The 36 volcanic islands in southern Lake Cocibolca have a long history of habitation. Signs of its original residents are abundant in the form of petroglyphs, cave paintings, and artifacts. Somoza’s logging companies deforested most of the archipelago, and Boaco cattlemen cut the rest to make pasture. But much of the forest has been allowed to regenerate, and the rebirth has attracted artists and biologists from all over the world. Fishing, of course, remains a mainstay of the islanders’ diet. Today, 129 families (about 750 people) share the archipelago with an amazing diversity of vegetation, birds, and other wildlife.The flowers along the path on your way up were planted to attract butterflies and hummingbirds.Solentiname’s best-known attraction is the creativity of its inhabitants, a talent Padre Ernesto Cardenal discovered in 1966 when he gave brushes and paint to local jícaro carvers. Cardenal, recently returned from a Trappist monastery in Kentucky, formed a Christian community in Solentiname and stayed on Isla Mancarrón to work and write for the next 10 years (he is locally referred to as “El Poeta”). Under his guidance, the simple church at Solentiname became the heart of Nicaragua’s liberation theology movement, which represents Christ as the revolutionary savior of the poor. Cardenal’s book, The Gospels of Solentiname, is a written record of the phenomenon.
Cardenal later became the Sandinista Minister of Culture and formed the Asociación Para el Desarollo de Solentiname (Solentiname Development Association, or APDS). Under APDS, the arts continued to flourish and receive much attention from the rest of the world. Today, no fewer than 50 families continue to produce balsa-wood carvings and bright “primitivist” paintings of the landscape and community.
Planning a Visit
Essentially, only the four largest of the nearly three dozen islands are inhabited: Isla Mancarrón, Isla San Fernando (a.k.a. Isla Elvis Chavarría), Isla la Venada (a.k.a. Isla Donald Guevara), and Isla Mancarroncito. Only the first two have services for tourists. Staying on the island requires you to plan your meals ahead, as there aren’t many restaurants in Mancarrón or San Fernando. Ask your host about including food in your room rate.
The best tour guides are folks from the area. Ask your host at your hotel or hostel for a tour of the area. It is possible to get a fully guided, four-day exploration of the entire Solentiname archipelago and the Río Papaturro in Los Guatuzos, including all its natural, archaeological, and cultural attractions.
In the 1980s, San Fernando was dubbed Isla Elvis Chavarría (“La Elvis”) for a young martyr who participated in the 1977 raid on San Carlos and was subsequently captured and killed by the National Guard. Folks in the area never did stop calling it by its former name. The island has a health center, a school (Escuela Mateo Wooten, named after the Peace Corps volunteer who led its construction in the mid-1990s), a museum, a library, small shop, hiking trails, and a mirador with pre-Columbian petroglyphs. This is the best sunset view in the archipelago. For maximum enjoyment, I recommend grabbing a Toña and taking a dip in the lake at dusk.
El Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname (at the top of the steep path out of town, Mon.-Sat. 7am-noon and 2pm-5pm, $1) was built in September 2000 to preserve and display the natural and cultural heritage of the Solentiname Islands and its people. The flowers along the path on your way up were planted to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Inside, local artists have painted scenes of the islands’ early history. Also find interesting maps of the area, archaeological information, and a display of traditional fishing techniques and the balsa-wood carving process. Behind the museum there’s a model organic avocado and balsa-wood plantation and a weather station. If you find it closed during its hours of operation, ask around for Yelma, the local curator, caretaker, and key master.
Where to Stay
Doña María Guevara has been running the Albergue Celentiname (tel. 506/8503-5388 or 506/8500-2119, $35 d, includes 3 meals) since 1984 on a beautiful point at the western edge of the island. All of the electricity in the hotel is solar generated. The eight cabanas all have private bath. Sit on your private porch and watch the hummingbirds flitting through the bushes while the water laps against the shore below. The picturesque main porch has priceless flower-framed views. Kayaks and fishing gear are available for rent. Make reservations in advance if possible (email is best).
Several hundred meters east, with his own dock on the southern shore of the island, Don Julio rents three rooms in his rustic and comfortable, lakefront homestead called Mire Estrellas ($8-10 each). Don Julio runs trips to other islands, and his brother, Chepe, runs transport to and from San Carlos and can arrange custom trips around the islands as well. Chepe’s family runs a small hostel called Hostal Vanessa (tel. 505/8680-8423 or 505/8740-8409, $10-15 dorm, $25 private).
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.