The 36 volcanic islands in southern Lake Cocibolca have a long history of habitation; signs of its original residents are abundant, in the form of petroglyphs, cave paintings, and artifacts. The name Solentiname comes from Celentinametl, Nahuatl for “place of many guests.”
The islands are of volcanic origin with rocky, hard-to-farm soils. More effort is going into avocados these days. Somoza’s logging companies deforested most of the archipelago, and Boaco cattlemen cut the rest to make pasture. In the last three decades, however, much of the forest has been allowed to regenerate, and the rebirth has attracted artists and biologists from all over the world. Fishing, of course, remains a mainstay of the islanders’ diet.
Today, 129 families (about 750 people) share the archipelago with an amazing diversity of vegetation, birds, and other wildlife. Solentiname’s most unique and well-known attraction is the creativity of its inhabitants, a talent Padre Ernesto Cardenal discovered in 1966 when he gave brushes and paint to some of the local jícaro carvers.
Cardenal, recently returned from a Trappist monastery in Kentucky in the late 1960s, formed a Christian community in Solentiname and stayed on Isla Mancarrón  to work and write for the next 10 years (he is locally referred to as “El Poeta”).
Under his guidance, the simple church at Solentiname became the heart of Nicaragua’s liberation theology movement, which represents Christ as the revolutionary savior of the poor. It inspired Carlos Mejía Godoy to write “La Misa Campesina” in 1972. Masses were communal, participatory events, and Cardenal’s book, The Gospels of Solentiname, is a written record of the phenomenon, with transcriptions of a series of campesino-led services throughout the 1970s.
On October 13, 1977, a group of anti-Somoza Solentiname islanders staged a daring and successful assault on the National Guard post in San Carlos . Somoza retaliated by torching the islands. In 1979, Ernesto Cardenal, now the Sandinista Minister of Culture, formed the Asociación Para el Desarollo de Solentiname (Solentiname Development Association, or APDS). Under APDS, much of what had been destroyed was rebuilt, and the arts continued to flourish and receive much attention from the rest of the world.
Today, there are no fewer than 50 families who continue to produce balsa-wood carvings and bright “primitivist” paintings of the landscape and community.
Essentially, only the four largest of the nearly three dozen islands are inhabited: Isla Mancarrón , Isla Elvis Chavarría  (a.k.a. Isla San Fernando), Isla Donald Guevara  (a.k.a. Isla la Venada), and Isla Mancarroncito . Only the first two have services for tourists.
If you are on a budget, getting around the islands will be your biggest challenge, especially considering that the colectivo water taxis only run twice a week, ensuring a minimum stay of three days. To get around, you can either catch a free or discounted ride in someone’s panga, or you can rent a dugout canoe or rowboat and do some paddling.
The same foundation that runs the museum on Isla Elvis Chavarría has also arranged a fully-guided, four-day exploration of the entire Solentiname archipelago and the Río Papaturro in Los Guatuzos , including all its natural, archaeological, and cultural attractions. Transporte San Miguelito (tel. 505/8828-6136, anyeljba [at] yahoo [dot] es) in San Carlos offers several tour options.
From San Carlos , boats depart on Tuesday and Friday at 1 p.m. for the two-hour trip to the archipelago (about $2 pp). The return trip leaves Solentiname on the same days at 5 a.m., arriving in San Carlos in time to catch the boat to Managua . Should you want to leave the islands at any other time, a private boat starts at about $100. CANTUR can also arrange transportation to Los Guatuzos  or San Carlos.