Living Abroad in Nicaragua
Central America’s largest and least-visited nation is being billed as the new Costa Rica for eco-travel—discover if it’s right for you
2006 © Randall Wood and Joshua Berman, from Moon Living Abroad in Nicaragua, 1st ed. Used by permission of the author(s) and Avalon Travel Publishing. All rights reserved. For more info please visit Moon's website, Moon.com, and GotoNicaragua.com, a site created by Wood and Berman for fellow Nicaphiles to come together, plan their trips, and ask questions.
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Authors Randall Wood and Joshua Berman
Forget everything you thought you knew about Nicaragua. As this nation’s turbulent history fades even farther into the past, the unique, offbeat allure of Central America’s largest and least-visited nation has caught the world’s attention once again—this time for more appealing, positive reasons than the specter of civil conflict. Nicaragua is a place where, even in the 21st century, time clicks by a bit more slowly than you may be used to; where the sun is warm, the breeze blows year-round, and where the basic things in life—like family, friends, and time to sit out under clear, starry skies—are more important than normal North American concerns like office politics, mortgage payments, and credit card bills.
Nicaragua is an illumined land of sandy shores, cloudy forests, volcanic peaks, and a vibrant people who take life one day at a time. Nicas (as they call themselves) enjoy each other’s company in a way the “developed” world seems to have forgotten, and if you find their enthusiasm contagious, you are not alone. Recently, while seated among an eclectic gathering of Nicaraguan artists, Dutch hikers, British language instructors, and Colombian agronomists, an American friend remarked, “Nicaragua has such an incredible ability to bring people together.” Twenty-five years ago, such a group probably would have been gathered in this Matagalpa restaurant in solidarity with the revolutionary government; today, their reasons are infinitely more personal as they pursue dreams as different as the paths that led them here. Yet, these extranjeros (foreigners) 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 is exceedingly affordable, constantly inspiring, and an adventure unto itself.
This country’s astonishing beauty begins with its broad diversity in geography and ecology—volcanoes, mangrove swamps, rich agricultural fields, and Caribbean pine forests—and continues with its charismatic architecture; from rustic, red-tiled villages and stately colonial-era towns to parks, plazas, and cathedrals that will keep you reaching for your camera. Most important are Nicaraguans themselves, a rousing and vivacious people who have lived through difficult times and, despite past and current differences (including an enormous gulf between rich and poor), are fiercely proud of their common Nicaraguan heritage.
Foreigners who make even the slightest effort to communicate will find most Nicas to be fun-loving and eager hosts—quick with a smile, a joke, and a hot cup of coffee. They love to laugh, to give each other nicknames (you’ll get yours, too; just wait), and to argue about sports and politics. Many Nicaraguans have family overseas, particularly in Miami, Houston, and Los Angeles, and have a more well-informed opinion of the U.S. than you may expect. And though they are aware of—and sometimes aspire to—some aspects of North American culture, most Nicaraguans have not forgotten what is important in life: that you work in order to live and not the other way around, that children and the elderly are to be nurtured and kept close, not dropped off in day-care centers and put into old folks’ homes, and that who you are and how you behave is more important than what you own or where you work. Above all, Nicaraguans’ intense history has taught them that life is short and should be lived fully, among family and friends.
Is Nicaragua right for you?
The first thing to consider is that, despite so much recent hype, an extended or permanent stay in Nicaragua is a bold and major lifestyle change. It would be wrong—and seriously misguided—to expect living in Nicaragua to be remotely similar to more traditional warm-weather retreats, like Florida or Costa Rica, for example. There are as many challenges as there are opportunities here, and the process of determining whether Nicaragua is your cup of tea should not be taken lightly.
Ultimately, you’ll face the most important and potentially challenging aspect of living in Nicaragua: its poverty. Although a few upscale resorts and gated communities have recently sprouted in the southwest corner of the country, nowhere in Nicaragua will you be sealed off from the harsh, everyday realities of one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere. For many foreign visitors, this is their reason for coming—to import goodwill, skills, and knowledge to people who have not had the opportunities we in the U.S., Canada, and Europe take for granted. These well-intentioned souls will find plenty of work to do, though creating sustainable solutions to poverty rather than more dependency is a far greater challenge than learning how to take a bucket bath or use a latrine. Will you know how to make a meaningful difference?
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-turned-swamp in the rainy season, to the classic bureaucratic nightmares so common in Latin America—all of which you’ll bear with your slowly improving Spanish language skills. Are you ready for such tests?
