Category Archives: Environmental design & planning

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

A people-friendly community that chooses to be entirely without motor vehicles on land

I’m just back from a couple of weeks on Little Corn Island, a square mile of land fifty miles off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. It’d be a great sister city for my town of McCarthy, Alaska, and I recommend it to McCarthyites as a place to visit.

Little Corn has beaches, forests, a village on the leeward side, about 1200 residents who are mostly English-speaking creoles of mixed black heritage and Spanish-speaking mestizo people from Pacific Nicaragua, along with tourists who are mostly young and athletic snorkelers and divers staying in funky beach lodges on the breezy windward side. Although they use motorboats in the ocean, the community has decided to be entirely vehicle-free on shore: walking and bicycles only. There are paths, some paved, but no roads. “Mainstreet” is like a wide sidewalk.

A senior member of one of the local extended families told me that the elected island government made the motor vehicle-free decision with widespread support, though some younger people disagree. He said he’d been involved in lobbying through funding from Managua for paving the cross-island path to the windward tourist lodges and extending the electric line there from the village generator (operates noon-2am, when not broken), at the same time he supported keeping motor vehicles off the island. That position, pro-development with conditions to maintain quality of life for locals and unique attraction for visitors, of course reminds me of McCarthy.

Local young man working at a tourist lodge, barefoot with iPod
Young man working at a tourist lodge, barefoot with iPod

Although on the average materially very poor, the people I met are in general the happiest, healthiest and most upbeat I have encountered. The brightness in their eyes is as unique as what I used to notice in some residents of the Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains decades ago. That’s recognizing that my stay on Little Corn was brief, communication limited by language differences, and there’s much about the culture that I don’t understand.

Downtown Little Corn Island
Downtown Little Corn Island

Access to Little Corn is by boat from Big Corn, which has roads, vehicles and an airport with prop-plane connections to Managua. Most passenger ferry service to Little Corn is by open pangas that make the crossing from Big Corn in about forty minutes, depending on conditions. Panga drivers can string a long piece of visqueen plastic along the side of the boat, for passengers to hold up to shield off wind-blown spray.

A relaxed meal at Hatty's El Bosque restaurant
A relaxed meal at Hatty’s El Bosque restaurant

Recently, Little Corn has become a tourist destination. Most of the visitors I met are young people from North America or Europe traveling about the world inexpensively. Most of the lodging is in basic one-room cabins on or near the beach, though a few are more up-scale and a high-end ($300/night) version has opened on a secluded beach. Among other activities, that one hosts yoga retreats. In general, the basic lodges and restaurants are locally owned and the fancier ones, more efficient and clock-oriented, are foreign owned and operated. A meal in a locally-owned restaurant can take hours, including conversations among the guests and with the staff, which I enjoyed.

Other sources of income/sustenance I heard about talking with locals include commercial fishing, traveling globally as cruise ship staff, and subsistence on fish, fruit, cocoanuts, and other garden crops. Chickens are everywhere. Cattle graze on the uplands. I didn’t notice signs of hunger. Coming from the USA, the relative absence of overweight people on Little Corn and their erect posture was dramatic. I didn’t have much time on Big Corn, but heard from a friend that residents there are significantly heavier. Little Corn is different.

A man on Big Corn explained that he got most of his income from multi-month stints on a lobster boat crew. He said he got 10 cents/pound for lobster selling for $16/pound at Costco.

Land for sale
Land for sale

I noticed a number of affluent, new residences owned by expatriate foreigners, located in desirable locations with views and moderate breezes. One couple, who had moved from the US, kindly invited me into their home. I enjoyed helping with one of their projects, harvesting a piece of driftwood to be cut with their chainsaw mill for use in creative furniture construction. That reminded me of McCarthy. One person told me that in general locals see foreigners’ house construction as a positive source of jobs and not a problem, though limits are being placed on new businesses being established by outsiders. I’m not clear on the details of that.

My visit was a glimpse into an place that’s rapidly changing and unstable. Young children are playing everywhere, old people are infrequent, and so the population is evidently exploding. I don’t know to what extent that includes migration from the mainland. The beaches are rapidly eroding, with palm trees falling into the sea. I don’t know why. I went diving on the reef once, but didn’t return, because there were so few fish and the coral is algae-covered, I presume largely from overfishing. I heard that the local government had established a no-fishing zone encompassing the reef around the island, but had no means to enforce it when fishing boats came over from Big Corn. Depletion of the reef probably greatly affects the potential for tourism centered on snorkeling and diving. Tourism is quite new to the island, presumably rapidly changing, and I don’t know how the mix of local and foreign control is playing out. The island I experienced is clearly unsustainable.

Despite that and the material poverty, the evident joy, openness and self-confidence of most local people I met is impressive. I’m struck by the comparison with an American marine biologist, about thirty years old with a graduate degree, with whom I chatted at a beach restaurant. He was vacationing on his way back to the US for a break from studying sea turtles on Central American Pacific beaches. I found him cynical and depressed about what’s happening to the turtles and environmental decline. Here’s a person who has everything going for him, within the reality of the world: interesting, useful work with the possibility of doing some good; relatively vast material affluence and the ability to travel; youth and health. Yet I felt a deep unhappiness. All around him on Little Corn — I don’t think he recognized it, or the difference with himself — were people his age, living in the midst of that environmental condition, inescapably caught in its immediate consequences, uneducated, comparatively with nothing, yet happier, in an essential way I’d say more free. If he knew how to take responsibility for his own happiness, to see the possibility, what joy he could bring into the world, for himself and for those around him. And I suspect he’d be more successful in his conservation work, too.

What follows is my photo essay about the island, focusing mostly on the transportation/access aspects that make it interesting in conjunction with McCarthy and regarding the larger questions of the consequences of motor vehicles and the possibilities for conscious decisions about their use.

Before going to my photos, here’s a video from the high point on the island that’s posted on the website of Little Corn tourist info:

Little Corn photo essay:

Beaches:

Beach erosion:

Paths:

Mainstreet in the village. No motor vehicles on the island, none, never, by local community decision, even though they freely and competently use motorboats on the water.

Traffic:IMG_3496 pigs sow and piglets

Freighting:IMG_3673

Businesses:IMG_3573

IMG_3597

Residences: