Parque Nacional Archipiélago Zapatera
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About 34 kilometers south of Granada, Zapatera is an extinct volcano surrounded by Isla el Muerto and a dozen or so other islets, all of which comprise 45 square kilometers of land; the whole complex is home for some 500 residents.
Zapatera is a natural wonder, rising 629 meters above sea level. Its virgin forest is rife with myriad wildlife such as parrots, toucans, herons, and other waterfowl, plus white-tailed deer, and an alleged population of jaguars no one ever seems to see.
These islands were enormously important to the Nahuatl, who used them primarily as a vast burial ground and sacrifice spot. The sites of La Punta de las Figuras and Zonzapote are particularly rich in artifacts and have a network of caves that have never been researched. Also seek out the petroglyphs carved into the bedrock beaches of Isla el Muerto.
An impressive selection of Zapatera’s formidable stone idols is on display in the Convento San Francisco, but the islands’ remaining archaeological treasures remain relatively unstudied and unprotected and (naturally) continue to disappear.
Officially declared a national park by the Sandinistas in 1983, the Zapatera Archipelago has never been adequately protected or funded. MARENA’s thousand-page management plan document is just that—a document—while in reality, only one park ranger visits the islands a couple of times per month. It’s no surprise then that inhabitants and visitors litter, loot the archaeological patrimony, hunt, and cut down trees for timber.
Access the islands from Granada’s Puerto Asese, where you can strike a deal with returning Zapatera islanders or hire a tourist boat. The most reliable way is to arrange a trip with Zapatera Tours (tel. 505/8842-2587, www.zapateratours.com), a small company that specializes in creative lake tours, including overnight camping trips, fishing, waterskiing, you name it.
You can also inquire about Zapatera trips with any of the other Granada tour companies. With a fast, powerful motor, it’s a 20-minute trip from Granada, partly over a stretch of open water that can get choppy.
There are a scattering of places to stay around the island, including a cheap dormitory and homestay options in Zonzapote. Or book a room at Casa Hacienda Hotel Santa María (tel. 505/8884-0606, zapateratour [at] gmail [dot] com), where the Cordova family’s 120-year-old tile-roofed ranch house has been outfitted with comfortably primitive double rooms with mosquito net, fan, and private bathrooms.
The cost is $50 per person to use the place for the day, or $120 a night for two people plus meals, transport, and fishing trips. The hotel is on a relaxing sandy beach, looking north toward Isla el Muerto and Mombacho.
© Randall Wood & Joshua Berman from Moon Nicaragua, 4th Edition