A land of contrasts, Nicaragua’s unhurried island life is a world away from its fiery volcanoes and history of pirates, rebels and dark legends, as Sarah Gilbert finds out...
The crack of a twig gave them away. Over my head, a family of howler monkeys were foraging for breakfast, seemingly unperturbed by the grinning biped below that had begun to snap away in a paparazzi-like frenzy I was kayaking along the verdant waterways of the Rio Istián on Ometepe Island.
The branches of gnarled trees rooted in the river, were spread above and mirrored below me in this otherworldly aquatic garden where turtles basked on logs and caiman slid silently into the water when I got too close.
Little wonder that when the Chorotega people left Mexico around 800AD in search of their promised land, they found it here in this twin-coned volcanic Eden rising out of the silver, flat waters of Lake Nicaragua, and sprinkled it with petroglyphs carved into basalt rock in homage to its beauty.
Nicaragua might be dubbed the land of lakes and volcanoes, but it’s also a land of myriad tranquil islands, within easy reach of the mainland, but also a world apart.
But as I explored these unspoilt isles – taking me from the Caribbean Sea to the heart of Lake Nicaragua – I was discovering that laid-back island life belied a tumultuous history of exploding volcanoes, plundering pirates, rebel priests and demonic legends.
My journey began on Little Corn off the east coast of Nicaragua, a car-free Caribbean island just without the hefty price tags or the all-inclusive resorts. I flew from Managua to Big Corn Island and from there it was a 30-minute rollercoaster ride by boat, revived by a refreshing, salty spray.
My base was Yemaya Island Hideaway on the northern tip of Little Corn, just 16 beachfront bungalows-on-stilts with balconies that overlook sand so powder fine it squeaks and the ocean’s ever-shifting blues. With string hammocks strung between lofty palms, a thatched-roof yoga shala and gourmet farm-to-table fare from the organic garden or hand-delivered by fishermen, it was the perfect base to discover the country’s Creole culture.
It’s said that Columbus passed by the Corn Islands on his fourth and final voyage to the New World in 1502. By the 1700s, though, it was pirates – including Welsh privateer Captain Henry Morgan – that patrolled these waters and forged a strong alliance with the indigenous Miskito people.
On my first morning, I waded out to Yemaya’s sea-coloured wooden boat captained by a Miskito fisherman, also called Henry. The breeze filled the sail and buffeted us gently to the first of three pristine reefs where I floated above a seemingly infinite array of coral – forests of flat-topped table, mushroom and staghorn – while iridescent fish like the blue midnight parrot fish and four-eyed butterfly fish darted around me.
The following day, I took an exhilarating ten-minute water-taxi ride to the island’s only village in the south west. A single paved pathway hugs this part of the coastline, winding past hand-painted wooden signs, alfresco grocery shops and open-sided restaurants where you can feast on lobster in jalapeño sauce. The occasional blast of reggaeton and salsa exploding from feet-in-the- sand bars was the only thing to disturb the tropical torpor.
At the edge of the village, the path turned into one of the sandy tracks that crisscross the island, and I meandered back to Yemaya, past colourful clapboard houses where men swinging in their front-porch hammocks greeted me in lilting Creole and women tried to sell me pati – a spicy meat-filled pastry, as giggling schoolchildren whizzed by on rusty bikes.
As I walked back along overgrown paths flanked with breadfruit trees and coconut palms, I pulled a mango from a tree to eat and mused how peaceful it seemed, in contrast to its piratical past.
LLake Nicaragua – Central America’s largest freshwater lake – is the life force for many of the country’s islands. Its 360 or so diminutive Isletas, scattered a stone’s throw from the colonial city of Granada, were created around 20,000 years ago, when Volcán Mombacho erupted, spewing boulders, ash and molten lava into the lake.
Las Isletas come in all shapes and sizes. Some are home to centuries-old fishing communities and their ramshackle wooden houses, while others are the summer escapes of wealthy city-dwelling Nicaraguans. More recently, they’ve been snapped up by foreign investors for private homes or sustainable lodges. After transferring from the Caribbean, I’d be staying in one of the latter.
