|Photo by Tabla
The Solentiname Archipelago is a collection of 36 small islands located in the southeastern portion of Lake Nicaragua, just nine miles west of the port city of San Carlos. The islands range in size from small uninhabited rocky outcrops to larger islands a few miles in length. The three larger islands include Mancarrón, San Fernando, and La Venada, with only the first two offering adequate facilities for tourists. Although modern amenities such as electricity and running water are rare on the rest of the islands, the overall serenity, abundant wildlife and fantastic tropical landscape makes the islands worth visiting.
|Photo by Roman Bonnefoy
Today, the population of the islands is approximately 1,000, which consists mostly of fishermen, families of artists, and hard-working farmers who grow everything from vegetables to coffee and cacao. For visitors, the islands offer excellent fishing in its surrounding dark-blue waters, amazing bird-watching in its dense tropical forests, and most importantly, a first-hand look into the slower-paced lifestyles that have been relatively untouched by modern society.
Travel to the Solentiname Islands
Before exploring the islands, it is important to keep in mind that only way to get to the islands is through the city of San Carlos near the mouth of the Río San Juan. The quickest (and most expensive) way is by plane from Managua followed by a two-hour boat ride to Mancarrón. La Costeña Airlines offers daily flights from Managua to San Carlos for approximately US$55 each way departing at 1 p.m. The flight takes approximately 45 minutes. Make sure to check schedules ahead of time to avoid any problems or delays. More information can be found at their website: www.lacostena.com.ni.
Otherwise, visitors on a budget who also have a lot of time can take a direct public bus from Managua to San Carlos. Four buses make the patience-testing, nine-hour journey from Managua’s Mayoreo terminal via Juigalpa for a fee of approximately US$7. There are, of course, connections from a series of other buses from anywhere else in the country for relatively little money.
|Photo by Raymond Helmi
Exploring the Main Islands
Isla Mancarrón - The main island of the archipelago is also the largest with an area of approximately 12 square-miles. It also includes the highest point of all the islands, which is 853 feet above the lake. Located close to the main dock is Ernesto Cardenal's unassuming adobe church known as the Iglesia Solentiname. In addition to its simple interior, the exterior of the church consists of a Sandinista monument and the tomb of Alejandro Guevara, a well-known and revered rebel leader. The nearby Solentiname Development Association offers a wide variety of art along with some artist studios, books, and plenty of information about Cardenal’s influence on the island. It is one of the two best locations to purchase artwork with the other being Isla San Fernando. According to the Solentiname Alliance, visitors can stay at several overnight accommodations on the island: Hotel Mancarrón, Hospedaje Mire Estrellas, Buen Amigo, and the Hospedaje Comunidad de Solentiname. Originally a peaceful refuge for artists, this hospedaje is run by Cardenal himself, and the rustic cabins are situated on quiet grounds with access to a library and reading room.
|Photo by Vista Cinchona
Isla La Venada – This island is also known as La Isla Donald Guevara. Although it is much more rustic that its larger counterparts, the main reason to visit is to view the fascinating underwater cave called La Cueva del Duende. Located on the northern end of the island, it is accessible only by boat and it is best to go with a guide who knows the landscape. The highlight of the cave is the wall markings that show a representation of the dead traveling to “the other side.”
Tours of the Solentiname Islands
Solentiname Tours - Based in Managua, this reputable company offers a variety of guided tours throughout Nicaragua including two Solentiname tours: the Mancarrón Island Circuit Tour and the Artisans and Painters Excursions. The Mancarrón Island Circuit Tour includes a walking tour of the site around the Hotel Mancarrón with visits to Ernesto Cardenal's church, an artists' colony (El Refugio), an ancient cemetery with petroglyphs and a visit to a beautiful overlook (La Reconciliación). The Artisans and Painters Excursions includes guided travel by panga (motorized canoe) to a number of local artists' studios where visitors can interact with the artists as well as purchase their important artwork. More information about their company and tours can be found at their website: www.solentinametours.com.
Nicaragua Adventures – This award-winning company was named the 2011 Condé Nast Traveler’s Top Travel Specialist for Nicaragua. Based in Granada, it offers a three-day, San Juan River and Solentiname Islands tour that includes roundtrip flights from Managua, all boat transportation to and from San Carlos, lunch at the Hotel Mancarrón, and a visit to Ernesto Cardenal's church and artisan village. The company has been praised by The New York Times and Outside magazine, just to name a few. More information can be found at their website: www.nica-adventures.com.