From the tall hill that wraps its arms around the bay and cradles the village, we watch the sun drop off the edge of the earth, painting the sky with streaks of orange, pink, and purple. We can almost—now and then, amidst the clamor below—hear the whoosh of the waves as they gently push and pull against the wide, flat beach.
We arrived in picturesque little San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast, just before a major fiesta de patria. Every drum and bugle corps of every school in town was practicing in anticipation of the festivities to come. All this amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life—roosters crowing and dogs barking, children laughing, music spilling from every window….
I first visited Nicaragua nearly a decade ago and fell in love with its rough-around-the-edges beauty and the genuine warmth of its people. In 2007, my husband and I lived for a while on this hilltop overlooking San Juan del Sur. We spent lazy days exploring hidden beaches and lively evenings with friends at the thatch-roofed seafood restaurants that line the beach.
Now we had returned to reacquaint ourselves… to see how San Juan del Sur, and Nicaragua itself… had changed during the nearly five years we’ve been away.
Most noticeably, the sharks are gone. I’m referring, of course, to the land sharks—the multitude of foreign developers who descended here a decade ago with plans to build large gated communities and turn sleepy Nicaragua into “the next Costa Rica.”
The global economic crash put an end to all that. The few gated communities that managed to make it did so because they weren’t overly ambitious. Slow and steady… that’s Nicaragua. For now, it remains beautifully raw at heart… a place for the naturalist, the explorer…
Changes for the Better…
But make no mistake. Nicaragua is moving forward. It’s been decades since the headline-making civil war of the 1980s. Today’s Nicaragua is a model of reconciliation and recovery. Progress is apparent. Major highways up and down the coast—torturous to both human and auto chassis just four years ago—are now paved and pleasurable to drive. Internet access is everywhere.
In San Juan del Sur and the pretty colonial cities of León and Granada, the latter on the shores of massive Lake Nicaragua, there are new hotels, shops, and restaurants—even a new Supermercado Palí (partially owned by Wal-Mart) in San Juan del Sur.
It’s no wonder Nicaragua has earned a well-deserved top spot on the tourist trail. In many ways it far outshines its more-visited neighbors, with rainforests, cloud forests, romantic colonial cities, Caribbean islands, and more secret surf spots along its 230-mile Pacific coast than any other country in the region. Not to mention that Nicaragua has 19 active volcanoes (dozens more that are dormant) and the largest freshwater lake in Central America.
And Nicaragua is also an up-and-coming retirement destination. One reason is Law 694, enacted just two years ago that allows foreigners to easily obtain a resident visa and bring household goods, a car, construction materials, and more into the country duty-free. But even more so, the cost of living is low.
Expats David and Tuey Murdock live near the capital, Managua, with their daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren (both born in Nicaragua) in a sprawling two-family home they built high on a hill with a bird’s-eye view of the Pacific.
Tuey says her family appreciates the affordability of everything from a night on the town to full-time household help that “helps us enjoy our retirement to the fullest. The cleaning woman makes $100 a month, the cook makes $160 a month, and we pay our gardener/pool man/handyman by the hour, and he makes $180 a month if he works full-time.” And these are fair wages, too.
Tony Bickmore, on the other hand, lives a more low-key lifestyle—which is just how he likes it. Now 49, he worked two full-time jobs in the States before moving to San Juan del Sur two years ago. Today, he spends his days surfing, taking Spanish classes, and house-sitting.
“I’ve become stress-free for the first time in my life, and never felt so relaxed and happy,” he says. “I was one of those work hard/play hard types and tried to have it all… material things, especially. Now, I have two suitcases of clothes and things, a computer, camera, and a dog. That’s all that I need. My life in San Juan del Sur has lightened my material world 10 times over, and I hope to keep it that way.”
Tony says San Juan del Sur is similar to parts of Costa Rica he considered before choosing Nicaragua—slow and quiet, with people who are nice and happy. “The difference,” he says, “is that San Juan del Sur is half the price.”
