Nicaragua is a beautiful and historic land of contrasts blessed with two long coastlines, Caribbean villages named after their pirate founders and the footprints of a family who stepped in volcanic mud some 6,000 years ago. There are cloud forests, coffee farms and miles of unnamed beaches, as well as art, culture, theater and some of the world’s best fiestas fueled by one of the world’s best rums (Flor de Caña). And all of it is on offer at an exceedingly affordable cost.
This country, so long hidden behind its headline-grabbing president, is at an interesting time in its development. The civil war is history, and the people want nothing more than peace and prosperity, making it an increasingly appealing option for low-maintenance retirees.
Nicaragua offers three noteworthy retirement lifestyle choices: Granada, San Juan del Sur and León. Granada has embraced the economic changes brought about by the influx of retirees and tourists over the past two-and-a-half decades, and gladly welcomes weekenders from Managua. León seems to stand off in a corner, untouched by the attention the country has gotten to date, and perhaps a little jealous of Granada’s popularity. San Juan del Sur, on the other hand, is the country’s playground. It's the place to go on holiday, especially for the long Easter week that usually turns into 10 days or more of vacation fun.
Granada. The Spanish first landed in Nicaragua in 1522. Two years later the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Fernandez de Cordoba founded Granada. The city considers itself the oldest in the Americas. It was intended, by the Spanish, to be a statement of elegance and a reflection of the perfection of the original Granada in Spain.
New World Granada has suffered a long cycle of destruction at the mercy of buccaneers and earthquakes, but it continues to dust itself off. The Sandinista revolution largely spared it further indignities, and today it shines. The once cobbled streets have been largely paved over, but Granada’s colonial splendors remain and sparkle. The city’s renaissance is thanks to private and public funding. Spain has restored some of the major thoroughfares with palms and paving. The rest of the rehabilitation is being carried out by wealthy Nicaraguans and retiring expatriates from around the world. Granada is a user-friendly expat retirement choice, home to at least a few hundred full-time expat retirees.
León. León, Granada’s longtime rival, is in the northwest of Nicaragua, about a 35-minute drive from the Pacific coast. It is a rare Central American city that hasn’t felt the wave of “progress” typified by the onslaught of chain stores and restaurants from overseas. With a population of almost 200,000, the city prides itself on its history, universities and architecture. The largest church in the Americas is here, along with at least 30 other ecclesiastical monuments. The museums are the best in the country, with some of them time capsules of the long and bitter struggle against the Somoza regimes, showcasing this country’s history from the 1930s to the eventual signing of the peace accords in 1993.
León is some 300 feet above sea level and less than 20 miles from the Pacific coast. It’s hot and humid, to put it mildly. The mornings and evenings can be pleasant, but the midday temperatures are probably the biggest downside to life in this city. If you don’t like it hot, León’s many other charms may not compensate for the climate.
San Juan del Sur. Nicaragua’s third retirement lifestyle option is the town of San Juan del Sur, built in the perfect 270 degree arc of the bay of the same name. To the north are forested hills and a modest mountain topped by a large statue of Christ. Below the statue, the slopes are dotted with large multi-story private homes that run down to the beach. Continuing on a semicircular perambulation, you come to a few high-rise buildings and the rest of the town, which huddles by the seashore.
San Juan de Sur is generally recognized as the most tourist-friendly destination in Nicaragua with some of the best of the country’s beaches. At least 14 beaches here have names, but many haven’t been tagged. The town, with a population of about 13,000, is a mixture of modest, brightly-painted, rusty tin-roofed wooden buildings. Set here and there among the smaller properties are older plantation-style houses with gingerbread trim and wide verandas, the perfect places for lolling in the cool of the evening. The beach has a small cluster of popular restaurants, good for watching the sun set or people lounging on the sand. The surf is tame, and children can play safely while their parents keep an eye on them. The area is friendly to budget tourists, with more hostels than hotels and signs advertising laundry services, surf board rentals and Internet access points.
SJDS is an appealing choice for retirees who enjoy the simple beach life. An artist or painter might find his or her home and heart here, as will those who enjoy small town living, the beach or sailing.