Nicaraguan Cowboy. Randall Wood
By Joshua Berman & Randall Wood
When California lawyer Chris Berry first arrived in Nicaragua in 1988, it was aboard his sailboat, Pelican Eyes. Chris wandered ashore in San Juan del Sur and, eventually, wandered into tourism when it arrived a decade later — first by taking the odd visitor on sunset sailing trips, later by opening Pelican Eyes Piedras y Olas, one of the classiest hotel-restaurants in the country and a source of employment for over 150 Nicaraguans. After making the commitment to stay and be a part of Nicaragua, Chris met fellow expat and retired Red Cross nurse Jean Brugger and together they founded the A. Jean Brugger Education Project, a non-profit that, in addition to anti-litter and environmental campaigns, provides scholarships, uniforms, school supplies, and job training to dedicated students in the San Juan del Sur area.
Fishing boats at anchor off Corn Island on the Caribbean east coast. Randall Wood
Nicaragua’s first public lending library was funded by a foreign resident. Joshua Berman
A country can really get into your bloodstream when you decide to commit to it, even on a part time basis.
Chris isn’t the only foreign hotelier who is giving something back to his adopted community in Nicaragua. Jane Mirandette is the proprietress of Hotel Villa Isabella and founder of the San Juan del Sur Biblioteca Móvil, Nicaragua’s first public lending library. Just celebrating its fifth anniversary in November, it boasts over 10,000 titles and even has a mobile library truck serving 26 surrounding communities.
Mariachi Duet. Randall Wood
A decade of mostly transient travelers in Nicaragua is giving way to a more experienced, mature population of extranjeros (foreigners). Some come to open hotels and invest in tourism and real estate, others come to retire, volunteer, relax, or all of the above. Though these expatriate souls have different reasons for coming to “The Land of Lakes and Volcanoes,” they all have one thing in common: they have discovered that living in Nicaragua is safer than it is in most American or European cities; that it can be exceedingly affordable, constantly inspiring, and an adventure unto itself.
The first piece of advice immigrants like Chris, Jean, and Jane are apt to tell potential newcomers is “forget everything you thought you knew about Nicaragua.” In fact, that’s the first line of our book, Moon Living Abroad in Nicaragua. Indeed, some people continue to see Central America’s largest and least-visited nation through 1980s-tinted glasses in reference to a war that’s been over more than 15 years; others see Nicaragua through the hyped-up, distorted lenses of the latest flashy — and often false — batch of real estate brochures.
One of Nicaragua’s live volcanoes overlooks a traditional country church. Joshua Berman
The real Nicaragua is more elusive and subjective than such literature would have you believe. The day-to-day realities of life there are as different among Nicaraguans (or “Los Nicas,” as they call themselves) as they are among the unrushed, long-term travelers who have decided to settle there. Micro-communities of expats — and their Nica friends and families — are found in Granada, San Juan del Sur, León, Estelí, and even unattractive, sprawling Managua (alas, that’s where most of the jobs are).
Nicaragua is a young democracy with a developing economy. The national language is Spanish, though many residents of the Caribbean coastal areas speak English and indigenous languages as well. The climate is generally hot and humid with the dry season running mid-November through mid-May and the rainy season running from mid-May through mid-November. Terrain ranges from the hilly and volcanic to coastal beaches and tropical jungles.
Asking the question “Is Nicaragua Right for Me?” is only the first step, whether for a few weeks, months, years, or life. Of course, any extended stay in Nicaragua means a bold and major lifestyle change. It would be wrong — and dangerously misguided — to expect living in Nicaragua to be at all similar to more traditional warm weather retreats like Florida, for example. Claims that Nicaragua is “the new Costa Rica” are equally fallacious. There are as many challenges as there are opportunities, and the process of determining whether Nicaragua is right for you should not be taken lightly.
Children learn traditional Nicaraguan dances. Randall Wood
Nicaraguan beauty, Doris Parra Blandón, is a dancer with La Academia de Danza troupe. Randall Wood
First and foremost, though there are a few upscale resorts and gated communities springing up, nowhere in Nicaragua will you be sealed off from the harsh, everyday realities of life in one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. For many foreign visitors, this poverty is their reason for coming — to import goodwill, skills, and knowledge to people who have not had the opportunities we in the United States, Canada, and Europe take for granted. Such kind-hearted souls will find plenty of work to do, meeting the challenge of creating sustainable solutions to poverty rather than more economic dependency.
Business-minded immigrants believe the answer lies in investment, jobs, and the trickle-down effect. They figure they can help the economy and turn a small profit at the same time. Perhaps you are one of these, restaurant blueprints in hand, or images of a long-dreamed lakeside bed-and-breakfast flitting through your head. You’ll find your own set of trials and tribulations, from a short-changing contractor to an unexpected beachfront-cum-swamp in the rainy season, to classic bureaucratic nightmares so common in Latin America — all of which you’ll suffer with your slowly-improving Spanish language skills.
Gracious, picturesque Granada is a favorite retirement destination for foreigners. Joshua Berman
Even foreigners who arrive with no motive loftier than taking a break from the rat race, or retiring from it, will be pushing their normal comfort zones. Basic services like electricity and water fail sporadically, most roads are bumpy and uncomfortable, the drivers aggressive and reckless, and traffic snarls between Managua and Granada are the norm.
Chris Berry’s advice for dealing with these challenges is straightforward but involves commitment: “Learn Spanish. Learn the Culture. Commit to spending 10 to 25 percent of your budget on locals. Commit to integrate, not segregate. Enjoy your life and share that luxury. Let people see you smile. Avoid the temptation to complain about the system here with other expats.”
Technically, by reading this article and acknowledging the potential hardships listed above, you’ve taken the first step. Congratulations. Now, as you keep researching, we recommend a reconnaissance trip. A few weeks is good, a few months is better. Plan your trip around time studying Spanish at one of the many excellent Spanish language schools in Nicaragua. When you get there, talk to as many Nicas as you can, and chat up the expatriates you meet who have made Nicaragua their home. Walk the streets, ride the buses, visit the markets, sample the food, and see the sights. Whether or not you decide to stay, this experience — and at least some part of Nicaragua — will remain with you for life.
As in Mexico and Guatemala, mural painting in Nicaragua is associated with political and social commentary. Randall Wood
The authors’ guidebook and ebook, Moon Living Abroad In Nicaragua are authoritative resources, available through online bookstores or in local bookstores.
Nicaragua Travel Planner: www.moon.com/planner/nicaragua/index.html.
Nicaragua Institute of Tourism [INTUR]: www.intur.gob.ni.
Spanish language schools in Nicaragua: Check the comprehensive listings at the Transitions Abroad website.
Entry and exit: A valid passport is required to enter Nicaragua. A tourist card must be purchased (US$5.00) upon arrival. Tourist cards are typically issued for 30 to 90 days. There is also a US$32.00 departure tax, not included in your ticket.
Joshua Berman and Randall Wood are co-authors of Moon Living Abroad In Nicaragua, both by Avalon Travel Publishing. They have spent a combined eight years living in Nicaragua.