This 365-island archipelago formed when Volcán Mombacho erupted some 20,000 years ago, hurling its top half into the nearby lake in giant masses of rock, ash, and lava. Today, the islands are inhabited by a few hundred campesinos (country folk) and an ever-increasing number of wealthy Nicaraguans and foreigners who continue to buy up the isletas to build garish vacation homes on them.
The natural beauty of the isletas is spectacular, and history buffs will enjoy the Fortín de San Pablo, a Spanish fort that was largely unsuccessful in preventing pirate attacks on Granada. The islanders themselves are interesting and friendly, maintaining a rural lifestyle unique in Nicaragua: Children paddle dugout canoes or rowboats to school from an early age, and their parents get along by fishing and farming or by taking camera-toting tourists for a ride in their boats.
Almost every hotel and tour operator offers a trip to Las Isletas and may pair it with other excursions. There are a lot of options out there. For example, the Mombotour office in Granada offers an introductory three-hour kayak class ($34), which includes all equipment, sea kayaks, transportation, and a tour of the Fortín de San Pablo. For a more economical option, go right to the boat owners at the Marina Cocibolca. If you take a taxi to the southern end of the waterfront road there are many lancheros (boat drivers). Don’t expect to haggle over prices, as gasoline is expensive (see for yourself at the dockside station). You’ll pay about $10 per person for a half-hour tour, more for longer or farther trips. You can take a dip in the lake water or have your lanchero bring you to the cemetery, old fort, or monkey island, which is inhabited by a community of monkeys. If you want to eat lunch, ask your guide if you can stop at one of island restaurants or visit a local family who can serve you lunch.
There are a couple of upscale options for staying on one of the islands. The swankiest is Jicaro Island Lodge (tel. 505/2558-7702, $560 d, includes 3 meals a day), where you can watch the sun sink over the water from a beautiful two-story casita (cottage). A newer option with an up-close view of Mombacho is El Espino (tel. 505/7636-0060, $120-195 d, includes transport and breakfast). The solar-powered lodge features a swimming pool, yoga platform, and massage facilities. They gladly accept day-trippers, call ahead for prices.
Excerpted from the Sixth Edition of Moon Nicaragua.