Living Abroad in Nicaragua
Prime Living Locations
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.
Once you decide to really start looking for a place to call home, Nicaragua seems like a big place. But you can concentrate your effort on regions and make a big task into a series of smaller tasks. If you heard any mention at all of Nicaragua back home, you probably heard about the two places that are receiving the lion’s share of the attention: the colonial city of Granada and the beachfront around San Juan del Sur. Those two areas should be where you spend most of your energy and attention. But there’s lots more, depending on what you are looking for. Outside of Granada is the impressive island of Ometepe, and just north of San Juan del Sur are Rivas and Tola. To the north of Managua, León is every bit as colonial as Granada is, and Estelí and Matagalpa offer a rustic lifestyle unlike even what you’d expect in Granada. A good strategy for getting to know the different regions is to start with the popular areas— Granada and San Juan del Sur—and then branch out a bit to get a feel for the alternative options. If you intend to retire in Nicaragua you can safely branch farther afield, but if you need to work in Managua you have fewer choices. Managua houses a good many of the expats who find themselves in Nicaragua for work-related reasons.
Granada and Environs
As both the first town that Spain’s conquistadores established in Central America and the epicenter of Nicaragua’s current tourism boom, Granada is a brightly painted city of extremes: old yet new, relaxed yet active, exotic yet comfortable. Nowhere else in Nicaragua will you find the colonial architecture, community spirit, and breathtaking landscape that Granada offers to both the casual and extended visitor. From either your hotel balcony or the veranda of your newly purchased colonial getaway, your view of Granada features a sea of red-tiled roofs and church steeples, the verdant slopes of Volcán Mombacho, and the breezy expanse of Lake Cocibolca. Outside of Granada proper the Laguna de Apoyo is a cerulean swimming hole inside a forested, ancient volcanic crater with low-key communities living both at water’s edge and at the crater’s lip above; between the two the trees are full of monkeys. And Mombacho itself is increasingly gaining attention for its quiet and reclusive lifestyle and the relatively cool climate. Foreigners who choose Granada and the gorgeous regions on all sides enjoy being part of the casually growing clusters of colorful foreign characters who congregate in the city’s many restaurants, cafés, bars, and plazas. Granada has charm, creature comforts, and a bustling real estate market. It also offers volunteer opportunities, a cultural smorgasbord of sights and entertainment, and no shortage of nearby tourist activities (kayaking, hiking, swimming, crafts shopping). Granada is popular for good reason, and this is reflected in the number of expats and tourists—and the relatively high price of rentals and real estate.
San Juan del Sur and the Southwest
Nicaragua ’s dramatic Pacific southwest is being billed as the best remaining real estate on the Pacific coast. That may be true: The southwest Pacific’s innumerable bays and hillsides remain largely undeveloped, but they are the focus of more than a dozen real estate agencies crowding the streets of San Juan del Sur, the small fishing village where all the action is centered. Nearby, sleepy and colonial Rivas is rife with potential but remains to this day nothing more than a regional commercial center and the place where San Juan residents go to run errands. Then there’s La Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua’s “Oasis of Peace,” rising from the waters of Lake Cocibolca in the form of two lush, magical volcanic cones. If this breathtaking volcanic island draws your attention, you’re not the first: the Nahuatl people made it the cultural center of their Nicaraguan home centuries before the Spaniards arrived.
The Pacific coastline rivals and even surpasses Granada in terms of development, construction, and business. Tourism development, real estate rustlin’, and even the construction of retirement communities and golf courses are all being spearheaded in this geographically exciting and diverse corner of the country. What’s more, in addition to the reckless profiteering and negligent bulldozing that normally define such investment activities, there are a few socially and environmentally responsible projects that are searching for more sustainable development solutions than have been practiced in the past. As such endeavors succeed, they stand to become important models for the rest of Nicaragua and beyond, just as Costa Rica pioneered and showcased a practice that came to be known as “ecotourism.”
