San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Zapatera Draws Few Visitors to Its Remote Shores

ZAPATERA ISLAND – Arriving on the beaches of LakeCocibolca’s second biggest island, the first thing you notice are the boat corpses.

Skulking hulls of primordial paintstripped pangas dot the beaches of ZapateraIsland like the remains of a sun-drenched graveyard.

This rustic and remote national park is an unique escape for those looking to avoid the throngs of tourists. Tucked away in the corner of LakeCocibolca like a geological secret, Zapatera is a place where the occasional visitor comes to inspect mysterious pre-Columbian petroglyphs left by indigenous islanders, hike a now inactive volcano, or try their hand at fishing.

And though some come with big plans of exploration and adventure, it’s also easy to just lie around and sunbathe next to the freshwater lake, like one of the many beached boats strewn along these forgotten tropical beaches.

Officially, this wild island has no hotels. But locals will tell you there are at least two.

On a recent tour of the island, health and environmental inspectors scolded the manager at Santa Maria, a tiny lodge on the island’s northwest coast, for advertising as a hotel despite not having proper health, environmental and tourism permits.

“Foreigners want to come to the island and run their hotels but there’s a process they have to follow,” explained Ligia Flores,

Granada’s Environment Ministry representative. The other “illegal” hotel is nearby at the tiny port of Sonzapote, where indigenous islanders left behind mysterious stone petroglyphs and figurines that overlook an impressive cliff-side view of the lake and Mombacho volcano.

Both hotels said they are in the process of getting permits.

Cruising around the island in a panga – the preferred mode of transportation here – the sites of ZapateraIsland are one-of-akind.

Fishermen toil away constructing the fresh frame of a new boat, while nearby chickens, spiders and other small animals inhabit the abandoned skeletons of previous boats. The island shows few signs of civilization, save for the occasional shanty or colorful clothesline that decorates the windblown cliffs.

The island is inhabited mostly by birds that glide along the coast and over the heads of the few island residents, who scratch out a living with subsistence farming, fishing and livestock.

The product of Nicaragua’s turbulent volcanism, the island exploded out of the lake thousands of years ago, and today its dormant slopes offer a unique hiking destination for visitors.

On a map, the island looks like Picasso painted his cubist version of a floating rectangle in the lake. There are no phones, no Internet, no roads.

One doctor makes calls once a week at the only health clinic. It has two baseball diamonds, three schools, and a lot of primary forest.

“The only (means of communication) are the cell phones that some of us have that work every once in a while,” said Maria Jacinta Hernández, a teacher at one of the island’s tiny schools.

A handful of Granada tour companies offer day trips to Zapatera for around $75, lunch included. But if you’re cash-strapped or just feeling adventurous, you can hail a taxi or bike it to Granada’s Puerto Asese, on the south end of Granada’s Centro Turistico.

There you’ll find boats to take you on the hour-long trip to Zapatera for less.

The port has a little supermarket to stock up on food and supplies, as well as a couple restaurants that make for a perfect afternoon cocktail or fish soup.

Camping is permitted on the island, and there are also several smaller islands off the shores of Zapatera, the most well-known being the uninviting-sounding Island of the Dead.

On the way out to Zapatera, visitors will also pass a pristine beach below Mombacho volcano that is inviting to tent-pitchers.

The fishing around the island is superb, locals say, and you can try your hand at the sport for a couple of dollars. Just ask one of the locals at Sonzapote or in the tiny town of Canas.

If you’re really lucky, as dusk approaches, you might even catch a glance of a fin of the notorious bull sharks that rove the lake’s waters, says Zapatera resident Rosa Argentina. She said she spotted them on the rare occasion in calm coves between island and mainland, “in the afternoon, when the waters are calm.”

As we turned a corner around the island, she pointed toward shore where she said an old indigenous gravesite is worth a visit.

The lake bounced her panga along, her windblown hair imitating the motion of the lake’s waves. We passed another beach that appears like another panga graveyard.

Looking down at our ride, I couldn’t help but wonder when this old boat would eventually be pulled ashore and left to curl up in the sand with the rest of its kind.


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