the Super Bowl which reliably attracts local expats as well as travelers. Don’t expect to try any Panamanian or Caribbean food here. It’s all US comfort food all the way, at reasonable prices.

Cute - Bocas del Toro, Panama

Opening hours can be unpredictable in Bocas Town.

It was too rich for our blood (around US$25 per person), but diners rave about the six course, prix fixe Mediterranean food at Guari Guari. Reservations are a must, it’s cash only and the restaurant is located a mile (two km) from the center of town.

We were disturbed to learn from another traveler that it looks like Chris Fish, a closet-sized take-out-only place we found on the waterfront on main street not far from the ferry docks, seems to have closed. It was our go-to spot for big red snapper sandwiches and huge plates of made-to-order fish and chips with hand cut fries and coleslaw for US$5.50 Ask around and let us know if it’s really closed or merely moved.

Main street, Isla Colon - Bocas del Toro, Panama

This is where our favorite cheap meal place, Chris Fish, used to be located on Main Street in Bocas Town, but other travelers told us it may now be closed. Update, please.

Another good budget travel eating option, also on main street not far from the ferry docks, is the no-frills place with the huge machines out front slowly cooking succulent chicken rotisserie style. You can buy a quarter, half or whole chicken, each one rubbed with a delicious Caribbean mix of spices and served with fries or patacones (fried discs of mashed plantain) along with hot and delicious housemade hot sauce. Get your ice-cold beer at the little store next door.

For a good cheap snack, pick up a few of the meat-filled empanadas at John’s Bakery (less than US$1), but grab ’em early. They’re usually sold out by noon.

There are a few moderately well-stocked Chinese-owned small supermarkets in Bocas town. There’s also the Super Gourmet, an adorable, well-stocked gourmet market. You won’t have any trouble finding ingredients to cook up if your accommodation has a kitchen.

Super-Gourmet-Bocas-del-Toro

The Super Gourmet market in Bocas Town lives up to its name.

Weird Bocas del Toro

  • There’s a guy who walks around Bocas Town at night with a large, intricate paper plane on a string tied to a stick. When the spirit moves him, he starts running down the street to make his plane “fly”.
  • There’s a Chinese temple on the water near the fire station with Chinese characters in red across the front. It’s never been used, but it will never be sold or torn down either. It’s been sealed and sacred since the Buddha inside it somehow remained upright through a strong earthquake in 1991.
  • There’s an old man who collects tin cans. When  he has more than he can carry he lines them up in the middle of main street and crushes each one with a cinder block very methodically.

Bocas del Toro travel budget tip

Whenever we head to a beautiful island location (which is embarrassingly frequently) we get ready for the sticker shock. After all, the logic goes, everything has to be shipped or flown in and the customers are a bunch of geographically captive holiday makers so who cares if we double the price of beer/Band-aids/beds. Imagine our delight when we realized that prices for most things in the Bocas del Toro Archipelago are only marginally higher than they are on the mainland. We don’t know why and we don’t care.

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Simply Charming – Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

The fact that there’s no direct way to travel from mainland Nicaragua to Little Corn Island, about 45 miles (100 kms) east of the country’s Caribbean coast, acts as a kind of natural barrier. You have to really, really want to get this simply charming island. You also have to pass through Big Corn Island to do it.

Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua beach

A “crowded” stretch of beach on Little Corn Island in Nicaragua.

Getting to Little Corn Island

Once you’re on Big Corn Island (find out how) you’ll need to catch a water taxi (essentially a very long, very exposed motor boat) for the journey to Little Corn Island which costs around US$6 and takes 30 to 60 minutes depending on how rough the passage is (heading to Little Corn is often rougher because you’re gong against the current). Bring some large plastic bags to cover your luggage. If you forget to bring bags you can buy some from general stores near the dock.

We were told there was a plan to start sea plane service from the mainland to the Corn Islands but the sea plane is currently “parked” on Lake Nicaragua near Granada and no one in the area expressed much hope that the service would ever materialize.

Once you’re on Little Corn Island you’ll be walking or taking smaller water taxis everywhere. There are no roads and absolutely no motorized vehicles on Little Corn Island. We expected that there would be a few sneaky exceptions to this rule but over our five-day stay we never saw so much as a moped.

As you can imagine, the carelessness creates an instant luscious disconnect from the noise and pace of the rest of the world. If you can’t relax here there’s nothing we can do for you.

Casa Iguana beach Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

The view down to the beach from Casa Iguana on Little Corn Island in Nicaragua.

What to do on Little Corn Island

Snorkeling and SCUBA diving are the big activities on Little Corn and there are many more dive shops here than on Big Corn. When we were on Little Corn a group of guys was also getting ready to open a windsurfing business on the island, so check into that if that’s your sort of thing.

Or you can just let the heat and the slow, Caribbean pace of the place work their relaxing magic. We certainly heard the siren song of the hammock.

beach dogs Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

The “entertainment” at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island.

