I’ve lived in Granada, Nicaragua for the last 9 years so it really feels like home. But, it’s certainly not for everyone.
Nicaragua, after all, is a very poor country and does not have all the amenities we foreigners are used to. Countries like Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica and most of South America are much, much more developed.
Granada is a small colonial city and most places are within walking distance – a big draw for someone like myself, who does not want to own a car. It’s big enough to be interesting yet small enough to maintain a small town feeling. Foreigners and locals alike always joke that everyone knows everyone else here. It’s a bit of an exaggeration – even after 7 years I probably only know a fraction of the expats here. And the expat population as a percentage is significantly lower than gringo-saturated areas such as Lake Chapala or San Miguel de Allende in Mexico.
The expat population here is quite varied: young working couples with or without children, folks doing volunteer or development work, usually through NGOs (non-government organizations), retirees, people of every age who want adventure or just a cheaper place to live, and, older people (men) looking for very young girls or boys, which I and many others view as sexual exploitation of poverty. (So if you fit into that last category please don’t come and make the situation worse.)
Benefits of Living Here
Granada has a lot to offer. It’s a charming town on a deep fresh-water lake (which needs cleaning up, but is quite scenic) full of tiny islands, called isletas. The streets are lined with one-story traditional colonial houses in a cacophony of colors, and the horse and carriage is still a popular, pervasive form of transportation.
The culture is lively, people are gentle, welcoming and friendly for the most part, and life is generally pretty slow and easy. As a foreigner here you can study Spanish – actually, you must study Spanish to really be a part of the community and survive happily here. All sorts of volunteer work are available and giving back to the community is very rewarding.
The weather is warm year round and the percentage of sunny days rivals San Diego or Perth. As I mentioned before, you really don’t need a car, though many people do have one. Granada is close to many, many tourist attractions and beautiful spots such as Omotepe, the large double-volcano island sitting in the middle of Lake Cocibolca; the five white pueblos, Volcano Mombacho, Volcano Masaya, several nature reserves less than an hour away; Laguna Apoyo, a wonderful, protected lake formed from the caldera of an ancient volcano; Volcano Masaya, and others.
Managua is less than 40 minutes away by a new highway, and the new internationally certified hospital, Vivian Pellas Metropolitano, is only 30 minutes away. The Pacific Coast with its many beautiful, untamed beaches is around 2 hours, depending on the beach or village.
Health care is dirt-cheap and many ex-pats are “members” of the above-mentioned hospital and thereby eligible for sizable discounts on medical treatment, procedures, and tests. This is one of the cleanest, most modern and efficient institutions of its kind and compares (or surpasses) any North American hospital. In fact, I’ve been so impressed with health care here that I’m currently in the process of putting together a medical/dental guide. More and more foreigners are coming here for plastic surgery, esthetic/dermatological procedures, orthopedic surgery, dentistry and other treatments as the prices are not only cheaper than the U.S. or Europe, but also undercut those of Costa Rica, Mexico and Panama.
The cost of living is, of course, a huge draw for most foreigners, and many ex-pats who lived in Costa Rica for years but no longer find it affordable are coming here instead. Real estate in Granada is relatively high for Nicaragua, but it has been “on-sale” for the last couple years, having dropped significantly when Daniel Ortega was elected. This period also coincided with the global economic meltdown, so the real estate market has undergone a double-whammy. Right now is actually an excellent time to buy in Granada. However, before buying anywhere, it is highly recommended that you rent first for at least 6 months to make sure it’s really right for you.
Many folks here have discovered their economic niche and successfully run businesses here. These include not only the obvious gringo businesses such as hotels, B&Bs, restaurants and real estate or property management agencies, but businesses such as art galleries, health clubs, spas, import-export, translation, gift shops, and others have also done well. The trick is to find the missing niche, market research the hell out of it and, preferably, be the only one of its kind. So it is possible to come here and continue to make a living.
In my case, after building my house I immediately opened it as a very small B&B and this has covered my basic costs. My other activities here consist of volunteer work as a founder/board member of the first lending library/literacy program for children, writing, painting and mosaics, yoga teaching, translation, and bringing down a U.S. intercultural communication class from a university for the work-study component of the course. Life is never boring, my schedule is my own, and I more than make ends meet.
Drawbacks to Living Here
Granada is hot. Don’t let those average temperature charts fool you – you want to know average daytime temperatures. Most days are between 82 and 88 F, year round. The rainy season is delightful as it rarely rains all day and the water cools everything off. Hottest months are mid-March through early May, or until the rains start, with temperatures 90-100 and often some relentless bouts of 95-100 for days. A lot of people get out of town in April if they can.
Coolest months are December through February with nighttime temperatures in the 60s (and Nicaraguans in ski jackets, believe it or not), and daytime temps in the low 80s. So you’ve got to be a warm-weather lover. I myself love the warmth and don’t use air-conditioning, even during the hottest times of the year. It’s a rare night that I can’t sleep as long as I have a good fan. There are plenty of places just outside of Granada that are a little cooler: Valle Escondido, Reparto San Juan, Laguna Apoyo, Diriomo and others are 5-10 degrees cooler and very accessible to Granada. Plenty of people live in these areas and commute to Granada every day.
Nicaragua is poor. Begging, raggedy glue-sniffers, sorry-looking skinny dogs and horses, and the overall poverty are just not everyone’s cup of tea. Many people find that contributing to the community helps. Literacy rates are very, very low. Don’t believe the statistics. Literacy here means you can read and write your name. The average grade level is around 4th grade elementary. Granada is one of the country’s wealthier cities, but a great deal of poverty still exists here. And then there’s political corruption, poor infrastructure, utilities companies that extort and overcharge, bribery at every level and an inefficient, underpaid, under-trained police force. The rate of crime is much, much lower than most of the rest of Central America but petty thievery does exist and people have to take appropriate precautions. That being said, violent crime is extremely rare.
Whether or not you choose to live here, Granada is a great place to visit and use as a base for experiencing Nicaragua and visiting its many natural attractions. It’s a magical country, often compared to the Costa Rica of 25 years ago, with wild jungles, exotic plant and animal life, looming volcanoes and a slow, tropical ambiance. It’s very easy to make friends and get established in Granada. If you are considering relocating here, plan to rent for at least 6 months to really give yourself a chance to evaluate the pros and cons.