This archipelago in the southern part of Largo de Nicaragua is most definitely ‘off the beaten track’, with thousands of backpackers simply sailing right past it on their way to Granada or Ometepe. It’s not surprising that these islands aren’t really on many people’s radar, since they were quite literally forgotten about for over 500 years; only appearing on maps since the 60’s and nearly destroyed in a single day during a revolution that saw the third community being burnt to the ground, forcing them to leave only to return in the 60s.
The lake in which these islands sit in is a wonder in itself; the largest fresh water lake in Central America at over 3000 sq miles it is the 9th largest in the Americas, feeling more like an ocean than a lake.
The lake drains into the Caribbean via the Rio San Juan and has had an interesting history with pirates using it as a connection to Granada, which in those times was growing wealthier by the year. It was also a route that the Aztec traders had been using since the 13th century, so it should come as no surprise to hear that it also became strategically important to the U.S around the turn of the last century for the very same reasons.
Before construction of the Panama Canal, plans were made to take advantage of an already existing route connecting the Caribbean to the Pacific (across the lake) and build an inter-oceanic canal; the Nicaragua Canal, but the Panama Canal was built instead.
In order to quell competition with the Panama Canal, the U.S. secured all rights to a canal along this route in the Bryan-Chamorro Treaty of 1916. Being so connected with the U.S (as are both Panama and Costa Rica) I was surprised with how different Nicaragua has felt, mainly because of the complete lack of American influence and the strong national identity its people have.
Arriving at the Islas Solentiname, I soon realised that there was a huge gaping hole in my knowledge regarding Nicaragua’s modern history; namely its revolution against the U.S backed dictatorship of the Somoza family in the 70’s which due to its success led to the termination of this treaty and so the overbearing influence the U.S can have.
This particular period in this country’s history has captivated me, so much so that I intend on doing an entirely separate post on it. What I will mention now however, is that a key figure in this revolution was a former priest called Ernesto Cardenal.
Born in Granada, Ernesto was a keen poet, sculptor and theologian that turned from being a Trappist monk committed to non violence, to a fully fledge supporter of the revolution led by a group known as the Sandinista who appointed him as the countries minister of culture following their rise to power. Unsurprisingly he was chastised, publicly, by Pope John Paul II in 1983.
Ernesto is somewhat of a legend in these parts, since he really founded the all but forgotten community here on the islands. He came to Solentiname in the late 60s to find an impoverished and poorly educated community, helping to erect their first simple adobe church where he gave mass. Throughout his life, Ernesto published countless poems and books in addition to an entire Gospel, known as the Gospel of Solentiname which was made up of interpretations of the Bible by the local community through their own eyes and lives; having allowed them to take centre stage during mass. In addition to educating the community he helped to launch Nicaragua’s art movement after receiving an elaborately decorated shell from a grateful islander and seeing the potential of the people.
Soon, entire families worked together as a community painting and sculpting, producing some fine works of art that really do capture this tropical paradise. These days their works are internationally recognised. We were fortunate enough to see hundreds of paintings whilst on the island, with local women painting on their front porches.
We spent the first couple of days on the smaller, less inhabited Isla San Fernando, that has only a handful of families living on it. The only places to eat where either in the only restaurant on the island or a local woman’s house which turned into a shop come dinner.
With supplies relatively scarce, you had to order your food way in advance; to allow for the local people to cater for you. Given that we arrived in the late afternoon unaware of this situation, as well as the fact that most of the women on the island were in San Carlos shopping for weekly supplies, we were left hungry our first night, having to make do with crackers and tin tuna for dinner.
Thankfully the next day everybody on the island knew that the only two grinos there would need to eat!
We stayed in a very basic but but wonderful shack right on the lake.
Given that there is nothing to do apart from visiting a small museum and art gallery (which can be done in an hour) I used the time to revive my A Level in Design & Technology and begin drawing up some designs for our renovation project in Berlin.
I only really left the desk to go to the toilet and grab some food, although I would be lying if I said that this was only because I was too engrossed in my work. Whilst a beautiful place, it was overrun with wildlife. In normal circumstances this wouldn’t bother me since most of the time the dangerous creepy crawlies tend to stay away from well trodden paths. Given the lack if human activity on this islands for hundreds of years, you quite literally come into contact with snakes, scorpions, tarantula, and huge iguanas!
…and that’s not to mention the thousands of toads that engulf the only path at night! You may be laughing at what a pussy I may sound like at the moment, but trust me if you were walking in the pitch back with only a torch as a light, with the images of the above encounters engrained in your mind, you too would have screamed like a girl when feeling something move over your foot!
On the flip side we did see some beautiful creatures that made being on edge most of the time worthwhile.
Our final couple of days were spent on the larger island, Mancarron. Although not as wild as San Fernando it is equally as pretty with more refined housing.
We got to see the new church that was built by the community in the 70s as well as Ernesto’s house on the top of the hill.
Unfortunately he was not there since he spends most of his time in the capital these days. We did however spend pretty much two days in the local library which was full of the most interesting books, including an entire collection by the man himself.
Given he was a Marxist and revolutionary, you can imagine the type of books on offer here. With this library as the community’s only source of literature and learning, the people here have a slightly different outlook on life that I find hard to explain in words.
The time spent here has most certainly had a profound effect on me, making me even more excited about my impending visit to Cuba.