Having put pencil to paper, Tony figures he could get by on $500 a month if he lived a “local lifestyle.” While this amount seems remarkably low, it’s not out of the realm of possibility, according to other expats who live here.
Buzz Weidman, who retired to San Juan del Sur in 2007 from Washington, DC, reports that “you can live very well on $1,000 per month. Apartments and houses run from $300 to $500 per month to rent and food is very cheap, although this is probably the most expensive place in Nicaragua besides Managua or Granada.”
Although it’s the most popular beach town in Nicaragua, there’s not much to San Juan del Sur. A handful of narrow crisscross streets are lined with small, colorful buildings… tour businesses, surf shops, a few hostels, a bakery, a coffee shop…. A small mercado in the center of town sells the staples. Lining the beach are open-air restaurants, most serving a similar menu of fresh fish and local beer (Toña is a favored brand).
Since we were here last, though, there are at least two decidedly more upscale dining establishments to choose from… including a sushi restaurant.
More than 44% Off Property
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and blue water for everyone. The economic downturn has left some owners strapped. As a result, this may be the best time in recent years to purchase bargain-priced real estate anywhere in Nicaragua, including popular beach locales.
Many properties are now selling for less than they originally sold for pre-construction four or five years ago. Most of these are being sold by foreign owners who had intended to retire or live part-time someday in Nicaragua. Financial setbacks at home are causing them to rethink those plans.
Case in point: Villas de Palermo, high on a ridge with an all-encompassing view of the village and bay. This is where Dan and I lived four years ago, and we enjoyed our time here—just close enough to town to buzz in for lunch or dinner but just far enough to savor the sunset minus village distractions.
The condos were just as we remembered them—chic and comfortably furnished, each with two bedrooms, two full bathrooms, and a shady terrace from which to enjoy the view. A restaurant and huge community swimming pool are on site.
Four years ago, these units were selling for $225,000 or more. Today, they’re selling for $100,000—and that’s fully furnished and with all modern appliances.
Nearby, in an area called Lomas de Palermo—with similar bird’s-eye views of the ocean, a large three-bedroom luxury home with swimming pool is on offer for $379,000. Construction costs in Nicaragua average $70 per square foot, and you can buy a quarter- or one-third-acre lot here—with underground water and electricity−with prices starting at about $50,000. (In comparison, just two hours south as the crow flies… in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, another popular surf town… you’ll pay twice as much or more for a similar property.)
Farther from the beach and town, in a 20-acre community called Camino del Sol, a yoga retreat was in full swing on a terrace around a pretty, spacious swimming pool near the restaurant.
Jason, the energetic developer here, says Camino del Sol is about 70% sold and there are currently five or six homes occupied full-time—a mixture of families with children and retirees. On one 3,200-square-foot lot, an absentee owner has built a small studio guesthouse. He is offering the property for $44,500.
As we heard over and over, resale prices for existing homes have dropped to a new low. One of the best bargains may be a 6,000-square-foot (yes, you read that right) hillside home, not far from San Juan del Sur, on a half-acre lot that offers sunset views of five gorgeous bays.
There’s a huge private swimming pool with swim-up bar, a spacious terrace and outdoor entertainment area, an oversized four-car covered garage, even a separate caretaker’s house. The house itself has three bedrooms and three bathrooms, with extra rooms that could easily be converted into more bedrooms or a separate apartment. This property would be ideal for a B&B and the asking price is just $390,000.
While San Juan del Sur is known for its superb surfing and party life (check out bars like The Black Whale or Iguana), you need drive but a few minutes to be away from it all. North or south of town, you will find beach after beautiful beach—and most of these you will have to yourself… unless the surf is up.
One of the most popular surfing beaches, just 20 minutes from San Juan del Sur, is Playa Maderas. (Swimmers may prefer the calmer Playa Marsella.) Near here is the seven-acre Mango Rosa, a hybrid residential/resort community.
“We’re number one on Trip Advisor,” Greg, the owner/developer, proudly informed us. And that’s for the ranking of all San Juan del Sur hotels.” The project consists of fully-outfitted bungalows with a refreshing pool and a large open-air restaurant beneath a giant palm rancho—and, of course, there’s Internet if you prefer surfing of a different kind.
