Vagabond Tales: Scuba diving Nicaragua in a lightning storm

In spite of being one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, many travelers list Nicaragua as their hands-down favorite country in Central America. The colonial heritage of Granada and Leon, the world-class surf of Popoyo and San Juan del Sur, and the relaxing feel of the islands, these are all highlights of Nicaragua that draw visitors back time and again.

Wait. Did you just say the islands? Since when are there islands in Nicaragua?

While a fair amount of travelers pay a visit to Isla de Ometepe, a volcanic island located in the middle of Lake Nicaragua which is home to some of the world’s only freshwater sharks, not as many people venture off the Caribbean coastline to Las Islas del Maiz, an isolated grouping better known as the Corn Islands.

Reachable via a short flight from the coastal outpost of Bluefields (or an all day/overnight ferry), the Corn Islands were originally colonized by the British and have a distinctly more Caribbean feel to them than the Latin influence found back on the Nicaraguan mainland.

They are also reputed to have some of the best scuba diving along the Central American coastline, which is what ultimately lured me into stuffing myself into a 15-seater prop plane for a flight to the middle of nowhere. Little did I know that heading into this dive trip, things were going to get just a little bit weird.

Having arrived in Big Corn Island after an uneventful flight, a brief taxi ride and fistful of Nicaraguan córdobas landed me on a 30-minute panga ride to Little Corn Island, population 800. With a land area that barely exceeds 1 sq. mile, Little Corn has no motorized vehicles and a single, sandy footpath, which serves as the island’s pedestrian highway.

Shacked up in a multi-colored, refreshingly rustic beach bungalow at Casa Iguana, arrangements were made for doing an offshore boat dive the following morning with Dive Little Corn, one of only two dive operators on the entire island. I was introduced to our dive master, a local Nicaraguan man who would be leading us into the crystalline waters the following morning. From his wide smile and affable demeanor he didn’t appear to be the type of person who would take pleasure in manhandling sharks. Apparently, I would be wrong about this.After an enormously satisfying dinner of locally caught barracuda, I rose the next morning to the sound of heavy raindrops crashing violently onto the bungalow’s tin roof.

The rainy season for Central America generally spans from May to December, often heaviest in September and October. On the bedside table of the bungalow sat my boarding pass from yesterday’s flight. The date read October 11th. A brief look outside confirmed that this rain meant business.

Throwing on an old blue rain jacket, I opted to skip breakfast and hustle down to the dive shop for an update. With each step I trod down the puddle-laden walkway, the rain and wind increased by ferocious leaps and bounds. As I emerged from the soggy bush and rounded the corner towards the dive shop, deafening claps of thunder and frequent blasts of lightning added an orchestra to the tempestuous sky.

There was no way we were going to dive in this.

There in front of me, however, stood our resilient dive master diligently loading tanks, BCD’s, and regulators onto a silver boat that bucked like a rodeo bronco atop the churned up sea.

Amidst the maelstrom that had momentarily engulfed this Caribbean paradise, it suddenly became apparent that this dive was still a go. Any momentary hesitation I may have once felt immediately changed to reckless excitement. I mean, why not dive Nicaragua in a lightning storm?

After all, as the sign above my desk reads, “all bad decisions make good stories.” I tried to keep this in mind as I watched lightning flashes strike nearby from the comfort of a soaking wet metal boat.

As it turns out, once beneath the surface of the water the lightning storm became completely irrelevant. The water clarity was on par with dives from Thailand to Hawaii, and for a moment I was finally able to relax and enjoy drifting weightlessly past colorful fan coral and vibrant underwater pinnacles.

That was, of course, until we started petting nurse sharks, which is an experience probably best left for an entirely different column.

Though the scene may have been tranquil at 80 ft. below the surface, the storm back where we had left the boat had reached incredible new levels of intensity. Surfacing from the dive amidst constant flashes of piercing white light, the hard metal boat bounced about the ocean like a toy boat in a tub.

No te preocupes,” the captain warmly comforted me as he helped schlep my gear back aboard the soaking wet vessel. His calm demeanor stood in stark contrast to the atmospheric fury taking place all around us, and his broad smile revealed a number of missing teeth.

Todo está bien,” he surmised. It’s all good. As the threat of being struck by lightning seemed to be an inevitable reality, however, all did not currently appear to be good.

As legendary travel writer Pico Iyer discussed in a recent piece on Gadling, often times while traveling we must accept that we are no longer in control. There are forces of the universe far greater than we are, which can determine our ultimate fate, and when we strike out on the road and remove ourselves from our comfort zone, we often are left with little more to do than sit back and enjoy the ride.

And what if that ride is on a rollicking metal panga with a shark stroking dive instructor while surrounded by electrically charged bolts of absolute and certain death?

Just follow the thinking of a Nicaraguan boat captain: todo está bien. Just roll with it and see where you go.

In the Heart of Central America: Diving the Bay Islands of Honduras

Honduras’ Bay Islands – the large islands of Roatan, Utila and Guanaja, plus Cayos Cochinos and the Swan Islands – sit about 40 miles off the coast of the mainland in the Caribbean Sea. While the islands are as beautiful as any others in the Caribbean and offer long sandy white beaches, turquoise water, and lush jungle landscapes, the biggest draw for most visitors is the area’s superb and low-cost diving.

