SOLENTINAME – Her ancient hands gripping the hot iron, Esmeralda Pineda burns grooves into the wooden birds her husband carved from balsa wood.
“Now they just need to be painted,” she says, as her green eyes flash a smile that threatens to burst into one of her cackling laughs that break the island’s watery silence.
Pineda’s worn hands tell stories of a life of labor – they know slimy fish and machete blades, squirming iguana tails and wriggling chicken necks.
They also know paintbrush and pallette. Pineda, like many locals on this 38-island archipelago in southeastern LakeCocibolca, is both an artist and a campesina.
The SolentinameIslands where she lives house the “small contemplative community” that revolutionary Catholic priest, poet and sculptor Ernesto Cardenal founded in the 1960s. His church-backed initiative taught islanders to paint their own “primitivist” versions of the wildlife-rich tropical scenes of their remote corner of the world. The artistic traditions have since been passed down through generations.
Perhaps the most laid-back corner of Nicaragua’s great lake, this set of islands is the product of Cardenal’s idealist social experiment in liberation theology, a Catholic theology, ultimately rejected by the Vatican, that emphasizes political activism as a means to bring justice to the poor.
Solentiname was inhabited by natives as far back as 1000 B.C., and was more recently known as a hotbed for armed Sandinista revolt, with Cardenal as the ideological figurehead.
Today, that uniquely Nicaraguan culture is preserved in this archipelago of islands, making it an off-the-beaten-track eco-escape for bird-watchers, history craving backpackers and art lovers alike.
“The islands were very mysterious and remote when I first came,” Cardenal said, squinting his ancient brow as if to visualize the strenuous seven-hour rowboat trip from San Carlos to the islands in that day.
Today, the motorboat ride is just an hour from the mainland, but the islands still feel remote. Even getting to the river port town of San Carlos is still a task. The 12-hour boat ride from Granada is arduous; as is the bumpy bus ride around the lake. A round trip flight from Managua is priced at $150.
Besides plans for solar panels on the islands, which are currently powered by a few generators and have no running water, the only allusion to modern civilization here is the occasional panga that appears on the horizon amid gliding flocks of birds.
Cardenal, now 83, still visits his residence on the archipelago’s largest island, Mancarrón.
He says he plans to expand the island’s library, expand the English program, create an archaeological museum, and start up a “writers’ colony” that will house Nicaraguan literary greats like Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli – the former, a close friend of Cardenal, already has bought land here.
The Solentiname Development Association, of which Cardenal is president, continues to use mostly foreign donations to develop public services on the islands. There are now eight schools, and the association recently put in a clinic with plans for a permanent doctor.
In his office in the Managua gallery Tres Mundos, where primitivist paintings are for sale by islanders, Cardenal reflects on the initial reaction of the Roman Catholic Church when he first sought its approval of his island mission 40 years ago.
“He said he liked the idea but didn’t want it to be in Solentiname, because it didn’t get visitors,” Cardenal said, referring to the reaction of the Vatican’s diplomatic representative to Nicaragua back in the 1960s.
Since then, Solentiname has attracted a trickle of curious visitors. Even before the Sandinista revolution, Solentiname was an alternative destination for adventure travelers and those interested in the priest’s social experiment.
Today, it remains an exotic destination for those looking to escape the bustle of Nicaragua’s populated Pacific basin and beaches.
“Tourists arrive, but not many. We don’t want too many to come. In Costa Rica, there’s a problem of many tourists,”Cardenal said. “There are no beaches or swimming pools. Just peace, tranquility.”
Cardenal, who served as the Minister of Culture for the Sandinista government in the 1980s, mourns that the “great renaissance” of art and culture that accompanied the Sandinista revolution no longer enjoys much government help.
“There’s practically no government support for those things now,” he said, adding that the support his association gets is private.
As detailed in his memoirs, “The Revolution Lost,” Cardenal broke from the Sandinista Front after the party lost the 1990 election and party heads divided up land and wealth among them in a grab known as the “piñata.”
Though he’s critical of the current Sandinista government and the alliance it has forged with Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, Cardenal still holds out hope for political activism to liberate the poor.
“One revolution ends, and another begins,” he said.
Back on the island, it appears there are the early makings of a tourist revolution. As a boat full of visitors pulled up to San Fernando Island, the sun-glazed eyes of Solentiname native Angel Alfonso Sicaida follows the flock of birds flying alongside his boat.
“There’s always been tourism here. Many people support themselves with it,” he said. Sicaida works for a San Carlos-based tour operator “A. Ortiz,” which ships a boatload or two of tourists to and from the island each week.
On San Fernando Island, Pineda plans to bank off the inevitable appetites of the steady, however minute, influx of tourists who visit.
Between touching up bird carvings that will be exported to Holland, and welcoming a couple of visitors into her home for fried iguana – which her husband hunted with a slingshot – she instructs a carpenter on how to build the small diner she’s having built next to her lakeside shanty in anticipation of more visitors in the future.
“Many foreigners come looking for an alternative place to eat,” she said with her permanently vibrant smile.