We pulled away from the dock in the colonial city of Granada, Nicaragua. Our wooden sailboat weaved between dozens of the rock islands, spouted from an angry Mombacho Volcano a millennia ago. A day cruise around Las Isletas is the typical tourist activity, but we were going deeper into Lake Nicaragua with two-days on Isla Zapatera. It’s the lake’s second biggest island and an acclaimed Pre-Columbian archeological site, though few make it to this national park. Zapatera has been owned by the Cordova Alvarez family, a political dynasty of six Nicaraguan presidents and dozens of leaders, for 166 years. But it’s slowly been opening up to travelers, with the help of Rafael. As great-grandson of the original owner from 1850 and someone who grew up coming to the island, he decided to build Hotel Bahia Zapatera as a means to preserve and share this special place. “Bienvenidos,” said Rafael with a big smile as we pulled up to the beach dotted with bungalows. “Let the adventure begin!”
Built alongside the 100-year-old family home, the four-bungalow inn has traditional thatch-roofs, vibrant decor, and an incredible sense of the history. The “lobby” is decorated with black and white family photos, the calligraphy-scrolled deed to the land, and tons of Chorotega Indian artifacts. Rafael, pulled out a map to plot our two-days of excursions and it felt like we’re beginning a treasure hunt.
Zapatera Island is an extinct volcano, weathered down to a 2,000-foot peak with rolling hills, valleys, and lagoons. We hiked down the ridge for a view over the surrounding archipelago then climbed down the crater walls to its lake. Rafael jumped in first, did a few kicks, and dove down for a handful of mud. “Want to try a Zapatera spa treatment?” We followed his lead and rubbed the silky mineral-rich earth all over our bodies and let it bake in the sun for 15 minutes (or until we were a few years younger).
We returned to the hotel and there was a feast of fresh fish, crunchy patacones, and arroz con frijoles. For dessert, we had cinnamon and honey-infused plantains… sooo scrumptious.
Just a ten-minute boat ride away is one of Lake Nicaragua’s most important archeological sites… Isla El Muerto. We pulled up to the sandy shores, expecting a little museum and ticket booth, but there was simple house and four brothers playing an intense game of baseball out front. We waved and followed the narrow dirt path to the Plazoleta. The 80×20-meter rock slab was covered in some of the most intricate petroglyphs we’d ever seen. Before the Spanish arrived in the 16th-century, the Chorotegas used the Plazoleta to chronical their history, track the sun and stars, and make sacrifices to the gods. Rafael, told us about the symbolism of the various carvings and stories of playing here as a child, filling the lines with chalk like a coloring book.
We settled into our villa and positioned ourselves for a perfect sunset over Mombacho Volcano. When the Zapatera chefs heard we were on an eternal honeymoon, they surprised us with a special fish soup appetizer, sopa de amor.
All born and raised on the island, the Zapatera staff were so sweet and took such amazing care of us. No request was too outlandish…like moving a table to end of the dock for the best breakfast spot. We dined on farm-fresh eggs and stacks of pancakes topped with pineapple, and sipped our coffee to the soundtrack of the lake’s breeze, birds, and waves.
With cleverly designed island of hammocks hovering over the lake, we were lured in for a swim multiple times a day. The structure was the perfect perch for views, as well as an umbrella for shade below.
For more activities, we could have chosen to hike to highest point of the island, take a dip in the river’s ojo de agua, or enjoy a boat ride to the Zapatera islets. We opted for a sail to Jesus Grande island for more petroglyphs, caves gripped with strangler figs, and a sunset toast to an amazing stay.
There is something undeniably special about Zapatera. Maybe it’s the feeling of mysticism from the ancient cultures, the lore of the country’s leaders, or the warmth of the local Zapaterans…whatever it is, it’s authentic and a rare gem we hope you discover for yourself someday.
Mike and Anne Howard left on their honeymoon in 2012 and have been traveling the world ever since. HoneyTrek.com chronicles their adventures across 7 continents, 44 countries, and counting! Their writing, photography, and the story of the “World’s Longest Honeymoon” can also be found on Condé Nast Traveler, BBC Travel, The Knot, Los Angeles Times, CBS, and dozens of other international publications. Connect with @HoneyTrek on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.