Cleaner, for one thing. Granada, San Juan del Sur, and even Managua are noticeably less littered than I'd remembered. We met several people who talked about different "pueblo limpio" projects that seem to be having the intended effect. Nicaragua right now is cleaner...and busier. Granada, my pick for the most romantic city in Latin America, is more active today, I'd say, than at any time during its near five centuries of history. The setting for this colonial town is like out of a fairy tale—the lake, the volcano, the mountains... At night the backdrop is an ink-streaked sky that, just before the sun sets, illuminates the yellow and white cathedrals in ways that would have inspired Matisse to set up his easel. That background is there, as it's always been, but it's harder to pick it out today for the crowds. The streets of Granada and the central square are packed from early morning until late evening with travelers and backpackers, expats and locals, retirees and investors. It's a crazy mix of folks that creates the atmosphere of a carnival. One street extending from the square to the lake has been pedestrianized and is lined with restaurants and bars, all with outdoor seating. Musicians and singers wander from outdoor table to outdoor table serenading for tips. Young men set up boom boxes on the sidewalk, hit play, then break into Michael Jackson routines and acrobatic displays. Old women sell scarves they've woven, men hawk bootlegged CDs. This isn't a place to come these days for a quiet dinner. But you have other options for that. Granada boasts good new fine-dining establishments and five-star hotels, more choices for where to eat and where to sleep than ever. Everything is a bargain. Panama City, where we call home, is no longer a cheap place to hang out, but everywhere in Nicaragua sure is. We stayed in one of Granada's best hotels, the Gran Francia, for US$60 a night including breakfast and Wi-Fi. We drank Nicaragua's Flor de Cana rum (great stuff) and Cokes for less than a buck a go. We bought handmade hardwood serving bowls and platters as souvenirs for US$4 and US$5. The traveler's dollar (they take dollars almost everywhere) goes a long way in Nicaragua still, and so does the retiree's. This is one of your best choices in the Americas for a place to retire for a comfortable and rich life on a modest budget. In our travels last weekend, we met several who have done just that, including one couple of retirees living in a charming home they've built for themselves overlooking crater Lake Apoyo. Brian invited Lief and me inside to have a look. He opened the front door to his living room to reveal a panoramic view of the glass-still indigo lake just beyond. Quite a setting. Retired now just outside Granada, Brian and his wife Nancy have become very involved in their new community, starting a business that employs dozens of locals and opening a health clinic. "Nancy and I spend about half the year in Oregon and half the year here in Nicaragua," Brian explained. "We couldn't be happier. We're getting ready to return to Oregon soon, but we don't want to go. We've become very attached to our new lives here, very invested personally, emotionally." You can read more about what Brian and Nancy are doing with themselves now that they're part-time Nicaraguan residents here. I understand the attraction for Brian and Nancy and all the others who are seeking out this part of the world at this stage of life and putting down real roots in this place. Nicaragua does that to you. Draws you in. Gets under your skin. Stirs your imagination... Kathleen Peddicord
My main impression from this weekend's visit is that Nicaragua still makes sense for many reasons. I like this country for a lot of different agendas. For tourists, Nicaragua is an absolute bargain. The super low cost of everything attracts backpackers, of course, but it also attracts others looking for a high-quality vacation at a bargain price. The legitimately four-star hotel where we stayed in over the weekend, La Gran Francia, cost us US$60 a night, including breakfast and Wi-Fi. For surfers, Nicaragua is a mecca. This country's Pacific coast serves up some of the best breaks anywhere in the world. Those who make their way to try them out aren't just 20-somethings with shaggy hair and empty pockets. Today's surfer is as often a grown-up guy with a grown-up job and real net worth. He's been surfing since he was in his 20s and sees no reason to stop now just because he's a few decades older. These older surf dudes, with available capital, were an important part of the property boom Nicaragua enjoyed pre-2008 and are back in the country buying again. We saw several beachside or ocean-view houses and condos that have been recently bought as surf pads. For retirees, the attractions are both the long Pacific coast and the very low cost both of living and of beachfront property. Layer on the warm weather, the incredibly friendly Nicaraguans, and the country's recent pensionado residency visa program (the world's cheapest), and you've got the full retiree package. I see Nicaragua as a top choice for a retiree on a small budget. You could live well in Granada, for example, on US$1,200 a month. The minimum wage in Nicaragua is less than US$250 per month. A retiree with income of US$1,200 is wealthy compared to most locals. I also, though, see Nicaragua as a top choice for a retiree with a bigger budget who wants to use it to buy a "luxury" retirement. Increasingly, this is possible in this country. There are not only four- and five-star hotels and restaurants now, but international-standard development