Most visitors stay in Roatan, the largest and most developed of the islands. Home to about 35,000 people, it is the most-visited spot in Honduras. Flights take about 15 minutes from La Ceiba – as soon as the plane rises above the clouds, it starts its descent to the island – or an hour from San Pedro Sula (including a brief stop in La Ceiba). The flight on Taca Regional costs about $90 from La Ceiba or $250 from San Pedro Sula. There are other flight options, but for a fearful flyer, Taca’s modern planes were the most attractive.

Direct flights from the US are offered by several airlines. Taca arrives from Miami on Saturday and Sunday and Continental arrives from Houston on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and from Atlanta on Saturdays. Even if you are flying within Honduras, it’s wise to know the large carrier schedules as lines at the airport can triple at times when flights to the US depart.The island is accessible by ferry as well. The Galaxy Wave carries up to 460 people at a time, takes just under an hour, and costs about $50. Private yacht charters are also available for $50 per person each way. Unfortunately, there is currently no land or air connection (unless by charter) between Roatan and Utila. You’ll have to backtrack through La Ceiba.

Roatan is the largest of the Bay Islands, but it is still quite small at about 30 miles long and 3.5 miles across at its widest point. At certain spots along the main road you can actually see the Caribbean Sea on both sides of your window. The island’s east side is much more undeveloped than the west, so if you are looking for a little bit of nightlife to go with your diving, stay in West End, a small one-lane collection of open-air restaurants, bars and shops that are just a few yards from the beach. Be sure to try some of the island’s fresh-from-the-sea seafood like shrimp, lobster and conch.

Roatan recently completed a new Port, located near the island’s capital of Coxen Hole, a collection of brightly-colored homes that house most of the island’s residents. The houses were painted so vibrantly so that early postal workers could identify houses that didn’t have addresses. Letters were simply addresses to Name, color of house, Coxen Hole. During high season, cruise ships will be docking every day (even twice a day sometimes) so steer clear of this otherwise mostly residential area if you want to avoid crowds. If you are arriving via cruise ship, you can book activities in advance and hop in a cab at the Port. Cab fare to most destinations on the island’s west side will cost under $10 each way. Just negotiate your fare before getting in.

There are over two dozen dive companies operating on Roatan. One of the most popular is Anthony’s Key, a full-service dive resort that’s been in operation for over 40 years. Rooms are located in wooden cabanas that are a short boat ride across the Lagoon from the main grounds and accommodations include three meals per day. Seven-night high season dive packages start at $2000 and include all meals, three days dives, two night dives, and additional excursions.

For kids and adults, one of the most exciting aspects of Anthony’s Key is the on-site Dolphin encounter. During the summer, the resort, in cooperation with the Roatan Institute for Marine Science (R.I.M.S.) offers kids the chance to be a dolphin trainer, with a week-long Dolphin Scuba Camp. The also offer dolphin encounters, dives, and snorkel activities. During the dolphin encounter, guests learn all about dolphins, how they interact, feed and survive in the wild. They can pet the dolphin, watch it perform tricks, and mug for the camera as the dolphin gives a soft, wet kiss on the cheek.

Snorkelers can swim freely with the dolphins, watching as the dolphins swim around and below them and play with one another. Dolphin dives are also available. During the dives, the dolphins are released into the open water and then interact with the divers near a shallow reef wall. At the end of the dives, sometimes the dolphins come back to the enclosure and sometimes they don’t. If not, the dolphin trainers say, they’ll always come back with the next boat.

If you’re looking for cheaper accommodations than those offered by Anthony’s Key, stay in West End and arrange for dives with a tour operator. In West End, you can also hit the beach, rent a jet ski for the day, or just relax with a few Salva Vida beers and some live music as you watch the sunset at places like The Dive Bar.

For divers on a budget, or those who want to get certified, Utila may be a better option than Roatan. Like Roatan, the waters around Utila are teeming with life. Divers can often encounter whale sharks, dolphins and manta rays as they swim along reefs and around shipwrecks and deep drop-offs. Both islands have easy access to the Mesoamerican reef, the largest reef in region. It’s over 1000km long and is home to over 500 species of fish, 1000 manatees, and several species of dolphins.

Known as the cheapest place in the world to get SCUBA certified, Utila is home to several operators offering very attractive prices. One dive with the Utila Dive Center is $35, a package of ten dives is $250. They also offer courses to become a certified SCUBA instructor. Rooms at the attached Mango Inn start at $10 for a dorm room to $70 for a deluxe room for two. Three nights in a deluxe room with PADI certification is $339 per person.

With beautiful beaches, some of the best and cheapest diving in the world, delicious fresh seafood, and a laid back lifestyle, the Bay Islands are the perfect place for dive enthusiasts and budget beach-bums to enjoy the Caribbean.

This trip was paid for by the Honduras Institute of Tourism, but the views expressed are entirely my own.

You can read other posts from my series on Honduras here.