Dollar-Friendly Destinations 2008
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The place: Little Corn Island, Nicaragua
It's a poor man's: Costa Rica
The financial analysis: Nicaragua is radically less expensive than its once-cheap neighbor to the south ("once" being the operative word—the Four Seasons in Costa Rica charges upward of $400 a night, and Mandarin Oriental and St. Regis are both planning resorts there). Even during holiday season, the most luxurious place in Managua, the InterContinental, runs less than $150. Once you get to the coastal islands on the Caribbean Sea, they might as well be paying you to visit.
Price of a beer: $3
What to do: Forget the agricultural-sounding name: Little Corn Island is tiny, remote, and tropical, and a lot less disturbed than nearby Caribbean outposts. Nicaragua's islands share the same impressive barrier reef as Belize but don't have the crowds or inflated prices (one dive costs about $35). If you're not already certified, you can accomplish that here—it takes three days—so you can see barracuda, sharks, tropical fish, and all the other reasons people voluntarily breathe through a tank 100 feet below sea level. If you're not chicken, go on a night dive.
Hotel: Think of the bus-stop ads for Mexican beer—the photo of an anonymous and idyllic beach—and you're imagining the backdrop to Casa Iguana. Less a hotel than a sprinkling of brightly colored bungalows on a patch of fine beach, the Iguana proudly boasts, "No cars, no phone, no Jet Skis, no cocktail umbrellas." And a bungalow for two is a mere $35 a night.
Cheap eats: For a little diversity after a couple of days on Little Corn, take the 40-minute boat ride over to Big Corn and make for the restaurant at the Paraiso Beach Hotel. Housed inside a giant alfresco palapa, it serves different specialties nightly; a lobster just plucked from the sea will set you back a mere $20 or so. Try to swing that at home. (The hotel's a good place to stay, too, with bungalows around $65 a night in high season.)
How to get there: Several American carriers fly to Managua for about $300 in low season and about twice that during the holiday season. From Managua, La Costeña provides the short flight to Big Corn Island (around $165 round-trip), where you can hop on a boat in Brig Bay to Little Corn Island.
Paraiso Beach Hotel
Tel: 505 575 5111