Boisterous and bustling, Nicaragua’s resilient, vibrant capital is at once a daunting, chaotic urban center and a country village where everybody knows everybody else. Nowhere else in Nicaragua can you find the diversity of entertainment and nightlife that Managua offers, and rather than wait for Saturday, Managuans enjoy the fiesta life most nights of the week. You’ll enjoy better-stocked supermarkets, a richer diversity of restaurants with cuisine from around the world, and a wider array of stores, shops, and services. Want to catch a dance performance or a bit of theater? Managua’s the place. Don’t be mistaken; most travelers avoid Managua at all costs except for the occasional foray for banking, medical, or entertainment purposes. But like it or not, this is where the business community, the nongovernmental and development organizations, and all the embassies are, and the city has hosted an expat community for decades. You likely won’t write home about how much you adore living in Managua, but if other reasons compel you to settle down there, you’ll find before long that Managua’s got quite a bit to offer; learning how to find your way around can even make it feel like home.
León and the North
Just northwest of Managua, Nicaragua’s second most popular colonial city is off the radar screen of most foreigners hoping to settle in a colonial city, yet León offers much of what makes Granada special, including colonial architecture and long avenues of clay-tiled roofs. León’s streets bustle with the day-to-day activity of a regional commercial center and the exuberance of the city’s thousands of university students, who fill the cafés with the buzz of politics and optimism. León’s history is as long as that of Nicaragua itself, and if the atmosphere seems intense there, it is because the city lies in the shadow of a commanding and striking range of volcanoes called Los Maribios (Nahuatl for “The Giants”), which are prone to rumble and burp from time to time. León, the northwest regional capital, is only a short drive from the beach and is the gateway to Nicaragua’s most productive region, where the fertile, volcanic soil produces grains, vegetables, and export crops, and whose lush fields of sugarcane distill into fine, flavorful rum.
Shifting north and east of Managua, the broad, low fields around the great lakes rumple upward into untidy foothills and, eventually, the blunt mountain ranges that make up most of Nicaragua’s wild center. Estelí, Matagalpa, Jinotega, and the rest of Nicaragua’s northern departamentos are rife with adventure, mystery, and a quiet sort of solitude that lures the casually intrepid traveler far from the well-trodden tourist paths of Central America. These hills are often cool in the evenings, misty in the mornings, and home to hundreds of small villages and communities, some prosperous and others struggling. If you are eager to avoid the land grab in southwestern Nicaragua and instead seek the simple lifestyle the frontier offers, you might find the north calling your name. Up in these hills, it’s still possible to plant a couple of acres and get away from it all, and although you may feel like a pioneer, you’re not the first: Cuban immigrants who left the island after Fidel’s revolution now make up part of the population of Estelí, where they grow tobacco with ancestral Cuban seeds; a generation earlier, German immigrants bound for the California gold rush chose Matagalpa, where they introduced coffee, the cash crop that has defined Nicaragua’s economy ever since.
The Atlantic Coast
Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast is separated from the rest of the country by a long, torturous drive or a short one-hour flight; either way, the massive eastern portion of the country is worlds away from anything else. The few easily reached salt-and-sugar white-sand beaches and turquoise waters are exactly as you’d expect them, but the mixed Caribbean culture is uniquely Nicaraguan. The region’s major towns—Bluefields and Puerto Cabezas—though sleepy and isolated, can be rough, primarily because of hard economic times and a certain lawlessness that pervades in a region first settled by marauding pirates; and most of the long, wild coastline is swampy and inaccessible, so you’ll probably find yourself looking around Pearl Lagoon and the enticing Corn Islands. To live on Nicaragua’s Atlantic side, you’ll need to be comfortable on the outskirts of society—and a great deal more self-reliant than elsewhere in Nicaragua. More than one foreigner has devised a comfortable and pleasant lifestyle here, proving it’s possible. On the other hand, don’t fool yourself: This is not the Caribbean of comfortable resort hotels and package tours. You’ll make the Atlantic coast your home because you like a simple, rustic lifestyle, not because you want to sit back and coast. With the risk comes potential, and Nicaragua’s Caribbean potential is enormous.