Prices? An 800-square-foot, one-bedroom bungalow here—fully furnished, appliances included—is being sold for $59,000. The asking price for a spacious 1,600-square-foot, two-bedroom home is $124,000.
San Juan del Sur isn’t the only noteworthy beach town in Nicaragua, of course. And especially not when it comes to low-priced properties. In fact, the farther afield you’re willing to go, the better the bargains.
North along the coast, near the bustling colonial city of León, about an hour by car from Managua, the beach towns of Poneloya and Las Peñitas offer some allure for their attractive beaches and low property prices.
Though adjacent to one another, our real estate guide tells us that Las Peñitas is the more popular of the two with locals—especially during Nicaraguan holidays, when throngs of vacationers come from Managua and León to spend time in the many small hotels and restaurants that line the wide, sandy beach.
If you prefer it a bit quieter, though, Poneloya may be more to your liking. You’ll definitely like the real estate prices. A five-bedroom house, right on the beach, for example, is selling for $195,000. It needs work but would make a nice hostel or small surfer hotel. A hotel that sits one block off the beach—with a good-sized restaurant and 20 small rooms−is being offered for $220,000.
And if you’re just looking for a place to build the home of your dreams, you can’t go wrong with a 6,450-square-foot beachfront lot—asking price just $88,000. Or take it a step farther and build a condo complex. There’s nothing like that here, and a perfect 2.5-acre lot available on the top of a hillside offers gorgeous views of the estuary to one side and the blue Pacific stretching out in front of you. It’s the only parcel of this size available in Poneloya and the price is just $249,000.
When to go: November to May is high season, when you can expect the best weather. (October is typically the rainiest month.) Surfers will be happiest May through early December, when the best swells hit Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. For a subjective review of the country’s best surf spots, see: Surfnicaragua.wordpress.com.
How to get there, get around: Nicaragua is very accessible for a quick, long-weekend “bolt” out of town or for a more immersive experience. It is only a two- to three-hour flight from Dallas or Miami (American), Atlanta (Delta), Houston (Continental), and Chicago (United) into the capital city of Managua, and no visas are required. Use kayak.com or mobissimo.com to search for and compare airfares. Most major rental car agencies have offices at the international airport—driving in Nicaragua is easy these days, thanks to road and signage improvements.
Where to stay: In San Juan del Sur, try Pelican Eyes. Tip: The home page features a link to “Special Offers” where good discounts can be found. Near Marsella Beach, check out Mango Rosa and Marsella Valley Nature Center. And while in San Juan del Sur, enjoy a terrific meal at pretty El Colibri, near the entrance to Pelican Eyes and just south of the church on Avenida del Calvario.
Reasons to Love Nicaragua
Accessibility: Nicaragua is just a two-hour flight from the U.S.
Amazing Diversity: From cities, towns, and villages to mountains, farmland, lakes, and both Pacific and Caribbean beaches, Nicaragua has it all.
Incredibly Inexpensive: Out of 214 countries ranked in the 2011 Mercer Worldwide Cost of Living Survey, Nicaragua’s capital of Managua comes in at #213. Outside Managua, cost of living is even lower… many retired couples report they spend $1,000 a month or less.
Personal Safety: Nicaragua and Costa Rica are similarly ranked as the safest countries in Central America, according to a 2011 United Nations survey.
Excellent Health Care: There are good medical facilities throughout the country, including Managua’s excellent Hospital Metropolitano Vivian Pellas that offers several private health insurance plans for both locals and foreigners, priced from $200 a year if you are 40 or older.
Welcoming to Foreigners: Besides a benefit-heavy foreign retiree program, there are many incentives offered to investors and entrepreneurs. For details, see pronicaragua.org.
Food and Libation: Nicaragua produces both coffee and chocolate and its Flor de Caña rum is among the world’s best. Need we say more?
Editor’s Note: Learn more about Nicaragua here.