Skull Islands

As a map geek, I'm not comfortable travel-ing until I've navigated the land and calibrated my own inner compass to true north and the local pace. Thus afflicted, I virtually traveled off the map last winter to Big Corn Island, the larger in a two-isle chain including Little Corn Island, some 45 miles off mainland Nicaragua in the Caribbean Sea. From the plane, I gain a first aerial look: sand-fringed, with a forest-filled interior and shaped like a skull in profile.

After dropping my luggage off at the hotel, I make my way to the skull's maw, aka Picnic Center Beach, the leisure hub of this quiet island with a beach bar and a few simple hotels. At this sloping blonde strand, waitresses sweep stray sand from a palapa, awaiting Toña-beer-drinking beach-goers. It's a come-to-the-island postcard, but I itch to get my bearings somehow. Then a giggling teenage couple — her pedalling from the bike seat, him steering side-saddle on the cross bar — wobble past me down the sand road. That's my ticket. I turn to a taxi driver parked in the palm shade: "Where can I rent a bike?"

For 15 cordobas, or about 85 cents, the driver leaves me near the brow of the skull-shaped island at Dive Nautilus which, in addition to arranging diving trips, stocks cycles. My bike's chain is rusty, but the tires are full, so I take it for $2 per hour and, with a hand-drawn map at my side, set out to circumnavigate the island — which sounds grand. But then you must consider that the road ringing Corn is only about six miles long and the terrain is sea-level flat. Given my gym tempo, I should have been done riding it in only 26 minutes. It took four hours and 34 minutes. And I can't even blame the jay-walking land crabs.

I pedal at the maximum rate the battered bike allows. Which is to say, I can comfortably sightsee. Leaving Dive Nautilus, I swing east over the top of the island to Corn Island Marine Park. An array of thatch-roofed rafts creates an archipelago of mini-islands that arcs around a pier, each raft for rent to snorkelers who can spend the day ogling fish and, when out of the water, sunning topside. I mark the map for a future, post-survey visit and push off, only to brake 100 feet up the road where six uniformed school children file by.

"Picture, OK?" I wave my camera as they eagerly bunch up. With café-con-leche complexions and inky hair, this group looks classically Central American; native tribes were first noted on Big Corn by 16th-century pirates who named the island for the local crop. Other Corn Islanders are darker, descendants of slaves owned by British plantation bosses. Still others are unique hybrids, caramel-skinned, sometimes freckled or with ice-blue eyes. Culturally, though, it's an Anglo isle; Quinn and Campbell are common surnames, and English is spoken.

I leave the kids voguing and pedal to the cranium for quiet Sally Peaches Beach, where a woman is wading in to fish.

My ambition to ride completely stalls over lunch. There is no such thing as a quick meal on Big Corn. At Restaurant Sabor I order the comida corriente — literally "current meal" — and suspect that the proprietor is stewing the spicy chicken, steaming the rice, chopping the cabbage and dicing the tomato to order; it is deliciously wait-worthy when it finally arrives an hour later and, at $4, I mark the map for a leisurely repeat.

Across the street at the Casa Canada hotel, owner Larry Johnson, a Canadian who fell in love with Big Corn after looking for property in 45 countries, answers my "How you doing?" with islander lingo, "Right here!" To fully scout the island, he recommends a hike to Mount Pleasant — at around 318 feet the tallest point on the island — and indicates a grassy road.

I reconnoiter inland on foot, legging it up past a school where the students sing out "Hello!" from their classroom, and on to a jungle track where boys aged 4 to 12 tag along, racing ahead in bare feet and then waiting on logs fallen across the path for me to catch up. The oldest offers to carry my bag up the two-story viewing tower Sherpa-style. Emerging from the metal ladder onto the platform, I spy 360-degree views of the island, thickly knit interiors hemmed by surf-strafed shores where pirates, including the notorious Captain Morgan, allegedly buried treasure at the closest uncolonized anchorage after plundering the Spanish coastline (now Nicaragua).

Back in the saddle, I follow the main road as it leaves the shore, crossing the island to the west, pausing at a small house opposite the airport runway for pan de coco — coconut bread, which is fresh out of the oven. I nearly close the circumnavigation loop when, 10 minutes later, I reach the eye socket known as Brig Bay, home to the ferry port that shuttles people and goods to and from the mainland town of Bluefields. As a measure of my newfound pace, I don't dash for the finish line but idle at Fisher's Cave waterfront restaurant to watch the comings and goings along the dock.

By sundown, when I cab it to Hotel Cesar Beach, located at Picnic Center Beach, for a barbecue, the rondon — a Caribbean "rundown," or seafood stewed in coconut milk — is bubbling away on a beach fire. Larry Johnson invites me to join him and his Flor de Caña rum bottle. Here, too, the Mount Pleasant boys wave.

"How you doing?" Larry asks.

I've only ridden six extremely slow miles, but I've come a long way since morning. "Right here," I smile.