A relatively undiscovered, almost forgotten island can be found in the huge water mass of Lake Nicaragua, located surprisingly close to important tourist attractions like the colonial city of Granada, its islets, and the Mombacho Volcano. Despite its natural richness and archeological importance the island is still not frequently visited or well known by tourists.
With a total surface of 52 square kilometers, Zapatera is the second-largest island in Lake Nicaragua after Ometepe. The island, declared National Park in the beginning of 1983, is an important archeological site for its enormous quantity of statutes, petroglyphs, and ceramic artifacts that have been left here and on neighboring islets during pre-Columbian times when this was an important ceremonial area for the tribes inhabiting the zone before Spanish colonization.
Despite the fact that part of the wood from Zapatera’s forests and indigenous artifacts were stolen off the island not long ago, the island still conserves an ambiance that combines tranquility, natural splendor, and an interesting mysticism surrounding the trails left behind by the indigenous cultures, yet to be fully investigated.
The island is currently inhabited by small communities dedicated mostly to fishing, agriculture, and cattle farming. The tourism infrastructure is minimal, creating a setting where some unique activities can be undertaken, making a visit certainly exceptional.
With this Special, ViaNica.com hopes to inform Nicaragua as well as the rest of the world about this very attractive yet unexplored destination.
Geography: the island of the dormant volcano
Zapatera Island is a dormant volcano (the date of the last eruption is unknown), and it forms part of the volcanic chain that crosses the Pacific side of Nicaragua from North to South. It has a mountainous structure, with the ancient volcanic cone occupying the central part of the island. Nowadays the cone transformed into a large hill with a maximum height of 629 meters above sea level. The hill is surrounded by smaller hills and some valleys. The shoreline is flat at certain areas and quite steep at many others.
The island is shaped like a rectangle but with irregular shorelines, forming many small, successive bays, and rocky peninsulas that extend at three of its corners. Its largest diameter has a length of 11 kilometers according to information from experts. The island also harbors hot springs, creeks, and even a lagoon with an approximate diameter of 600 meters, known as the Zapatera Lagoon, which – according to hypotheses – forms part of the ancient, dismantled crater.
Although the vegetation of the island was affected by agricultural activity and cattle farming in the past as well as illegal logging that is still taking place, there is still dense tropical dry forest and in general the island has not lost its green character as sites where logging took place quickly become covered with other vegetation. The tropical forests house an interesting array of wildlife, including species like deer, wild cats, pacas, armadillos, and local inhabitants even mention jaguars. Birdlife includes animals like falcons, oropendolas, toucans, kingfishers, parrots, and parakeets. Fish are abundant around the island, and Rainbow Bass, ‘Guapote’, and even tarpon can be found here.
There are more than 10 other islands and islets around Zapatera Island, varying in size. The largest islands include Isla del Muerte, Jesús Grandes, El Plátano, and El Armado. All of these islands are part of Zapatera Archipelago.
The volcanic island is quite close to the mainland. The distance between the northeastern part of the island and the mainland (which is a rural zone of the municipality of Nandaime with difficult access) is only 1 kilometer. This part of the lake is very shallow and some parts, during the dry season, measure less than one meter in depth due to the sandbanks that exist here. The water is very calm here and it is therefore known as “Charco Muerte”, which means “Dead Pool”. The popular Islets of Granada are located only 30 kilometers from the northeastern part of Zapatera.
At some point in time the island of Zapatera was property of one family from Granada, but it was later shared in two lineages through heritance. However, due to its character as National Park, cadastral claims on the land are not really possible. Currently, the island is inhabited by small communities with various backgrounds. Some are previous workers on the farms of the first owners, who received concessions, and others are families that migrated from the northern part of the country, who settled here during the agricultural reformation in the 1980’s. All of these small communities settled in different areas, mostly close to the shore.
Archeology: a lost sanctuary
Studies and documentations about the pre-Columbian artifacts from the archipelago of Zapatera have been scarce and irregular. However, the archeological richness is really unimaginable: statuettes, petroglyphs, ceramics, and other artifacts were and continue to be found in almost all parts of the island and on some satellite islets.