communities, too, especially along the Pacific coast. You could retire to one of these communities...furnish your new home with custom-made furniture...have a maid, a driver, and a gardener...eat out at high-end restaurants four or five nights a week...take regular weekend trips to explore the country...on a budget of maybe US$2,500 per month or less. Of course, you have to keep this idea in perspective. Nicaragua remains a Third World country with limited infrastructure. Even that has improved in the last eight years, though. It used to be that we said take a look at Nicaragua because it was a much better value than Costa Rica. Costa Rica has always been more expensive, but it used to have better infrastructure and more destinations developed with the foreign retiree and expat in mind. Today, Nicaragua remains much cheaper than Costa Rica, but its infrastructure has improved. Maybe it's now on par with that in Costa Rica...hard to say. However, considering that real estate prices in Nicaragua are essentially what they were eight years ago for most types of property, the infrastructure improvements make the country an even greater value. Certainly, if I were looking to make a coastal investment in this part of the world today, I'd go with Nicaragua over Costa Rica. For the investor, Nicaragua is again an interesting choice that I think could become more so over the coming several months. The television show "Survivor" has just finished filming two seasons in San Juan del Sur. We watched crews in that city packing up their kit. I was told that the first of these San Juan del Sur episodes, which will be billed as such (that is, these will be "Survivor San Juan Del Sur" seasons), airs this week. The direct positive impact of dozens of production crew in the country this past summer during filming was considerable. But imagine the greater positive impact of Americans going online to Google "San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua" after they've been introduced to it in prime time? I saw several good investment options in and around San Juan del Sur this weekend, from ocean-view lots to beachside houses, both modest and luxury standard, and from business opportunities to agricultural offerings I liked. I looked at timber and fruit projects (that I'll be reporting on for my Martketwatch members), but most everything grows in this country, from coffee and mangos to coconuts and sugar cane. I'll be back in Nicaragua in November for our Live and Invest in Nicaragua Conference. I'm looking forward to having another chance to investigate current opportunities in the country. Definitely, it's time to be paying attention again. If you haven't heard yet about our November event, you can read about the program we're planning here. Lief Simon P.S. I've invested in Nicaragua several times in the past. I sold the last of the beachfront lots that I owned in this country a few years ago for a good return, but I still own several lots in a lakeside development near Granada. Visiting the project over the weekend, I was reminded why I invested in the first place. The landscape of Nicaragua is stunning. I had been thinking of selling all of my lake lots but now, seeing them again, I'm planning to hold on to all but one of them longer term.
In the years that followed, the transformation was remarkable. The gringos kept coming and even began settling in. The speculating along the Nicaraguan Pacific Riviera went into overdrive. Sleepy Granada became a tourist hub, so crowded you'd sometimes have to wait your turn for a rocking chair on the porch of the Alhambra. Doña Violeta, it seemed, had been right. The Sandinistas had become obsolete, just like the political model they'd sought to follow, replaced, it appeared for some time, by property investors, foreign retirees, and adventure-entrepreneurs. Through 2006, Nicaragua was on the fast track to a bigger, brighter future. That is not to say that the Sandinistas—the party or the people—had disappeared. In fact, the most famous Sandinista of all, Daniel Ortega, sits again, today, in the seat of the country's presidency. How did that happen? You'd have to ask the Nicaraguans. They re-elected him, putting him back in office in 2007. And, as a result, all those investors, retirees, and entrepreneurs who had tied their dreams to Nicaragua's post-Sandinista future panicked. The panic deepened when, in 2011, Ortega adjusted things so that he could run for a consecutive term as president, something that had previously been mandated against in the country's constitution. Ortega ran again...and was re-elected again. Again, you'd have to talk to the Nicaraguans to understand the thinking behind this. It's a mystery. Meantime, in 2008-2009, U.S. and world real estate markets began to tumble, compounding investor panic and creating a perfect storm of negative influences that succeeded in nearly annihilating Nicaragua's property market. The whole of Central America was hit by the global recession, but Nicaragua was hit harder than its neighbors. Historically, the majority of foreign property buyers in this country have come from the United States and Canada. In the past, most of these buyers leveraged property assets back home to find the money to acquire new Nicaraguan assets. When, post-2008, that became an unrealistic option, Nicaragua's buying pool all but evaporated. This is changing. I believe we are just this side of the bottom in this market, and the bottom, as you know, if you can identify it, is the place to buy. Market timing aside, when it comes to real estate, Nicaragua boasts inventory with intrinsic global