I saw more and more talk about Nicaragua in the expat circles. That is, before the current unrest that has led some journalism-based media outlets to call for a change in government. The main draw seems to be price. But despite the old adage “You get what you pay for,” some of the talk implies that Managua is just as good as, say, Lima, or that Nicaragua’s beaches just as good as Colombia’s.
So I turned to longtime reader who has lived in Nicaragua for years. Enjoy.
An Expat in Nicaragua
“Why did you come to live in Nicaragua?” the locals sometimes ask.
I usually stare blankly at the sky shaking my head and respond melodramatically, “I ask myself that eeevery daaay.”
I chuckle. They laugh and never press the question. Nicaraguans know their country is ranked below some serious shitholes, which is what usually sparks their curiosity as to why I haven’t gone back home.
Home was Texas. I left in the Bush administration and have been back three times for a combined total of about five weeks. Nicaragua is my home now and I have noticed that it is showing up more frequently on peoples’ radar as a tourist/expat destination. If you want to hear what starry-eyed retirees are saying about Nicaragua, read the 70 articles in International Living. If you want to hear the good, the bad and the ugly from a Texan who has spent a quarter of his life living in this country, read Expat Chronicles.
Cost of Living
The Nicaraguan government says a person needs $110 per month and uses that figure to recalculate the minimum wage every few months. The reality is that for a person accustomed to a gringo’s standard of living, you need $750 to $1,250.
That’s rent, utilities, clothes and food and drink with other expats in a city. If you are working in the country and earning a local wage, you will not make $750 a month. Your only hope is to freelance for dollars.
Fuel prices here are the highest in Central America at about $4 per gallon. Dollars go a lot farther when purchasing local goods and services, while imported items will run fairly expensive. Tech gets taxed out the wazoo as it enters the country, passing the high price onto you.
Wining and dining a cheap date, however, will cost only about $30 with a third of that being paid after the clothes are put back on. Ahem, so I’ve heard.
Summary: The low cost of living is a top reason to spend some time in Nicaragua.
The land of lakes and volcanoes has one of the smallest populations in the region, which means a small economy. The average Nicaraguan has no education and the country suffers from poor infrastructure to exploit its natural resources. So Nicaragua’s GDP is half that of El Salvador, which has a similar population. Nicaragua’s GDP per capita is just $2,100 (that’s per year!).
You usually hear that Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti. Actually, Haiti makes Nicaragua’s economy look pretty damn good.
But Nicaragua makes our shithole neighbors look good. Remember that our government declared its citizens should eat iguanas to stave off hunger in the 2014 drought. So you may be wondering, why bother?
While it may be the laughing stock of Latin America, Nicaragua is the land of opportunity. An entrepreneurial person from a developing country can see what works in North America or Europe and then bring it down here and make HUNDREDS of dollars. Cheap labor is Nicaragua’s biggest commodity and low-paying sweatshops now dot the edges of towns, bringing needed jobs to poorly educated locals as they supply cardboard boxes and cotton t-shirts to the rest of the world.
Summary: The country is expected to stay ahead of Haiti for the time being.
Every year Nicaragua tightens the clamp on perpetual tourists by making it harder to stay in the country. Most visitors from developing countries can get in with $10 and a stamp in the passport, but staying longer than 90 days can be difficult without leaving. Today they allow for one 90-day extension, tomorrow they may well have stopped offering that. Even those who return after a visa run can expect to get grilled at the immigration counter with the big question being, “Why haven’t you gotten your residency?”
If it were that easy all the snowbirds, retirees and criminals would have done it. But gaining legal residency is a laborious process that might make the 90-day border interrogations worth it. Your best bets are:
- Invest $30,000
- Wait until you have a pension
- Knock up a Nica girl (or get knocked up by a Nica guy who doesn’t run off and who will claim it’s his)
I suggest going the investment route. Starting a business in Nicaragua is easy. Just file for a tax number (about $10) and, depending on your business, register with city hall and maybe whatever corresponding ministry your business deals with. Not a resident? Not a problem. The government wants you to build your business here. Running the business might be tough, however, given Nicaragua ranks third for corruption in Latin America after Venezuela and Haiti.