The first report about archeological material at Zapatera was published in 1852 in the publication “Nicaragua: its people and its landscapes” from the U.S. diplomat Ephraim George Squier, who explored a large part of the country. Squier visited one part of the island in 1849, and at the area that was known since that moment as “Punta de la Figuras” (Figures Point) in the northwester part he discovered various statues of different sizes and a considerable number of petroglyphs, which he copied in drawings.
More than 30 years later, in 1883, the Swedish naturalist Carl Bovallius visited the island, enthusiastic after reading the report of Squier, and he made several important findings. Among them was the discovery of 25 statues in the area known as Sonzapote (in the northeastern part of the island), and petroglyphs encountered in the La Ceiba islet.
Later, a third report of importance came with the publication of various articles by the Mexican Felipe Pardines at the end of the 1930’s. He reported petroglyphs on the El Muerte Island, and he made different drawings than the ones published by Squier and Bovallius.
The scientific exploration of Zapatera was virtually abandoned until the first years of the 1980’s when a small archeological investigation was organized by authorities and national experts. During these expeditions there were several findings and small excavations in other zones, and ceramics and petrogplyhps found at sites like Isla del Muerte were documented. However, until this day not a single in-depth, thorough scientific investigation has taken place to estimate the importance of Zapatera in the indigenous culture that left this important heritance.
Although the hypotheses of archeologists vary in some aspects, it is generally accepted to date the Zapatera statues and a large part of the ceramics at 800-1350 AD. They are assumed to be created by the Chorotegas, an indigenous tribe from Mesoamerican heritage. Some archeologists indicate that they have found petroglyphs and ceramics from different periods, including some from 500 AC, and others from more recent times, from around the Spanish colonization era.
The Zapatera statues are quite interesting. They are made from a black basalt stone and measure between approximately 1.10 and 2.25 meters in height, according to the records, with a diameter of no more than 60 centimeters. The three-dimensional designs combine human and animal figures, and according to speculations they represent gods or social leaders like Indian chiefs, warriors, or priests. A large part of them was found surrounded by a small hillock of soil and stones, with the back of the statue facing the center. It is therefore assumed that these sites were once ceremonial centers or sanctuaries, where sacrifices were possibly made (engraved stones and grooves where found, where people where possibly sacrificed).
An abundance of pre-Columbian ceramics has been found, including utensils and zoomorphic miniature figures. These are made from clay and some have still preserved their original colors. This ceramic is similar to the ceramics found along the shore on the mainland, in front of the Mombacho Volcano (Zapatera Island can be seen from this place), which can mean that the whole region was inhabited by a single tribe with strong religious expressions.
Unfortunately, the archeological treasures from Zapatera Island have suffered from many years of plundering. Almost all of the statues have been taken from the island, and many pieces have been lost out of sight as they were obtained by individuals. An interesting collection is still available for the public at the Cultural Center 'Convento de San Francisco’, a museum in the colonial city of Granada. Others have been taken to other parts of the country, mostly to function as decoration at governmental buildings. Ceramics have been taken even more, which is caused by the fact that they are smaller and easier to transport. Many are now in private hands, or form part of foreign museum collections.
In the Zapatera Archipelago the indigenous footprint can still be found due to the enormous quantity of petroglyphs that were engraved on rocks that were solidly secured to the soil in areas like Sonzapote, la Punta de las Figuras, and at Isla El Muerto. Some statues can still be observed, secured by the local population, and the remains of other statues can be found throughout the island. In fact, some statues survived the looting for not being intact. Some islanders cautiously keep a small collection of miniature ceramics, found during their work on the fields.
The Zapatera Archipelago is an unimaginable national archeological treasure. A scientific investigation on site can reveal many other objects and discover more about the past of this island. It can provide an ample vision and better understanding of the indigenous cultures that inhabited the zone and that left such an important but still quite mysterious legacy. Knowing more about this can be of great support to the history of Nicaragua and even Mesoamerica. ViaNica.com hereby calls for scientists, students, organizations and institutions from around the world to use archeological knowledge for further investigation of the Zapatera Archipelago, in order to fully discover the pre-Colombian richness of this site. If you are able to help in any form, please contact us.
