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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.
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.