For those that are seriously considering Nicaragua as a long-term option, there are lawyers, shysters, expats and guidebooks to help you out.
Summary: Tourists are welcome, residents are welcome. Resident tourists are seen as suspicious.
Weather and Landscape
Nicaragua’s landscape is dominated by water and mountains, a few of which erupt once in a while. Lake Cocibolca (aka Lake Nicaragua) is the largest body of fresh water in Latin America after Lake Titicaca, boasts a double volcano island (Ometepe) and is home to the world’s only freshwater bull sharks.
There are two seasons: the rainy season from May to December and the dry season from December to May. There is still a sliver of virgin rainforest in the country, but that is all that is left from the record-setting hurricane in 2016, the subsequent logging of the felled trees (“it’s good for the forest,” the government said) and the forest fires that raged this year.
Visitors can expect hot-and-dry or hot-and-wet weather in the cities, and either cool-and-humid or cool-and-wet in the northern mountains. On the Caribbean coast it’s hot and wet all the time. But according to this report (slide 4 specifically), everyone can expect hot, dry weather in 50 years.
Summary: Enjoy Nicaragua before it turns into a desert, and don’t step in the lava.
For people looking to party upscale and for cheap, Managua is the place to be. The bars and clubs are scattered around town so I would suggest exploring each area one night at a time. The ladies dress to the nines and are usually open to approaches from a clean-cut foreigner.
In the smaller cities there are backpacker scenes where the unshaven guys wearing t-shirts and flip flops pull backpacker girls and that’s about it. That being said, there are enough backpackers to have a wild time in Leon, Granada and on the beach in San Juan del Sur.
There is a special place in my heart for 4 Brothers, a Creole club in Bluefields. It’s a wooden house with a palm leaf roof that blasts reggae, soca, dancehall and other Caribbean tunes from inside the packed shack. The only light is at the bar in the back and, needless to say, this place is dark. The men are strapping and aggressive. The women will wear a hole in your pants with their hips.
Besides alcohol, the only drugs in Nicaragua are those that go in the lungs or up the nose. Anything else might be found in the backpacker spots, but not locally.
Summary: Three out of five stars. Beers cost $1 in most places.
Gastronomy is not something a country whose most popular dish is rice and beans would be known for, or the second-poorest country in the hemisphere. There are two basic categories of food in Nicaragua: local dishes and restaurants where rich people eat.
Local dishes usually have beef, chicken or pork either fried or grilled served with rice or beans (or rice and beans), plantains or corn tortilla and perhaps a slaw-style salad in lime juice. If you are lucky you might get a slice of salty, sour cheese. That’s street food, that’s restaurant food and that’s often home food as well. While it isn’t anything to write home about, it’s quite tasty for non-discriminatory palates like mine.
On weekends it’s common to eat nacatamales, 1.5-pound lumps of corn meal soaked in sour orange juice and salt with a chunk of pork inside. They are topped with a slice of onion and tomato, garnished with a sprig of mint and wrapped in a banana leaf before being boiled for about six hours. They say the only hangover cure better than a nacatamal is the local rum. Every country has their own style of tamales, but Nicaragua’s nacatamales are the best I’ve tried.
Nicaraguans sometimes serve up bull testicles, tripe stew or even iguana soup during Holy Week, but the majority of local food doesn’t stray far from the aforementioned dishes.
However, special mention must be given to the food from the Caribbean coast. When people speak of Nicaragua, they usually mean the Pacific and central regions, where 90% of tourists visit. But the Caribbean coast is populated by Creole and indigenous groups who have their own culture, languages and food. On the “right side,” the meat will be from either the sea or the jungle and coconut will be incorporated somehow. From the jungle I’ve eaten armadillo, agouti and monkey, and sea turtle, shark and manta ray from the sea. I passed on the manatee.
In Managua and the colonial cities of Leon and Granada, locals impress a first date with hamburgers, pasta or chicken wings. Tourists go the three or four Mediterranean/Arab joints or the many overpriced Asian and Mexican restaurants.
Summary: For food, go somewhere else. Peru perhaps?