Even foreigners who arrive with no motive loftier than taking a break from the rat race, or even retiring from it, will be pushing their normal comfort zones. Basic services like electricity and water fail sporadically throughout Nicaragua. The recently privatized telephone service is improving, but at times the nation’s entire telecommunications network gets saturated and there’s nothing you can do but relax and wait. Some highways are smooth, but most roads are bumpy and uncomfortable, the drivers aggressive and reckless, and traffic snarls between Managua and Granada are the norm. Can you roll with such inconsistencies?
Then there is the Nicaraguan administrative and legal system. Your every run-in with the petty officials that demand and process your paperwork, from getting a driver’s license to paying your taxes, will exasperate you and make you long for home, where everything seems to just work better. Do you have the patience?
Though we had no idea what to expect when we first moved to Nicaragua in 1998, it ended up being a perfect fit, and we have never stopped thanking our lucky stars for the different ways in which this place has affected our lives. Maybe you will be similarly enchanted; maybe you won’t. Discovering if Nicaragua is right for you means asking all the questions above and more. Research what you’re getting into: Take a Spanish course, talk to Nicas, and chat up the expatriates 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.
Planning Your Fact-Finding Trip
Learning what to expect from Nicaragua begins with immersing yourself in its sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches—all of which will, more than any guidebook or website, teach you volumes about this unique country and its inhabitants. As one of our expatriate friends living in Managua said, “Nicaragua is not a snapshot. It is a movie. You must know its recent past to understand its present.”
This means reading books about Nicaraguan history before and during your trip, but ultimately, such an academic approach will only put you in touch with a couple of isolated authors. Meeting Nicaraguans is the next crucial step. Nicaraguans’ stories are often fascinating; how was their family affected by recent decades? What is their outlook on the future? What do they think is important for you to know about Nicaragua? What’s more, journeying to Nicaragua with a mission other than mere recreation, a trip that is in fact the first step of a major life decision, is its own experience, a truly exceptional way to travel.
Equipment and Paperwork
Bring a notebook small enough to carry in your pocket or daypack; you may feel swamped with information as you explore Nicaragua, and making a conscientious effort to record your thoughts, the results of your research, and answers to your questions in one place will be indispensable once you’re back home trying to make sense of all you’ve learned. For that matter, before you even step foot on Nicaraguan soil, organize your thoughts on the first pages and try to spell out exactly what you are going there to learn. We’re not being pedantic: You’d be surprised how many visitors to Nicaragua explore the country for two weeks and return home only to realize they never found answers to their important questions, like whether you can get ESPN in your home (yes, you can). If you’re not a note-taking kind of person, consider a pocket tape recorder.
Though nearly every first-aid concern you would need (and then some) is available in Nicaraguan pharmacies, a small custom kit is a good idea. Carry some ibuprofen, sunblock, aloe gel for sunburns, moleskin for blisters, and a bandage or two, just enough to keep you moving through the more common traveler’s problems. Ear plugs are essential for early-morning roosters and merengue music.
A small camera is useful, not just to record Nicaragua’s beauty but to allow you to document street scenes, housing types, and so on, again, with the goal of recording what you learn long enough to get home and make sense of it (Did houses in Granada have steel bars on the windows?). Most travelers carry digital cameras these days, but many parts of Nicaragua still lack the facilities with which to download and print your pictures. If you leave your laptop and photo software at home, make sure to bring enough storage media (chips, discs, etc.) to record the number of photos you anticipate taking until you get home.
How Much Cash to Bring
How much you’ll spend depends largely on how well you’d like to live while you’re exploring Nicaragua. Backpackers intent on stretching their cash out as long as possible can eat, sleep, and recreate for $20–30 a day or less. Though Nicaragua’s nicer and more luxurious hotels can cost $50–70 a night (or more) in places like Granada and León, clean and comfortable digs are easily found for $15–30; for three decent but not extravagant meals per day (with a few drinks), $30 a day is sufficient.
Renting a vehicle to facilitate exploration (and to experience nerve-wracking traffic experiences) cranks up expenses considerably. Budget at least $40 per day—plus gasoline, which as of January 2006 was running at $4 per gallon. Hiring a car with driver costs around $60–80 per day. Bottom line? Budgeting $1,000 for a 10-day trip is more than sufficient, allowing for some shopping, organized tours, and a few splurges. Living Abroad in Nicaragua provides a few suggestions for planning a fact-finding trip of varying lengths (1-week, two weeks, 1-month) in the two areas most popular with foreigners—Granada and San Juan del Sur, along with a side trip to La Isla de Ometepe.