It started off bad when we didn’t have internet at the Grand River Lodge – or anywhere around the Rio San Juan. Our Lonely Planet: Central America on a Shoestring book had given us limited information, however, we decided to attempt to get to the Corn Islands without flying anyways. Flying is obviously the most convenient way, but is also the most expensive way and can also only be done from Managua (which we were six hours away from via bus). The overland route it was via multiple buses/boats, and the adventure began.
We left the Grand River Lodge to catch the 6:30 AM bus to San Carlos. During this hour journey along bumpy, dirt roads in a hot, humid school bus with all the windows open we got filthy. We were literally covered in a thick layer of dirt stuck to us with sweat. Great start. Our next bus was a six hour bus to El Rama (again a so called ‘direct bus’ that must have made at least 50 stops on the way). This bus was an upscale, newer school bus with fancier seats; however, Dan’s leg were still far from fitting behind the seat. We miserably tried to pass time listening to music but really we were just craving a shower and some remorse from the constant heat.
We arrived in El Rama around 3:00 PM, which was after our book said the last panga left for Bluefields (our next stop). Luckily, they run extras if there are enough people interested and we put our names on the waiting list to see if 18 people signed up. After an hour or so of waiting, they had enough people and we were off. The trip lasted about an hour and a half as the driver had the 200HP outboard motor pinned and we were flying downstream on the river towards the coast. When we finally arrived in Bluefields it was after 5:00 PM which was when the last panga leaves for El Bluff (they won’t go after dark). We wanted to get to El Bluff to catch a cargo boat that was supposedly passing by between 3:00 and 5:00 AM. With this out of the question, we decided to stay the night in Bluefields and get some internet to figure out our other options.
Bluefields is a mixture of two cultures; people of Spanish decent and African decent. Those of African decent speak Caribbean English “a broad term for the dialects of the English language spoken in the Caribbean. Scholars generally agree that although the dialects themselves vary significantly in each of these countries, they all have roots in 17th-century English and African languages” (wikipedia). We were told on arrival by a local that “black people speak English” (and Spanish). While it’s not the English from home and sometimes very difficult to understand (impossible when they’re speaking to each other), it was incredibly refreshing to have people understand us.
The first hotel we checked showed us a room with condoms on the bedside table – not a good sign. They showed us a second room with an ensuite bathroom which looked quite a bit nicer but we questioned why there was a large bucket of water with a scoop in it under the shower. The guy explained that Bluefields was going through a water shortage and they turned off the water for most of the day leaving us a bucket and scoop to shower with. Now, remember, we are covered in dirt and sweat – the dirtiest we have been yet this trip – and we can’t shower. We checked two more hotels before realizing that we weren’t going to have one with running water and settling on a cheap place ($15 USD/night) with a private bathroom where we would attempt to bucket shower with the smelly water.
We dropped off our bags and went out to get dinner and buy baby wipes (alternative to showering). Bluefields is a large port town, with countless docks and fish markets. The town had a dirty and rundown feeling and we only found one restaurant that looked decent. Questionably, they didn’t have running water in the bathrooms either so I shudder to think what they were cooking with. That night, we used our hotels free Wi-Fi to look up ways to get to the Corn Islands. We found countless blogs that said the cargo and passenger ships passing from Bluefields or El Bluff are completely on their own schedule and may or may not show up when “scheduled.” They are also supposedly an awful experience sitting on deck next to tanks of fuel and pallets of vegetables and meat with no real seat for five to seven hours. We couldn’t find one that was supposed to come by Friday afternoon or anytime on Saturday and we weren’t inclined to stay in Bluefields the extra few days. We caved and bought a flight from Bluefields to the Corn Islands – the flight from Managua makes a stop there on route. In retrospect, we would have saved money busing to Managua and buying a return flight ticket as well as saved a lot of time and sanity. Once on the islands, we talked to people who did make it to El Bluff Thursday night and said the boat we originally tried to catch early Friday morning never came and quite a few people ended up flying as well; the overland/water method is totally not worth it in our opinion. If you are planning a trip to the Corn Islands, we highly recommend flying.