Nicaragua is less developed than El Salvador, which Donald Trump infamously listed among “shithole” countries of the world. We lost water and electricity at least once a week during all three years I lived in a middle-class neighborhood in Managua. Flash floods sweep a few bums or unlucky souls into the drainage system and out to the lake the city once or twice a year. In between most cities the biggest challenge is not filling potholes but keeping the cows off the Pan-American Highway.
Nicaragua has a real problem with litter. This place is DIRTY. People throw their shit everywhere, probably a relic from the indigenous culture of doing that when everything was organic — no big deal to toss a banana leaf plate or worn-out, leopard-skin underwear. But the bugs and bacteria don’t eat the plastic. The garbage trucks in many places are tractors pulling trailers with shit falling off as they fly around the corners. The dump is the largest in Central America and about 1,500 people pick through it for a living.
One thing that newbies will find rather unusual about the cities here is that, with a few exceptions, there are no street signs or fixed addresses. Everyone just knows where everything is, often based on landmarks. Or where everything was, as in Managua many landmarks disappeared in the 1972 earthquake. So for example, to get to Fulano’s house, someone might tell you to start where the old Gonzales Cinema was, go up two blocks, take a left at the green wall and go two houses down. How do people get mail? They don’t. There is no mail service unless you rent a PO box at the post office.
Summary: Maybe in 100 years.
Attractiveness of the People
Nicaraguan men are fairly handsome and most dress better than you would think their economic status allows. Everybody owns an iron and knows how to use it. The ladies are attractive up until they have children, when the belly grows and the face goes. Of course there are exceptions, but if you are looking to be where the attractive people are, look for the bars and clubs where the college crowds go. They’ve got no kids, they dress sharp and they all flaunt what they’ve got. The Nica culture is also fairly open to casual sex, surprisingly so for a Catholic country.
Summary: Under 25 hot, over 30 not.
Crime and Safety
Seven murders per 100,000 people in 2017 makes Nicaragua the safest country in Central America. But keep an eye on your shit lest you get pick-pocketed on the bus in Managua or scammed on the side of the highway. The tourists are the occasional targets of thefts or robbery but nothing compared to Costa Rica. Nicaragua has its own tourist police. Just make sure you talk to them instead of the real police if something gets stolen. Otherwise you may have to buy back whatever goods they recover.
Crime is low, but the elephant in the room is political risk. Leftist strongman Daniel Ortega rules unopposed after consolidating power similar to Venezuela. In fact, since Venezuela’s financial aid dried up Ortega has had to tighten up his own finances. He recently cut public pensions and hiked contributions, which sparked violent protests in Managua, Leon and Masaya.
Protesters with rocks, slingshots and signs face off against police armed with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition. Peaceful protesters are confronted by the government’s civilian arm, the Sandinista Youth, who have been attacking with bats, pipes and sticks. There was a partial media blackout as local news outlets were taken off the air and journalists being attacked and their cameras stolen, sometimes right in front of the police. At the time of this writing, at least 30 people have been killed and the U.S. embassy has evacuated personnel and warned against visiting.
The Nicaraguan people are tired of living in a dictatorship. If the 500,000 people peacefully marching in Managua are any indication, change is on the way. And like any revolution, it could get ugly.
Summary: Nobody knows. Nicaragua could return to its normal safety, or things could get exciting!
The education system in Nicaragua is fucked up, ranked in the world’s bottom 10. The average education level attained is sixth grade and the average sixth grader knows about as much as a third grader in the States. Those that graduate are woefully unprepared for university. The National Engineering University had to lower the bar on their entrance exam to accept more than the 4 percent of students who passed.
Determined Nicaraguan students go to Cuba to study medicine, Spain for engineering, Argentina or Chile for humanities or America for anything they can. Watch Sueños de Birrete (subtitled in English above) for more.
Summary: A degree from a Nicaraguan university is expensive toilet paper.
No doubt many might take issue with a few of these points, to which I would suggest debating in the comments section which I will be actively monitoring. Also, feel free to post any other topics of Nicaraguan life that you might like to get my take on.
Support what Expat Chronicles is all about. Leave a tip to keep the laughs coming (and the news, insight and other stuff too).