In the nine years I’ve been savoring her charms through regular visits, I have never seen Nicaragua’s colonial city of Granada look better. Cute bakeries and cafés are opening up in brightly-painted, tiled- floor colonial homes.
Artists and art galleries are setting up shop. Italians have come to make great pizza. The terrace in front of the Irish bar, O’Shea’s, is buzzing by day. Inside it’s rocking at night. Nine years ago expats were mostly from the U.S.
There was a real-estate agent on every corner of the main square, Parque Central. Many came in groups, chasing deals on cheap colonials. Today it’s different. A quick scan of the guestbook at my hotel, Dario, showed visitors from across the globe. Groups from Costa Rica, Eastern Europe, Spain, glamorous-looking Italians…you’ll see backpackers from the U.K. about town, and U.S. expats are still here; it’s just that now they have an eclectic and creative set of new neighbors.
Nicaragua is now cool. And Granada is at ground zero of the new, cool Nicaragua. Yet there never has been a better time to buy a colonial home in Granada. I’ve followed the real-estate market here closely since my first visit in 2004.
Through boom and bust I’ve watched prices fluctuate. And on this visit I saw a 900-square-foot home, a short stroll from the historic center, with an asking price of $39,000. If you’re looking for something turnkey, with a pool in the inner courtyard and in the historic district, then $160,000 will buy you a comfortable home with 2,500 square feet of living space.
Prices today are back to where they were when I first visited. Back to a time when Granada was all rough-and-tumble and potential. When economic and political uncertainties were much greater. Throughout all the country’s ups and downs, one thing hasn’t changed: Granada is a special place.
Sitting on the banks of Lake Nicaragua, “founded” in 1524 by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, Granada became the first European city in mainland America. It was a hub for the earliest trans-oceanic transports. Gold prospectors and traders sailed from the Atlantic up the Río San Juan and across Lake Nicaragua.
Before the Panama Canal got off the ground, this was the anticipated canal (wet, dry, or a combination) route. I visited the island fortifications that were built to protect it from unwanted visitors. Today tourists buzz around in kayaks and a fleet of new, guided-tour boats. Grand weekend retreats owned by Nicaragua’s most powerful families sit on islands.
Homes are built from volcanic rock picked from the islets. Islands can be bought with a concession to build. (As with any concession land, I urge you to take independent legal advice and make sure you understand exactly what you are buying and what your limited rights are.)
Progress can be seen everywhere. My base was the Hotel Dario on Calle de la Calzada. The interior courtyard is a pleasant place to read in a comfortable chair and listen to the grand old fountain. The colonials used flowing water and courtyard design as a natural air-conditioning system.
To the front you can sip an espresso in the evening sunshine and watch the world go by. Nine years ago there wasn’t much here beyond the main square. Then a smattering of boutique hotels and restaurants opened up just off it. Over the past five years, Calle de la Calzada, which runs from the main square down toward the lake, has been transformed into a charming street of hotels, French bakeries, pizza restaurants, galleries, cafés, and cake shops.
It’s clean and charming. You can see the path of progress move from the main square and grand cathedral down toward the lake shore. On Sunday the street was buzzing from noon. The streets filled with tourists, expats, and locals enjoying lunch, coffee, or a beer in the warm sunshine outside O’Shea’s and the neighboring restaurants.
This time of year the temperature is very comfortable—in the 80s F. The humidity is low. But with rainy season not long past, distant hills and the lower levels of towering volcanoes are still verdant and pastoral.
Right into the evening the street buzzed with entertainment. But by morning, the street has been cleaned. The Feast of the Assumption is fast approaching. Kids practice by letting off fire crackers and preparing for their processions. Everywhere I went I saw renovation works at various stages of completion.
Work is in progress on the final leg of Calle de la Calzada down to the lake, where local families gather for cookouts or to swim. Sunday lunchtime Parque Central fills with families coming from or going to Sunday mass in the cathedral (one of Granada’s six historic churches).
Granada’s tourist industry has grown. It’s a nicer place to spend time. You can get great coffees and spread local jams on a butter croissant. Yet you can still buy pizza and beer for two, and walk away with change from $10. But Granada isn’t just a budget location. I bumped into a group of Americans on a high-end, guided hunting-and-fishing trip. And other groups on ecotours.
Nicaragua has slowly learned from its neighbor Costa Rica how to market itself. Many in the U.S. feared what would happen when Sandinista Daniel Ortega was elected in 2006. The truth is that, as a hotelier and businessman himself, he has as much incentive as anyone to welcome foreigners with open arms.
If Hugo Chávez is in town on Sunday, you will hear some rhetoric about the “evils” of capitalism and maybe a rant about the U.S. Then it’s back to business on Monday. Open arms embracing foreign investment. Expats and business people I speak with enjoy his presidency. Once they keep their noses out of his business, he doesn’t bother them.
They contrast that with their experiences with bureaucracies and interference in their home countries. The opportunity is simple. In the middle half of the last decade, (mostly) U.S. buyers came armed with a line of credit on their home and bought. Then, as the U.S. housing market came crashing down in 2007, the music faded to a gentle, distant hum.
The global financial and economic crisis brought any activity to a screeching halt. The culmination of these events (U.S. housing market crash, global crisis, and fears about what Ortega would do) was a perfect storm to send a real-estate market into free-fall. Confidence is now returning.
Yet buyers are very thin on the ground. Everyone is looking for a deal. So, bar the odd sucker, only killer deals sell. In real estate we make our money buying. And there’s nothing like an illiquid time to snag a deal.
Today, your typical colonial home of 2,000 to 2,500 square feet in the historic district will set you back $50,000 to $160,000, depending on the state of repair. (You may have to pay a bit more for a very unique property where the seller is less motivated.) I saw a fixer-upper for $70,000. It needs cosmetic work, and plumbing and electric work.
You have a blank canvas to create your own colonial, including a pool area out back. Or you could use the spacious front portion for a business and make an apartment in the back. Your neighbor is a barber shop. Or you could buy a larger property needing less work for $160,000. But today, everything is negotiable. A budget of $120,000 puts you in the market for a turnkey colonial home of over 2,000 square feet, including a terrace overlooking the rooftops or a back garden. It could cost you 50% more just to build from scratch.
Move outside the historic district, and colonial homes can go for less than $50,000. Deals like these sell fast. But they do come up…I’m keeping my eye on things here.
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