If you do find yourself with some time to kill between boats and planes, go to the Spanish Fort. Renovated in 2005, it has a library, museum, and cultural center that lay out in detail the town's tumultuous history. Mark Twain passed through here in 1866, referring to the town as Fort San Carlos, implying there was nothing else here. It is open from 9am to noon and 2 to 5pm. The Mirador, 1 1/2 blocks south of the church (tel. 505/2583-0377), is a cannon-adorned lookout point and restaurant with commanding views of the lake that go all the way to Solentiname. It is easily the best restaurant in town and serves chicken, fish, and beef. It is open daily from 7am to 8pm.
The Solentinamine Archepelago
Visiting the Solentiname Islands requires you to switch frequencies and slow right down. There are zero facilities on these islands except glorious Mother Nature in all her splendor.
Isla Mancarron -- Mancarrón is the main island. Only 200 people live on its 20 sq. km (7 3/4 sq. miles) of lush green vegetation, with the 260m-high (853-ft.) Cerro Las Cuevas dominating the waterline. Close to the dock there is a collection of houses and the interesting Iglesia Solentiname ★ designed by Ernesto Cardenal. This tiny adobe building is probably the most colorful and quirky church you'll see in Nicaragua, with playful images set on its white walls and a simple altar with pre-Columbian patterns. It was here that Ernesto Cardenal began his project in the 1960s to bring art to the islands, and it displays the first oil painting made on Solentiname, an aerial view of the island. Outside, there is a Sandinista monument and the tomb of the rebel leader Alejandro Guevara. Close by is the APDS complex. This is the local development association, and here they have a display room holding books, art, and artifacts about the islands, including info on their artists and Ernesto Cardenal. The village has two small stores that sell snacks and refreshments, and there are several artists' studios you can visit. Ask for a guide to take you to the island's mirador, which has commanding views of the archipelago. There is an abundance of birdlife, including parrots and a yellow-tailed blackbird called Montezuma oropendulas that lives in long nests that hang from tree branches. The island is famous for a type of palm tree that produces sweet palm wine; thus the local name for palm tree is mancarrón.
La Isla Elvis Chavarria -- La Isla Elvis Chavarría is named after a young martyr killed during the revolution. Also known as San Fernando, it is the archipelago's second-biggest island and has a sizeable community with a school and a health clinic. El Museo Archipiélago de Solentiname, or MUSA (tel. 505/2583-0095), is a museum, art gallery, library, information point, medicine garden, and arboretum. Just follow the butterflies and hummingbirds up the garden path behind the village, and you'll find it. The museum is open daily from 7am to noon and 2 to 5pm. Admission is C40. It has a great view of the islands and is a good spot to catch the sunset.
La Isla Donald Guevara -- Also known as La Venada, this long, narrow island is home to La Cueva del Duende, an underwater cave of mythological importance to the islanders, primarily the Guatuzu tribe. They believed that it was the path to the other side, and marked on the walls are representations of the dead. It is located on the northern side of the island and is only accessible by boat and in the dry season (Mar and Apr).
The Arellano family lives on the southwestern side of the island and opens their home to guests. You can purchase their work and rent a bed here for the night for C200. You will need a guide to find the house.
Other Islands -- Mancarroncito is one of the archipelago's wilder, untouched islands with a 100m-high (328-ft.) peak shrouded in thick green jungle. This is a good place for hiking, but it is advisable to go with a guide. Zapote is a bird sanctuary with a colony of 20,000 birds -- it gets noisy here, especially during the dry season. Species include herons, egrets, spoonbills, and storks. El Padre is just as noisy because of its boisterous howler monkey community. A pair was introduced here in the early 1980s, and they found the tree-covered island perfect to reproduce. It is now home to some 50 monkeys. East of El Padre, Isla la Atravesada has done much the same with crocodiles. North of Mancarrón, a small island inlet holds the wreck of a 19th-century steamship. All that's left is the chimney poking above the waterline and covered in vegetation.
The Fishing Bat -- One of the most arresting nature sights on the islands is the fishing bat. It glides above the water at night with its claws dragging through the water hoping to snag an unsuspecting fish.
Refugio de Vida Silvestre Los Guatuzos
Suddenly, the discomfort of your journey is completely forgotten. You are standing in one of the most beautiful and abundant wildlife parks in Central America. Or more like floating, as much of this 440-sq.-km (170-sq.-mile) park is lush wetland, fed by 13 rivers, with the Río Papaturro the most densely packed with jungle wildlife. The wildlife of Los Guatuzos Refuge is simply spectacular and more visible than in other parks because those many rivers act as the perfect viewing galleries to float down and penetrate the jungle without disturbing the dazzling population as they go about their business. Howler monkeys are the most obvious, and the noisiest, occupants, but white-faced and spider monkeys can also be spotted. Jesus Christ lizards dash across the water on their hind legs while caimans, turtles, and iguanas bathe in the sun. Sloths sleep in the trees while jaguars lurk in the foliage. Birds include spoonbills, storks, laughing falcons, egrets, and herons. There are six species of parrots and five species of kingfishers. In the water prowls a Jurassic-era fish called the gaspar, complete with armored scales and fangs. It floats on the water like a log and attacks crabs and turtles.
Situated on a strip of land that lies between the shore of Lago de Nicaragua and the Costa Rican border, the park's history is tragic and its existence accidental. Fifteen-hundred people live here in 11 small communities. They are originally from the Guatuzo tribe, so called by the Spanish because they painted their faces red like the color of a tropical rodent known as a guatuza. They called themselves Maleku. Nineteenth-century migrant rubber cutters almost wiped them out when they traded them as slaves for 60 pesos a head to the mines in Chontales. The rubber market collapsed and put an end to that business. Cacao farmers and loggers were a 20th-century threat, but the war paralyzed everything, and the natives fled to Costa Rica. When they returned in the 1990s, they found a pristine jungle. Thankfully, somebody had the sense to declare it a protected site, and it now survives with sustainable fishing, farming, and tourism.
Getting There -- A boat leaves from the western dock in San Carlos at 7am every Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, stopping at Papaturro settlement. It takes 4 hours and costs C70. A private boat holding up to 10 people costs C2,400 and takes 1 1/2 hours.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.