Hush. You'll disturb the iguanas

The Caribbean isn't just about fly-and-flop holidays in all-inclusive resorts, says Oliver Marshall, there's a quieter side, too. And you can find it if you make the journey to Little Corn Island, off the coast of Nicaragua
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The Independent Travel

Eighty-year-old Otto Carlson isn't really sure how his grandfather came to settle on Little Corn Island. Perhaps the Swedish sailor first caught sight of the two Corn Islands while travelling to or from the Panama Canal. What is certain, however, is that Gustav Carlson somehow reached the big island (as the 11sq km Corn Island, the largest of the two islands, is usually called), and that he was among the first permanent settlers on Little Corn, arriving at the end of the 19th century and acquiring land on the island's north shore.

Looking around, it's easy to guess why Gustav chose this particular spot to end his travels: a perfect white-sand beach fronts the property he built on a slight slope, shaded by coconut palms, avocado, mango, lime and other fruit trees. "It would be difficult to find a more beautiful and picturesque spot in any other part of Central America, or the West Indies," declared an early 19th-century British visitor to the Corn Islands. This observation still holds true of Little Corn. Not many Caribbean islands have barely been touched by tourism. But getting there can be awkward: first you have to travel to Managua, the Nicaraguan capital, from which you take a two-hour flight to the big island, usually arriving in time for one of the twice-daily launches to Little Corn. The 15km crossing can be a smooth 45-minute passage, or it can involve a frightening two hours at sea.

Accommodation on both islands ranges from utterly basic to modestly comfortable, with the options on Little Corn limited to just three small places. Tourists are made to feel perfectly welcome - neither hassled nor fawned over by the locals, for this is a living, working community, not a resort. Moored along the stretch of beach fronting the island's only village are sleek fibreglass pangas - the local deep-hulled skiffs - all equipped with powerful outboard motors. These aren't for taking tourists to the coral reef that protects the island. Instead they're used for lobster fishing - the mainstay of the island's legal economy and a dangerous but profitable occupation involving scuba diving to pick lobsters sheltering in reef crevices.

Set amid the most perfect, transparent, turquoise-coloured sea, protected by a coral reef, the low-lying 2sq km island can easily be covered on foot. This is just as well because Little Corn has no cars - indeed, no motor vehicles of any description. Rimmed almost entirely by a single stretch of sand, fringed with gently curving coconut palms, the entire island can be explored in just a few hours. The interior is a mix of forest, overgrown pasture and abandoned orchards and while the trails that criss-cross the island are a little confusing, you're always near to a house where you can stop and ask for directions.

I'd been staying at the Casa Iguana, in the far south-east of the island, and I'd spent the morning aimlessly strolling along the beach. Set on a breezy promontory overlooking the sea, the guesthouse is the creation of an American couple, Grant and Cathy Peeples. Some 10 years ago, Grant caught a glimpse of Little Corn Island from the air while heading home to Florida on a flight from South America, decided to investigate and, like Gustav Carlson, fell in love with the island. The Casa Iguana blends perfectly with the environment, with basic clapboard cabins providing remarkably comfortable and private accommodation and a central lodge where meals are served. Most of the fruit and vegetables are from the garden and the fish - including barracuda, snapper and kingfish - are caught on the daily fishing and snorkelling expeditions offered to guests.

I headed north from Iguana Beach, alternating between wading in the gentle ocean surf, walking on the soft sand and sheltering from the sun beneath the coconut palms that serve as a natural canopy stretching the length of the shore. Just beyond Derek's Beach, the shoreline curves into the north, where Gustav Carlson chose to settle, a stretch of beach that's not as broad as what went before but which, with the palm trees growing closer to the waterline, is even lovelier.

I sat talking to Otto, Gustav's grandson, who recalled a long-vanished, almost utopian existence when the two English-speaking Corn Islands were largely left alone by the central government in far-off Managua. "We used to grow all kinds of things," said Otto. "We had a lot of plantain, banana, cassava - we sold a little, ate a little. We had eight cows and we'd make real good butter. But most of all we'd grow coconuts, make oil and send it up to Managua to be turned into soap. It's different now. In them days we used to strike one or two lobster when we needed them, but now it's all lobster, lobster, lobster. The lobster is gettin' smaller and so's the catch. But when lobster stops, people who've come from off island will have to go for there'll be nothing to do."

After leaving Otto I headed towards Little Corn's only village for lunch.As the trail approaches the village, where the overwhelming majority of Little Corn's 700 inhabitants live, the number of houses increases. Some are no more than shanties, made of thin plywood sheets, inhabited by recent arrivals from remote mainland communities scattered along Nicaragua's Caribbean coast - creoles from Bluefields, Garifuna from Pearl Lagoon and Miskitu Indians from Puerto Cabezas - and even a few "Spaniards", as people from the Pacific side of the country are contemptuously called, all attracted by the opportunities of work in the lobster fisheries or processing plant. Other houses, larger, brightly coloured clapboard structures of the native islanders - as the old Corn Islands families consider themselves - seem to blend better with the island environment.

Bridget Daniels didn't have turtle on the menu when I stopped by her restaurant beside the Baptist church. "Tourists don't much ask for turtle here," she told me, adding that if I didn't want lobster she could offer fried chicken. "If you want, maybe I can get you turtle tomorrow. There are a couple tied up along the beach waiting slaughter." I declined.

After a delicious plate of coconut rice, beans and lobster sautéed in garlic, I left Miss Bridget for a siesta. Walking through the forest between the village and the Casa Iguana, 20 minutes away, I wondered for how much longer Little Corn can remain so unaffected by tourism.

Give me the facts

How do I get there?

Iberia (via Madrid), Continental Airlines (via Houston) and American Airlines (via Miami) fly to Managua from the UK. Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108; www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk) is offering a return fare of £560 with Iberia and £594 with American Airlines. There are twice-daily flights between Managua and Corn Island with La Costera (00 50 5 263 1228; www.flylacostera.com). Return fares cost $106 (£66).

Being there

The Casa Iguana's cabins all have private facilities and cost $50 (£31) per night; basic rooms with shared facilities cost $20 (£12) per night, excluding meals. Reservations (www.casaiguana.net) are essential, especially December to March.

Further information

Latin America Travel Association (020-8715 2913; www.lata.org).

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