Jicaro Island Ecolodge is a pocket-sized paradise and environmentally friendly project with just nine, two-storey casitas fashioned from recycled wood and enveloped in tropical foliage. They’re solar-powered, use fans instead of air conditioning and turn waste water into drinking water. Utterly tranquil, my only dilemmas were whether to dine on shrimp tacos or steak, and where to watch the sun set behind Volcán Mombacho – from the pool hewn from natural stone perhaps, or the floating deck-for-two.
The lake hasn’t always been so peaceful, however. Founded by the Spanish in 1524, Granada became one of the richest cities in Central America, with cobblestone streets lined with mansions and a treasury housing large reserves of silver waiting to be shipped back to Spain.
In 1665, after navigating six dugouts along the Rio San Juan and across the lake under cover of darkness, Henry Morgan launched a daring attack and it’s said his gang escaped with the equivalent of half a million pounds in precious metals.
I decided to visit the scene of the crime, hopped aboard the lodge’s boat and within 20 minutes I was in Granada.
One of the region’s loveliest colonial cities, it’s all postcard-pretty plazas, ornate churches and rainbow- coloured houses, where locals drag their rocking chairs on to the street to gossip with their neighbours.
Despite its turbulent history, today the city moves at a languid pace. I sat in the tree-shaded central park where old men snoozed and young lovers smooched, while shoeshine boys plied their trade and women in frilly aprons dispensed iced drinks, as the sun bathed the cathedral in an ethereal golden light.
Las Isletas also has a more active side. Another day, I went for a hike in the velvety-green Mombacho Cloud Forest Reserve, brimming with jewel-coloured hummingbirds and extravagant orchids.
In the evening, I travelled 40 minutes north west to Nicaragua’s and largest national park to peer into Volcán Masaya’s crater, exhaling sulphurous fumes, as shimmering orange molten lava bubbled away below me.
The following morning, I woke to a chorus of birdsong and took out a kayak for a paddle along the Isletas’ narrow channels. Fishermen were already balanced on their dugouts casting their nets and a purple gallinule bird hopped daintily between lily pads.
As I turned my back on Mombacho, across the vast expanse of the lake, I got my first glimpse of Ometepe Island – my next destination – and the outline of the Volcán Concepción in the distance.
The lake’s largest island, Ometepe, also captivated Mark Twain when he visited in 1867. He gushed in his journal that Ometepe’s volcanoes “look so isolated from the world and its turmoil – so tranquil, so steeped in slumber and eternal repose.”
I was starting to understand what he meant. Like the mainland in microcosm there were pastel-coloured churches shaded by vivid orange flamboyant trees, roadside fritangas (informal restaurants) serving up fried pork and rice, regimented rows of corn and tangles of untamed vegetation.
I saw all this and more while my driver dodged whole families on motorbikes, skittish horses, ambling pigs and, most surprising, a farmer riding home astride a Brahma bull along the island’s–often unpaved–roads.
At the small El Ceibo museum, I was shown their collection of more than 1,500 ancient ceramics, including ceremonial gourds, funerary urns and a pottery precursor to the vibrator, known as a consoladora. My morning tour ended with a shot of tequila-like island moonshine made from fermented pineapple, rice and corn.
Later, as I ate tilapia – a freshwater fish – at a restaurant overlooking the lake, I could understand why the Spanish conquistadors mistook the vast body of water for the sea, at least until their horses began drinking from it. They dubbed it La Mar Dulce or the sweet sea, and I watched a veritable menagerie of animals come to drink, including horses, cows and plump pigs on string leads.
But it’s the island’s two volcanoes separated by a fertile isthmus that dominate Ometepe; fiery, rocky Concepción – at 1,700m, it’s the second highest of the country’s 19 volcanoes – and dormant, muddy Maderas. They can both be climbed in a day but neither should be underestimated.
The following morning, I took an easier, but no less beautiful trek. Tucked into the southern slopes of Maderas, the trail to the San Ramón waterfall winds uphill to the edge of the cloud forest, where butterflies flit around trees draped in old man’s beard, a wispy lichen. My reward for reaching the falls – red-faced and covered in mud – was a much- needed dip in its natural pool.
