Dateline: Managua, Nicaragua
I’ve been bouncing around Nicaragua a lot lately, and now find myself back in the capital of Managua.
To be honest, there isn’t a lot to do here. Especially as far as capital cities go; Central America tends to work that way, with the exception of Panama City. Managua reminds me a bit of Davao, Philippines – rather spread out, it almost feels rural in some areas. The “big” mall isn’t really big, and it closes at 8 pm.
However, what I like about Nicaragua is that there is truly something for everyone. If you’re looking for a cheap second residence and you like warm temperatures and Latin culture, Nicaragua should be high on your list. If you’re looking for someplace more laid back to escape the rat race, this could be it.
I’m not going to lie, I’m Asiaphile and I think Asia will see the biggest upside in the near-to-mid-term. My go-go-go business mindset fits in perfectly in many Asian cultures, and I see strong growth prospects there.
That said, Nicaragua is a great lifestyle destination for Americans, Canadians, or even Europeans who want cheaper prices and a more western living standard than some of the equally cheap places in South America.
Even better, getting to Managua from the United States is super easy. Flights from the southern US are barely three hours, making getting to Nicaragua as easy as visiting the grandparents back in Iowa. United flies here from Houston, American flies from Miami, and Delta flies from Atlanta. Almost anyone in The Land of the Free could get here in one stop. (Unfortunately, it’s much harder to get here WITHOUT transiting through the US.)
Nicaragua, like most of the other southern Central American countries, offers straightforward residency for foreigners who want to live here. I’ll talk more about the second residency and visa process in a few days.
The cost of living in Nicaragua
While Central America isn’t as cheap as Southeast Asia, prices here are very reasonable. That’s even more so if you’re a more established couple or family with an expensive mortgage and other bills.
Housing Costs in Nicaragua
To start, decent homes for rent in Managua start at about $750 a month. Go into the upscale Santo Domingo part of town (home to Nicaragua’s largest shopping mall) and prices go up from there. You could pay as much as $2,500 a month for a house that would sell in parts of San Diego or Scottsdale for $2-3 million.
Outside of Managua, housing prices can be a little cheaper. The charming colonial city of Granada is one of the safest and most expat-friendly cities in Nicaragua and has an estimated 1,000 foreigners living there full-time. I’ve seen respectable apartments going for around $500-600 a month, and I’m sure you could do better if you really wanted to work.
In the Pacific coastal city of San Juan del Sur, one-bedroom condos literally right across the street from the beach were going for $600-800 a month, with the possibility of even shorter-term leases. Availability can be hard to find this time of year, as surfers descend on the place in full force, but it would be relatively easy to lock up a condo year-round if you wanted.
While San Juan del Sur isn’t exactly dirt cheap as far as real estate goes, I will be back there investigating some property investments in the next few days. I had expected there to be some up-and-coming beach town options, but my research suggests that coastal cities like Chinandega are not really poised for any kind of significant growth that would make living or investing there worthwhile.
Monthly Expenses in Nicaragua
Food throughout the country is relatively cheap. In fact, just a few days ago I sat in the touristy central plaza of Leon, eating at possibly the most touristy restaurant in the city. The view was incredible and the chicken was some of the most flavorful I’ve ever had in my life.
The total bill for a soft drink, a mojito, a large entree of chicken, rice, and beans, and a large dessert was $13.50. Tax and tip included.
That kind of price may not be of interest to the backpackers who still largely dominate Leon’s tourist scene, but for anyone else, it’s a smoking deal.
All around the country, including in the cities, there are taco and burrito stands offering huge meals for $3-5. On my way back from a new oceanfront real estate development outside of Managua last week, my driver stopped at a burrito shack where we paid $4.50 apiece for a burrito that could almost serve as two meals.
If you were to live in Managua – which I don’t see why many people would – you may prefer to eat your meals at one of the nicer shopping malls, as security in some of the poorer neighborhoods can be a concern (Nicaragua is safe overall, but petty crime is an issue.) Meals at local chain restaurants run $7-10 apiece, and international chains like Pizza Hut, Papa John’s, and others are here as well, charging typical western prices.
Locals seem to both love chicken and brag about how good it is here, but beef, pork, fish, and vegetarian options are widely available.
As far as clothing and consumer goods, prices are more comparable to the United States than they would be in Asia, where taxes and tariffs drive prices up in some countries. Cell phones, TVs, and American brand clothing isn’t that much more expensive than it is in the US if there’s any difference at all.
Where you won’t save money here is driving. Nicaragua’s first attempt at a deepwater oil well failed last year and prices for gasoline here are as high as anywhere in the west at a little over US$1 per liter, or about $4.50/gallon.
Electricity prices here are also relatively high compared to the region. One expat I spoke to, who lives in a 2,000 square foot house, says his bill runs $300-400 a month. On the other hand, internet service is about $35-40 a month and seems to be more reliable in Managua than in the resort areas.
The bottom line
Overall, I suspect a single person could enjoy a decent life here – be it in a colonial city or on the beach – for $1,000 to $1,500 a month, depending on the level of luxury desired at home and how often they prefer to eat at a sit-down restaurant versus a burrito shack.
For a couple, $2,000 per month would afford a good level of luxury including a nice, furnished home.
Of course, you could live much more cheaply than that. A young single person skipping college could spend as little as $500 a month for a dorm-level existence. A young college student I met in Managua told me she is renting a private hotel room in one of the nicer parts of the city for $250 a month, which includes the use of a nice swimming pool.
Similarly, I know couples who live on as little as $1,200 a month after learning the lay of the land and negotiating. However, for someone who desires more of the comforts of home, I always recommend estimating a little higher.
As I always say, there is no panacea. Nicaragua is not a perfect place, and you have to do your due diligence to determine whether you want a “city” lifestyle, something in the country, or a place by the sea. People here range from exceedingly helpful and pleasant to a bit cold.
However, expats running businesses here tell me the banks are relatively stable, if not less internationally-minded than I’d like. (For example, one local bank issues debit cards only good for use in Nicaragua.)
Nicaragua’s main issue is its public relations. It has never been on the radar screen the way Panama and Costa Rica have, and I don’t understand why. While politics in Nicaragua aren’t perfect, the momentum is more favorable to Nicaragua than Costa Rica.
For someone like myself, who is open to making a slightly contrarian move, the potential reward for living in Nicaragua or investing in real estate as a future home is a relatively good option.