One of the most unexplored areas in Nicaragua, the Solentiname Islands offer visitors untouched landscapes, abundant wildlife and vibrant artwork.
The Solentiname Islands, also known as the Solentiname Archipelago, are a collection of 36 islands located in southeastern Lake Nicaragua, approximately nine miles west of San Carlos. The islands range in size from small uninhabited rocky headlands to larger islands each a few miles in length. The three larger islands include Mancarrón, San Fernando and La Venada. Although modern amenities such as electricity and running water are rare on the islands, it is the tranquility, abundant wildlife and spectacular tropical landscape that makes the islands so special.
Geographically, the islands are relatively isolated but historically, they are the center of Nicaragua’s well known primitive art movement due to the arrival of the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal in 1966. It was on the largest island of Mancarrón where he established a communal society to spread his beliefs and urged its few residents to paint anything that they saw. According to a Stanford University article about the history of the island, “Cardenal’s project was based on Christian liberation theology and principles of social justice. Róger Pérez de la Rocha, a respected painter from Managua, was invited to Solentiname to teach painting techniques, while encouraging individual style and thought.” The result was incredible and entire families began painting in the primitive style with fantastic results.
Today, the population on the islands is approximately 800 and consists of fishermen, families of artists, and farmers who grow everything from avocado and corn to coffee and cacao. Overall, the islands offer visitors excellent fishing on its dark-blue waters, amazing bird-watching in its dense tropical forests and most importantly, a look into slower-paced lifestyles that are relatively untouched by modern civilization.
Exploring the Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua
Before exploring the islands, it is important to remember that only way to get to the islands is through the town of San Carlos near the mouth of the Río San Juan. The fastest and most expensive way is by plane from Managua followed by a two-hour boat ride to Mancarrón. Otherwise, visitors on a budget who have a lot of flexibility can take either a direct public bus from Managua to San Carlos or a series of buses from anywhere else in the country for relatively little money. Once at the docks in San Carlos, the two types of boat travel are: the public boats (that depart once on Tuesdays and Fridays around noon) or the more expensive private boats that can depart at any time. The difference in price is substantial since the public boats cost approximately $5 US while the private boats can cost up to $125 US each way. The main attractions of the islands include:
Isla Mancarrón – The main island of the group is also the largest with an area of 12 square-miles. It also includes the highest point of all the islands, which is 853 feet above the waterline. Located near the main dock is Ernesto Cardenal’s unassuming adobe church: the Iglesia Solentiname. In addition to its simple interior, the outside of the church consists of a Sandinista monument and the tomb of Alejandro Guevara, a well-known rebel leader. The nearby Solentiname Development Association offers a variety of art, several artists’ studios, books and information about Ernesto Cardenal and his 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, there are several accommodations on the island: Hotel Mancarrón, Hospedaje Mire Estrellas, and Buen Amigo.
Isla San Fernando – Also known as La Isla Elvis Chavarria (a young martyr who was killed in the revolution, it is the second largest island in the group. It includes a relatively large community with the Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname, which is a museum, art gallery, cultural center, and arboretum all combined in one location. The island is also home to one of the well-known family of artists: the Piñedas. Accommodations include the Albergue Celentiname and the Don Julio Lodge.
Isla La Venada – Also known as La Isla Donald Guevara, it is home to an underwater cave known as La Cueva del Duende. Located on the northern end of the island, it is accessible only by boat. It includes wall markings that represent the dead traveling to “the other side”.
Tours of the Solentiname Islands in Nicaragua
Solentiname Tours – Based in Managua, it offers a variety of guided tours throughout Nicaragua including the 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 that includes Ernesto Cardenal’s church, an artists’ colony (El Refugio), an ancient cemetery with petroglyphs and a visit to an 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 artwork.
Tours Nicaragua – Based in Managua, it offers a six-day Solentiname, Granada and Leon tour that includes a fully-day motorboat tour of the islands on the Day Two. The overall tour includes all transportation (including flights to Managua), meals and hotel accommodations.
Nicaragua Adventures – Based in Granada, it provides a three-day, San Juan River and Solentiname Islands tour that includes roundtrip flights from Managua, boat transportation from San Carlos, lunch at the Hotel Mancarrón, a visit to Ernesto Cardenal’s church and an artisan village.
The beautiful Solentiname Islands are less than two hours away from modern civilization in San Carlos. With few roads and locations that still have no running water or electricity, these untouched gems provide visitors with a chance to feel a world away and immerse themselves in nature with all of its simple beauty. A visit to the islands is a wonderful retreat away from more busy tourist destinations in the country such as Granada or San Juan del Sur.