value: Pacific coastal real estate reminiscent of the best of southern California. Right now, values along this country's long and dramatically beautiful Pacific coastline are well down from their peaks, and developers are uncharacteristically open to offers. It's possible to buy a lot in a full-amenity development for as little as US$30,000, sometimes even with developer financing. Meantime, back in Granada, Nicaragua's other key expat and investor market, it's possible today to buy one of the small Spanish-colonial houses the city is famous for, for as little as US$40,000 or US$50,000. (More details on this tomorrow.) Politics have too long distracted people from recognizing what Nicaragua has to offer. Take Doña Violeta's advice and forget about Ortega and the Sandinistas. Three decades ago, they tried to make a new Nicaragua. Fortunately for you and me, the old Nicaragua, the largest but least visited nation in Central America, lives on. This Nicaragua is a beautiful country with loads of sunshine and two long coasts, one of white sand, one with wildly crashing surf. It is a land of lakes and volcanoes, of cloud forests and tropical jungles, of cattle ranches and Spanish-colonial cities (including two of the oldest cities in the Americas, Granada and Leon, both classic colonial towns with shady plazas and centuries-old Spanish-colonial architectural gems), of rare orchids and white-faced capuchin monkeys, and, most recently, of a new-and-improved foreign retiree residency program that is not only competitive with the best on offer elsewhere but also the world's cheapest. Perhaps, though, what struck me most my first visit to Nicaragua years ago and what has continued to draw me back to this country all these years since is the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. On my first visit, I met a young Nicaraguan man, maybe 20- or 22-years-old. "When I was very small," he told me one afternoon, "the soldiers came for my family. It was the middle of the night. We were all asleep inside. The soldiers were in a pickup truck. They stopped out front and came to the door. They woke us all up and told us that our house was needed for the revolution. In the name of the revolution, they told us, we had to get out. "We all climbed into the back of their pick-up truck, and the soldiers drove us into the mountains. They left us there, my whole family. We had nothing with us. But my father made us a place to live...and we survived. "That is our past," the young man told me in perfect English. "But it is not our future." This young man, like many others in this country, had taught himself to speak English by watching American television ("mostly MTV," I remember him explaining). Thinking practically, Nicaragua's big advantage is its cost of living, which is among the lowest you'll find anywhere in the world you might actually want to live. The Ortega Factor has frightened off many would-be retirees and expats looking for a budget destination, but not all. Both retirees and tourists in search of low-cost adventure continue to make their way to this country, which offers an affordable, quality lifestyle bundled with the chance to start over. For all these reasons, we've planned our first-ever Live and Invest in Nicaragua Conference for Nov. 19–21. Lief and I are hopping on a plane this weekend to do some pre-conference scouting. For the event itself, we'll be joined by longtime friends, contacts, and resources in this country, the people who have helped us to make all the investments, both in real estate and in business (we had an office in Granada at one time), we've made in this country over the years. We'll also be joined, as we are for every conference, by expats currently living and retired in this country I fell in love with at first sight as a young girl and that I can't wait to return to later this week. Complete details of the program we're planning for Nicaragua are here. Or you can reach our conference team by phone with your questions toll-free in North America at 1-888-627-8834 or +1-443-599-1221 from anywhere else in the world. Kathleen Peddicord
June 16, 2014
"Kathleen, thanks so much for your email on Cuenca and your wonderful short video! "What a great idea to include a short film clip of Cuenca. I've been sort of sitting on the fence, having recently retired, and south Florida (Coconut Creek) is fast becoming too expensive to live on my Social Security and a modest post 2008–09 recession that fragmented my 401K and IRAs. I would really like to see more video highlights featuring destinations in Ecuador, Panama, etc., and other great expat locations to consider. "I really would like to narrow my search further as I work part time and cannot afford to go off willy-nilly on several informational junkets. I must be able to narrow it down to a couple before moving forward. Your Cuenca video was a good start." --Craig K., United States
May 2, 2014
"Kathleen, I really enjoyed the recent story from you. It was fun to read about you and Lief and how you met, plus I really liked Lief's rundown on temporary vs. long-term rentals. Very helpful! Great issue! "I know one might wonder about such a personal account, and I wanted to let you know I'm glad you did it...glad you shared your story. I've followed you for years. So for me this history was so much fun to read. Thanks." --Arlean K., United States
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Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter.
Her book, How To Retire Overseas—Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.
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