The current tourism infrastructure
Nowadays Zapatera Island has some tourism infrastructure to receive and attend visitors, and there are several activities that can be undertaken on-site. Among them are hike to archeological areas, excursions to forested zones, and fishing or swimming in the tranquil waters.
There are two options when it comes to lodging and dining, both with different amenities. One of them is the rural lodge in the Sonzapote community, managed by a cooperative of local farmers. The amenities are limited but it is priced accordingly and the ambiance is certainly tranquil. The second option is the hacienda of the Santa María farm, with more amenities and higher prices. Both places offer a great setting and friendly atmosphere, and activities can also be undertaken from both places.
An important issue to take into consideration is the fact that there is no electricity or potable water on the island, nor is there a place to purchase supplies. When visiting the island, it is important to take all that is necessary to realize the planned activities. The lodging sites offer food and purified water (and there is also solar energy and generator-powered energy), but it is recommended to take some extra supplies.
Zapatera possesses an utmost tranquil atmosphere. The views of the lake and the mainland are spectacular from various sites (not only can the Mombacho Volcano be seen, but it is also possible to observe the Granada Islets, Ometepe Island, and some other islets in the area of Chontales, as well as the large shoreline of Lake Nicaragua. The sunsets are truly spectacular, and the natural ambiance even adds more to the serenity of the place.
Below follows an overview of the different activities that can be undertaken at Zapatera.
Visits to archeological sites: various finding sites can be easily visited. In the Sonzapote area (where a large part of the statues were found) still houses many interesting petroglyphs around the lodging area. From the Santa María hacienda one can walk to take a horse to visit another site where petroglyphs can be found, known as the “Punta de las Figuras”. From here it is also possible to see a huge rock full of carvings (unfortunately these are deteriorating), and a tour to Isla El Muerte is offered from here. Read more »
Excursions to forested zones: the Zapatera Hill (the highest hill of the island) is covered with a large forest giving shelter to interesting flora and fauna and some individual petroglyphs. The hill can be ascended from both lodging sites. It is the most challenging activity, as it requires several hours of ascending before reaching the top. From Sonzapote it is also possible to visit a lower hill called “Las Banderas”. There is a viewpoint along the trail that offers a view on Ometepe Island on clear days.
From Santa María it is also possible to hike to the Zapatera Lagoon, located close to the site called “Punta de las Figuras”.
Fishing at the lake: the shoreline of Zapatera is abundant with fish, and an interesting activity is to accompany a local fisherman and go out do so some fishing. At Sonzapote there are options to fish with a net, while at Santa María fishing is done with cane and bait. Read more »
Although it is not yet offered, the tranquility of the water and the wind in the area of Charco Muerto (the water mass that separates the island from the mainland) is ideal for surfing and sailing sports. This can be an interesting detail for enthusiasts.
There is no public transportation to Zapatera Island. The only way to get there is by contacting the lodging places and use their boat transportation services to get there. Although Zapatera is very close to the coast in the municipality of Naindaime, boats generally run to and from the Asese port in the city of Granada. It takes roughly between half an hour and an hour an a half, depending on the power of the engine. The boat ride is quite nice, as the Mombacho Volcano and the Granada Islets can be seen along the way. Observing Zapatera Island come closer and closer is also a great sight. An alternative is hiring a private boat, for instance one of the boats that offers tours around the islets, but this price is significantly higher.
Due to its proximity to major tourist destinations as well as other destinations that are relatively unknown, it is a great option to combine a visit to the island when exploring the region of Granada. The island is not only close to the colonial city of Granada, its islets, and the Mombacho Volcano, but it is even closer to the Private Wildlife Reserves of Domitila and El Congo, the Mombacho Lagoons (also known as the Mecatepe Lagoons), and the Manares River.
Despite the few lodging options, despite the recent looting of wood and archeological pieces, and despite the little interest shown by local and national authorities, the Zapatera Archipelago constitutes a formidable attraction, and visiting it is an adventure that is worth the effort.
The information in this Special is based on a visit to the island and also information from articles from the Nicaraguan experts Clemente Guido, Jorge Eduardo Arellanos and Rigoberto Navarro Genie, as well as some fact-checking with the “UCA Tierra y Agua” organization.