If ever there was a place to truly escape the bustle of daily life, to switch off and disconnect, an island in the Archipelago de Islas Solentiname would be it.
Hidden away in the far corner of Lake Nicaragua, life on the islands moves at a glacial pace.
No matter how slow you may potter along the rambling pathways, it still feels as though you are rushing by compared with the rhythm of local life.
As the colectivo, a long wooden boat with faded red curtains, puttered away from the bustle of San Carlos we found ourselves looking out at an endless blue horizon.
For the first time in a long time, there was no land in sight.
Island dwellers well accustomed to the sluggish journey ahead napped beside us on the hard wooden benches surrounded by several weeks worth of shopping.
In the distance, long jungle-covered mounds rose suddenly from the lake. One, a small tangle of vines with a lone palm tree poking awkwardly out the side. As we wove in and out of the afternoon light, we too drift in and out of sleep, subdued by the lazy hum of the engine cutting through the glassy water.
It seemed what began as a painfully slow journey was just preparing us for the unhurried pace of island life in the archipelago.
As we neared closer to our final destination, our boat pulled in at an endless number of tiny piers at risk of being gobbled up by the jungle, and where young men awaited sisters, wives and mothers to help carry the goods from town into the homes hidden beyond.
Finally on Mancarron, our days were spent kayaking around the isles that are teaming with bird life, spotting skittish turtles coming up to breathe and howler monkeys swinging from the trees.
We found a dusty playground where teens sat chatting on the swings and met a trio of puppies playing in the maze of winding streets. We heard the cackle of a parrot imitating a child’s laugh as they ran to buy sweets at the island’s single shop and encountered adults swinging to and fro in hammocks. We watched artists, for which the islands are famed, sit painting in the shade lost in thought.
The previous week when we stayed in Granada, we were woken daily at 5AM by the calls of attendants rounding up workers for the first bus of the day and fell asleep to the revving of truck engines and car horns roaring past outside.
Now, just waking to the sounds of birds chirping in the trees, where the only man-made sound is the gentle hum of a distant boat, made the journey to the Islas Solentiname completely worth it.
San Fernando, our second island stop, was as enchanting as ever with its rambling pathways lined with hibiscus and shaded by avocado trees where hummingbirds and butterflies came to feed. We took afternoon naps in the hammocks and watched the sunsets from beneath a giant of a tree as the lake burnt orange and the sun sank behind a smoking volcano in the distance.
It was every bit as magical as we could have hoped.
The islands were as peaceful as they were enchanting and after a few days here we struggled to assimilate back into the chaos of city life.
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Prices on both islands start at around $8 per person and go north from there. Though you can make a reservation at a select few guesthouses, you should be fine just rocking up as well.
On Mancarron we stayed at Buen Amigo is set a way back from the waterfront but has a lovely garden and a very chatty green parrot. The facilities are basic but clean and meals can be ordered in advance starting at 100 cordobas for breakfast to 130 cordobas for a fish dinner ($3.50 – $4.60). To get there walk past the playground behind the pier and turn left up the hill. Search rates and availability here.
Slightly more upmarket Hotel Mancarron is set in a beautiful location with a spacious terrace, onsite restaurant and tour desk for organising activities. Search rates and availability here.
On San Fernando we stayed at Mire Estrellas which has a lovely location right on the water and is probably the only place in Central America where $8 will get you a hammock on a waterfront balcony and towels folded into swans – an absolute bargain. There is no restaurant here so either arrange to eat elsewhere on the island in advance or bring plenty of snacks. To get there turn left at the pier.
The islands are a place where things move slowly. Men swing in hammocks, ladies rock in their chairs and kids play on the paths. So, do like the locals do, plant yourself in a hammock or rocking chair and watch the world go by.
After all, sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all.
But if you must be kept busy…
On Isla Mancarron kayaks can be hired for 150 cordobas ($5.50) for a one-man kayak or 300 cordobas ($11) per day for a two-man kayak. You’ll find them for rent from the house between the trees a little way behind the library. If you’re stuck pop in to the library and if there’s anyone around, they should be able to help you.
Paddle past Isla Padres to see the large troop of howler monkeys swinging, howling or napping in the trees. The vegetation at the water’s edge of all the islands are teeming with birdlife so don’t be surprised if they fly out in front of you. Turtles also pop up for breath regularly near the shore.
On Isla San Fernando there is a trail near Mire Estrellas that goes straight up the hill before winding through a few farms and up to a mirador. Isla Mancarron also has several trails. Ask at your hostel for more information.
There is a small shop on both Mancarron and San Fernando but they have very limited stock. Restaurants are also in short supply on the islands so it’s best to stock up on supplies to self cater in San Carlos or arrange on arrival to eat at your accommodation or another comedor.
There is a great bakery in San Carlos with fresh baguettes and sugar doughnuts which we couldn’t get enough of.
There is no wifi on the islands.
A public collective leaves San Carlos on Tuesdays and Fridays at 1PM for Islas San Fernando and Mancarron. The trip to Mancarron takes about 3 hours depending on how often it stops along the way. The return journey leaves Mancarron at 4:30AM on Tuesday and Friday stopping at San Fernando at 5AM.
COST – 90 cordobas ($3.20) | TIME – 3 hours
A fast boat service leaves at 9 AM sharp each day from Mancarron stopping at San Fernando about 10 minutes later before heading to San Carlos. This is a new service operated by a different family from the islands each day. It may not run if there are insufficient passengers on a particular day but this has only happened once since the service commenced when there were only three customers. The return journey leaves San Carlos at 3PM.
COST – Mancarron to San Carlos is 280 cordobas ($10). Mancarron to San Fernando is 100 cordobas ($3.50) | TIME – 1.5 hours
Locals travel regularly between the islands so you can also catch a lift with them. They tend to charge more than the daily shuttle but are open to bargaining.