Easier still was the trail around Charco Verde, a private reserve filled with vibrant tropical blooms – torch ginger, hibiscus, bougainvillea – limpid lagoons and troops of vociferous howler monkeys.
Legend has it that demonic Chico Largo turned erstwhile hunters into cows and pigs as punishment for taking food from his lagoon; some island butchers even claim they’ve found cows with gold teeth.
Ometepe’s bucolic beauty has also attracted eco-conscious expats searching for a self-sufficient, simpler way of life, who’ve set up organic farms and sustainable lodging.
At Xalli Ometepe Beach Hotel, steps from the lakeshore, they cook with seasonal produce, bake their own bread and roast their own organic coffee beans from Finca Magdalena, a cooperative run by more than 20 local families.
Lunch at Café Campestra a farm-to-fork feast: pizza from the volcanic clay oven or sourdough bread wrapped around pork that once roamed freely around the British chef ’s own biodynamic farm, with salad from its fertile soil.
My final haven was the isolated Solentiname Archipelago at the southern end of Lake Nicaragua, a string of 36 tropical volcanic islands.
Only four are inhabited – Mancarrón, San Fernando, La Venada and Mancarroncita – and all are without roads, electricity and running water.
In the mid-1960s, rebel priest, poet and guerrilla Ernesto Cardenal founded a parish in Mancarrón.
Joined by Róger Pérez de la Rocha, a young painter from Managua, the pair set up a community of primitivist artists among the archipelago’s dirt-poor farmers and fishermen that still flourishes, although the school closed over 40 years ago.
The altar in Cardenal’s former church – from where he preached both the gospel and revolution – and the whitewashed walls are decorated in simple, colourful motifs celebrating nature.
The island’s artisans chip away at balsa wood, creating turtles, toucans, fish, all painted in bold colours.
The talented painters take their inspiration from the islands, producing Henri Rousseau-esque landscapes that depict Solentiname as a pastoral utopia; riots of blues and greens scattered with wildlife.
From their humble home on La Veneda, Rodolfo Arellano and his wife Elba, have created an artistic dynasty spanning three generations.
“Painting is in our blood – less primitive, more intuitive,” Rodolfo told me, as he showed me his depiction of El Viejo del Monte, one of Solentiname’s most enduring folktales.
It’s said that the old man of the forest was once a merciless hunter who used every creature that crossed his path as target practice.
As punishment, the gods gave him backward-facing simian-like feet and made him protector of the archipelago’s wildlife for all of eternity.
That afternoon, the lake matched the leaden sky. The choppy water made the panga – a traditional boat – buck like the meanest bronco and only black cormorants braved the sudden storm as they skimmed the waves in strict formation.
But it ended as quickly as it had begun and the clouds parted to reveal a cerulean blue sky. The boat puttered past luxuriant islands, some barely more than clumps of trees.
Ibis stalked through the shallows, herons enjoyed fishing expeditions, while white egrets perched in branches like exotic fruit. It was though a painting had come to life.
Later I lolled in a hammock and picked out the soft trill of a guardabarranco – the country's national bird – amid the vocal oropendolas as they flitted between their pendulous woven nests.
Fireflies began to dance to the tree frog chorus and I reflected how, far from the commotion of city life, these island idylls each have their own unique culture, character and charms: a hidden treasure trove of history.
Nicaragua’s unhurried islands and their inhabitants – at once resilient and resourceful, warm and welcoming – had captivated everyone from pirates to artists and eco-warriors. And now I’m equally enchanted.
The author travelled on a tailor-made trip with Journey Latin America (020 3553 9647.
A 12-day tailor-made trip including two nights on Ometepe Island, two nights on Little Corn Island, two nights on Granada's isletas on a B&B basis, and two nights in the Solentiname archipelago on a full-board basis starts from £3,192 per person, based on two sharing.
The price includes domestic flights, transfers and international flights with American Airlines, travelling from the UK.
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