Where to eat on Little Corn Island

There is an extraordinary amount of good food on Little Corn Island. They’re not the cheapest meals you’ll have in Nica, but for around US$10 a plate you can eat very, very well at stylish beachfront places like Cafe Desideri and the nearby Tranquilo Cafe where expats (mostly Italians for some reason) have created tasty hang outs. We also heard rave reviews of the authentic Cuban food at Havana but at more like US$20 it was too spendy for us. Some dishes, like their famed ropa vieja, need to be ordered in advance.

There are cheaper eats as well. For example, we loved Rosa’s, a tiny open-air place on the south end of the island near Casa Iguana for breakfast. About US$3 got us fruit salad, coffee, eggs, bread…the whole shebang.

A disappointment was the three-course dinner, served family-style, at Casa Iguana which cost US$15 per person and was really nothing special.

beach Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

This beach was just steps away from our little bungalow at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island.

Where to stay on Little Corn Island

When we arrived on Little Corn Island a man named Bing was waiting to ferry us to the other side for our stay at Farm Peace & Love in his boat. We cannot imagine a better introduction to the charms of Little Corn Island.

Bing Farm Peace & Love boat

This is how Bing, co-creator of Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island, commutes to work.

Bing’s lancha is named “Peace & Love” and that’s what he and his partner, Paola, are all about. Paola, an Italian journalist and avid horsewoman, arrived on Little Corn years ago with her saddle. Bing had the only horse on the island. The rest is  history.

beach Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

Bing’s water taxi, the Peace & Love.

In 1996 they opened Farm Peace & Love on the still sparsely developed northern end of the island just a few steps from one of the sweetest little beaches on the island. The place is powered by solar energy and a wind turbine fashioned out of an airplane propeller and wood. Like Farm Peace & Love itself, the thing is half art, half tool. Bing and Paola live in a hand-crafted two-story home on the property and offer just two extremely private stand-alone casitas to guests.

bungalow Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

This the larger of the two casitas for rent at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Island.

Each has its own well-equipped kitchen and eggs and fruit from their chickens and organic garden plus coffee, homemade jam, house-pressed coconut oil, basic condiments and Paola’s delicious coconut bread are supplied. As other things ripen (basil, beans, limes, plantains) they magically appear on your porch (you’ll need to bring all other ingredients from the general stores near the dock in Big Corn Island which have the basics and not much else).

breakfast Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

Paola’s famous coconut bread, homemade jam and more produce from the farm made breakfast a treat at Farm Peace & Love.

We stayed in the smaller of the two casitas (which sleeps three and is called The Suite). It had an outdoor shower stocked with homemade coconut oil soap and a breezy porch with built-in wooden seating and a table. Ocean views were blocked by a wall of jungle but the soothing sound of the waves made it through.

Rules Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island

The house rules at Farm Peace & Love on Little Corn Islands.

There’s nothing to do at Farm Peace & Love except swim in the warm, clear water, play with the dogs, watch the land crabs do their crabby thing all over the place (mind the holes), nap, read, repeat. The “relaxation now” vibe was so intoxicating that Karen finally did the crossword puzzle she’d been carrying around for 10 months. Those feeling more energetic can go fishing or horseback riding with Bing.

On our final night we splurged on dinner prepared by Paola and Bing (about US$18 per person) which included pasta with a sauce made from tomatoes, basil and cashews followed by fresh jack fish caught by Bing with rosemary potatoes. The best part was the grounded, spiritual company of Paola and Bing who are content with what they’ve created, as they should be.

Farm Peace & Love - Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

Much of Farm Peace & Love is made by hand, including this sign.

We also stayed at Casa Iguana which is a brightly painted Caribbean version of every backpacker ghetto hostal you’ve ever stayed at. Guests turned into staffers or volunteers run the place, clothes dry on railings, books are exchanged, dive reports shared and well-worn flip-flops pile up outside the lounge/restaurant/bar area.

Casa Iguana - Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

Casa Iguana welcomes you on Little Corn Island.

Yemaya Island Hideaway Resort & Spa opened after our time on the island and is, by far, the most luxurious (and priciest) resort option on Little Corn Island.

Corn Islands know how

  • English is spoken almost everywhere
  • Don’t count on finding a working ATM (there are no ATMs at all on Little Corn)
  • There is no corn on the Corn Islands and there never was. The name is possibly a bastardization of Islas del Carne (islands of meat) since the islands used to be a common stop over for ships needing to re-stock on things like fresh meat.
  • There are eight baseball teams between the two sparsely populated islands. Learn more about why Nicaraguans love baseball.
Bottle building - Little Corn Island,  Nicaragua

We walked past this shop, constructed with hundreds of empty beer bottles, every day on Little Corn Island.

