Retire To Leon, Granada, Nicaragua

Three Top Retire Overseas Choices–Glorious Granada, Liberal Leon, And Surfing San Juan Del Sur

Nicaragua, hidden behind the image of her picaresque president for the last few years, is perhaps, finally, emerging as a top retirement and vacation hotspot,” writes Central America Correspondent Michael Paladin in the feature report for this month’s issue of the Overseas Retirement Letter.

“Why? The mainstream press is catching on. MSN, the Lonely Planet Guidebook, U.S. News & World Reports, and other global press have been giving a lot of ink lately to this, the largest country in Central America.

“The yardstick of international popularity is the annual tourist count: In 2010, Nicaragua, for the first time ever, welcomed more than one-million visitors. By comparison, neighboring Costa Rica, the eco-tourism darling and longtime winner of this popularity contest, chalked up two-million tourists in 2010. While Costa Rica no longer makes sense as a retirement haven, its lack of political problems and strong pro-ecology marketing efforts have succeeded in keeping her in the eco- and adventure-travel spotlight for years.

“By contrast, Nicaragua has suffered serious bad press, dating back to the heavy-handed U.S. intervention during the 1900s, which finally ended with the signing of the peace accords in 1993.

“When the dust settled in Managua, after decades of battles between the FSLN (Sandinistas) and the remnants of the Somoza dynasty, the country was in dire condition. A major earthquake in 1972 leveled vast portions of the capital, which are only now being restored. This, accompanied by the siphoning off of great amounts of aid money and other treasure looted by the parting Somoza regime, doomed the new victors to working with an empty wallet and few sponsors. Facing the armed might and massive amounts of foreign aid given to the Contras by the Reagan administration, the Sandinistas welcomed the help offered by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Venezuela. It was either that or give up on the revolution that had started with the assassination, in 1934, of Augusto Cesar Sandino, their iconic martyr.

“Sandino, labeled a bandit by the United States for his actions fighting a guerilla war against U.S. Marines between 1927 and 1933, was assassinated on the orders of General Anastasio Somoza Garcia, who seized power two years later. Nicaragua became a Somoza family fiefdom for the next 40 years.

“León, one-time capital of Nicaragua and long-standing liberal city, is credited as the epicenter of the rise of revulsion and revolt against Somoza’s control. The unrest, a result of decades of presidential looting, peaked with the assassination of General Somoza in a restaurant in the city of León in 1956–by a poet disguised as a waiter.

“Somoza’s sons, Luis followed by his namesake, Anastasio (‘Tacho’), went on to drive the country over a cliff. Following their diversion of foreign aid, after the 6.3 quake in 1972, underground and nascent political groups coalesced and organized as the Frente Sandinista Liberación Nacional (FSLN). The university students of León took up the banner of the fallen martyr, Sandino. Armed with makeshift weapons, Molotov cocktails, and one battered armored vehicle, the FSLN withstood the onslaught of bombs–and suffered outright devastation of several cities–by the regime’s National Guard. Their fight continued until the signing of the accords in 1993.

“Today, the image of an insouciant Sandino adorns many a T-shirt, coffee cup, and even a city wall. In Managua a newly built high-rise shows his outline in red neon, with his slouch hat at a jaunty angle, jodhpurs, high-top boots, and all. Hollywood or Madison Avenue couldn’t have created a better image than this murdered martyr with his Indiana Jones floppy hat, crossover gun belt, and raised eyebrow of a hopeful but skeptical patriot.

“After the decades of war, devastation, and internecine political fighting, the people of this country are tired. After watching their neighboring countries grow, progress, and finally obtain a measure of peace and stability, the Nicaraguans are more than ready for their share of the good life. Give them a decent wage, a chance of education for their children, something more than the ever-present gallo pinto (rice and beans), and perhaps the Nicas will stop resenting the Ticas (the Costa Ricans next-door with all the goodies.

“Their semi-perennial President Daniel Ortega Saavedra is running again for office. Yes, he’s barred by the Constitution for another term. And, yes, perhaps he did pay groups recently to spray graffiti on Managua’s walls that read, ‘Viva Daniel.’ But perhaps, as well, Danny isn’t all bad.

“Multi-national corporations have voted and taken up office space in the capital, and some roads, finally, are being repaired. Meantime, Claro, one of the in-country data network companies, has scattered its ubiquitous four-foot, tomato-red satellite dishes from one end of the country to the other.

“Information is the key to approval by the masses in this day and age, and Señor Ortega has given his country full access. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are happy with his efforts to control inflation and moderate the economy. Yes, the CIA World Fact Book remarks that he accepts ‘off -budget loans’ from Chavez of Venezuela, but, bottom line, the country is working, tourists are coming, new and favorable residency laws for retirees are in place, and the sun is shining (though Ortega can’t really take credit for that last one).

“Still, the country is the poorest in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere. The literacy rates were dramatically raised when the Sandinistas first came to power but are still below 70% of a total population approaching six million. Unemployment, and the enigmatic metric ‘underemployment,’ are at 10% and 50% of the working population, respectively.

“Nicaragua today offers three appealing and dramatically differing choices for the potential retiree: the country’s tourist jewel Granada; San Juan del Sur, one of the best surfing destinations in the region; and Leon, still off the beaten path but perhaps most interesting of all…”

Michael details the pluses and the minuses, the attractions and the limitations of each of these thin-sliced retire-overseas choices in his full report on retirement in Nicaragua in this month’s issue of my Overseas Retirement Letter.

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Kathleen Peddicord

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