 

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Bigger is Not Always Better – Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

The Corn Islands, about 40 miles (70 kms) east of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, are not the easiest places to travel to but your effort will be rewarded. Everyone asks “which island is better?” Spoiler alert: we, like most travelers, prefer Little Corn Island which manages to be more pristine while still having a wider and more interesting array of places to stay, stuff to eat and things to do than it’s bigger, more developed sibling. Even if you’re ultimate goal is Little Corn Island you’ll have to stop on Big Corn Island on your way there, so here’s our travel guide to Big Corn Island.

Snorkeling Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island style: First class snorkeling to the left. First class snorkeling guide to the right.

Getting to Big Corn Island

You can get from Managua to Big Corn Island by taking a bus from 9 pm to 3 am to the town of Rama then catching a water taxi at daybreak for a 1.5 hour ride to Bluefields. From there you get on another boat departing for Big Corn Island twice a week (subject to change without notice) for a five-hour long ride that is often rough. The total cost for this multi-day, multi-craft journey is about US$35 per person.

But there is another way.

For around US$230 round trip per person La Costeña airline will get you to the quaint little airport on Big Corn Island in a puddle jumper from the international airport in Managua. Our flight made a pit stop at the airstrip in Bluefields where cargo and passengers were swapped before continuing on to Big Corn Island. Make reservations well in advance as this is the only airline servicing Big Corn Island and their tiny planes fill fast.

Flying into Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Our first view of the coastline of Big Corn Island in Nicaragua from our La Costeña flight from Managua.

When we landed we noticed a suspiciously swank looking helicopter under heavy guard at the airport. We later heard a rumor that it was President Daniel Orgeta’s ride and that he was in the ‘hood because of a pretty big drug bust that was taking place in Bluefields and other towns and regions that have become part of a connect-the-dots that drug traffickers use to get the goods north.

If you’re tight on time we’d recommend that you go directly from the airport on Big Corn Island to the small dock area in the center of town where you can catch a boat for Little Corn Island. They leave twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

Las Costena Airlines - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Our boarding passes for our La Costeña flight from Managua to Big Corn Island were these clipboard-sized pieces of plastic.

If you’ve got time to explore Big Corn Island, read on.

What do do on Big Corn Island

Despite it’s name, Big Corn Island has a total area of just four square miles (10 square kms) which means it’s perfectly reasonable and enjoyable to walk around the entire perimeter of the island. If you’re too lazy for that you can flag down any of the numerous cabs on the island and get anywhere you want to go for about US$1 per person.

If the sight of all that Caribbean blue water makes you want to get in it, check out Dive Nautilus where Chema runs the only dive shop on the island. Our dive wasn’t earth shattering, but it was enjoyable and we saw a few lobsters (Nicaragua’s third largest export is lobster and much of it comes from commercial harvesting in this area), a southern sting ray, some barracuda and just a smattering of reef fish despite the fact that the coral coverage was pretty good.

Nautalis Dive - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Nautilus Dive Center, the only dive operation on Big Corn Island.

Where to eat on Big Corn Island

It’s easy to spend too much for mediocre food on Big Corn Island but a worthy splurge is a heaping plate of lobster and shrimp for US$12 at Comedor Maris (all the cabbies know where it is) served on a breezy patio.

Finding even mildly interesting cheap eats on Big Corn Island was a challenge. Ingredients and culinary creativity are both scarce. We finally found Cafetin McGowan (not far from the dock area where water taxis to Little Corn Island depart from) where a perma-smiling woman named Vesna plates up huge portions of fresh yellowtail for about US$4.

During our circumambulation of the island we did not see a single waterside bar but you can enjoy a cold one right across the road from the water at Seva’s Dos Milas for less than US$1 or at Fisher’s Cove near the boat dock which is less tranquil but often breezier.

Where to sleep on Big Corn Island

On the south side of the island is Casa Canada with motel-style rooms each with a breezy porch overlooking an infinity-edge pool right above the Caribbean. It’s a peaceful setting and the view from the pool can’t be beat. The hammocks don’t suck either.

On the other side of the island, close to the airport, is Arenas Beach Hotel. Don’t be put off by the hotel’s “Miami circa 1975” website. This place has a nice bit of beach with a bar built into the hull of an old boat, loungers and a bonfire area and they’ve done a lot with concrete and festive paint.

Casa Canada Hotel - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

Eric got out of this hammock at Casa Canada on Big Corn Island just long enough to take a photo of it.

Corn Islands know how

  • English is spoken almost everywhere
  • Don’t count on finding a working ATM
  • There is no corn on the Corn Islands and there never was. The name is possibly a bastardization of Islas del Carne (islands of meat) since the islands used to be a common stop over for ships needing to re-stock on things like fresh meat
  • There are eight baseball teams between the two sparsely populated islands. Learn more about why Nicaraguans love baseball
Crab Crossing - Big Corn Island, Nicaragua

This is about as stressful as it gets on Big Corn Island in Nicaragua.

 

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