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Moving to Nicaragua: 13 Things to Know Before You Move to Nicaragua

By Betsy Burlingame

Summary: If you're thinking about moving to Nicaragua, you must read these 13 things to know before moving to Nicaragua. Expats offer realistic and honest advice about cost of living, learning the language, poverty, renting vs. buying and much more.

Moving to Nicaragua - 13 Things to Know Before You Move to Nicaragua

Don't move to Nicaragua without reading these 13 tips from expats living in Nicaragua. Expats discuss the realities of living on a small budget in Nicaragua. They advise newcomers to become fluent in Spanish, prepare themselves for the shock of pervasive poverty in Nicaragua, rent before you buy, have enough savings to return home if you want or need to and much more. "Nicaragua is a small country, you have to invent your own life. The most successful expats reinvent their lives and do things like hobbies or volunteering," advised one expat.

Expat Life in Nicaragua

In a discussion about expat life in Nicaragua, one expat explained, "You will be asking yourself this question more and more often; 'What am I doing here?'. If you are not looking to be a hermit, do not speak Spanish, you will find yourself in the gringo compounds of Granada or SJdS. You will need a minimum income of $1000, love heat, and have everyone know your business in a month, both gringo and locals. Not easy to hide here. Costa Rica is easier to blend in with more transients, tourists, variety of income levels. Latin culture still has an 'Inquisitional' component; you do not challenge custom and authority with your foreign ideas and 'personality'. Living in Nicaragua is successful for me, as I live with an 'adoptive' family many of whom have worked for me in three countries and the extended family of cousins etc gives me a circle of safety, love, and networking, but outside of them, I have no business here. Your circles remain small and your interests specific. Visit with interest and open options. Never commit to any financial dealings until well entrenched as the biggest error is to buy and find you cannot sell."

"Spend as much time [in Nicaragua] prior to moving as possible. Patience, that is the key word for Nicaragua. Be prepared for late appointments or on the other side of the coin, the appointee will show up way ahead of the scheduled time. As soon as you learn to go with the flow, relax, no stress, you will adjust much easier. Remember, we will always be a guest in the host country, and smile," advised one expat living in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua.

If You Have a $500 a Month Budget to Live in Nicaragua...

"Live like a Nica on $500 a month or buy your expansive colonial home and entertain lavishly. We find we can live on around $1500 a month but emergencies do happen and that does not include flights back home. The world is different now with many things being fairly expensive now like gas, flights overseas, rising food costs, etc. We do have concerns on the falling dollar," commented one expat.

"We do know people who live in Granada on $500 a month. A friend rents a nice studio for $250 plus electric, about $15 a month. She uses a solar flash light at night to keep the electricity below the magic 150 KWH mark. Mucho rice and beans. We have another friend who rented a large, four bedroom house, for $285 dollars a month, in a very, very local neighborhood that most gringos won't enter after dark. She speaks Spanish very well and has lived here many years. She is tough. We have another friend currently renting a house for $200 plus utilities, again, in a very, very local neighborhood. She doesn't like it but can't afford more. Another friend rents a room with a local family for $25 a week, no kitchen use. Another friend rents a large house and rents out three bedrooms. He manages to keep them occupied and they pay the house rent. It is being done, it all depends on the individual. It isn't easy nor do they live the high life. They have to budget for a beer on Friday night. I would say that $800 is the low amount for a comfortable life right now unless you go to a smaller town and there are plenty of those. We were in Jinotepe yesterday, a pleasant town and one could live better there on less. What our low cost friends all have in common is that they speak Spanish very well, have ties into the local community, and they are willing to live life small. Another problem is that we are seeing people who just get by and cannot afford to leave. They are scary," warned an expat in a discussion about where to move in Nicaragua and the cost of living in different areas.

When a retiree asked about the best places to live on a budget in Nicaragua, one expat responded, "I've been living in Central America for 4 years and, before that, visiting for 35. In order to live on that tight of a budget, you would need to avoid the tourist areas and settle where the locals live. If you rent a room in a house, or share a modest apartment, walk or take buses, avoid the better restaurants, and be careful with every cordoba you spend, you can survive on $800 per month. This does not factor in medical care and prescriptions and the cost of flying back to the states to visit family."

Learning Spanish is One of the Keys to Adapting to Life in Nicaragua

"If you don't already speak at least a little bit of Spanish start studying now (Duolingo is popular with a lot of people). Outside of the tourist centers of Granada and San Juan Del Sur (which are both perfectly fine places to live for people whose needs they fit) you won't get far without at least the beginnings of Spanish, and plan to study it when you get here," recommended one expat.

Another expat added, "Learning the language has been a challenging but fun task. Not knowing the language certainly does not help your adaptation. If I were to do it over, I would have done a family stay Spanish immersion for the first six months to ensure we were more fluent. You learn more in the immersion process in a week than a year of regular Spanish classes."

Little Can Prepare You for the Poverty in Nicaragua

"Nicaragua being a poor country, you are challenged to see things in a new perspective. You first learn there is a huge difference between being poor and having no money. You appreciate how many people live well without money and those that just seem mired in poverty. The average education level here is around the third grade and the education system is so lacking that many people just don't have a lot of common knowledge. The expats know the history here often better than the locals," said another expat when discussing culture shock in Granada.

"Nothing could have prepared me for the 'reality' check I got when I came to Nica. Words, pictures, books, magazines, internet etc cannot effectively communicate what one experiences. Like I said, I am a survivor / an adapter .... sooooo .... I don't think it is in the preparation so much as the attitude / personality of the person experiencing it. Unless one has experienced poverty or 'less than' before, there will always be culture shock. I was overwhelmed by the count of homeless dogs with their ribs showing. I wanted to rescue every single one. It's in my heart," said one expat in Managua, Nicaragua.

Healthcare in Nicaragua

"Find a good doctor that speaks your language. Even if you are somewhat fluent in the doctor's language, it is not the time to be confused on a few medical terms. 5 minutes to a decent hospital, 35 minutes to a great hospital. These are private hospitals that have emergency services and high quality care," advised one expat in a report for our Nicaragua Healthcare Guide. When a couple preparing to move to Nicaragua asked about the availability of their prescription meds in Nicaragua, "Most all drugs can be had without prescription at any local pharmacy,and they are found every few blocks and many make free home delivery. Even Codeine can still be had without prescription. The cost is kept low here as our compassionate socialist government will only allow import at very low fixed cost. You will find it much lower than your US costs. Most are manufactured in S. America so will have different names. The generic chemical component and dosage will be the same. The pharmacy computers convert the names so it is not a problem. You can look your drug's name up online and find its equivilant. in Latin America. My advice once here, take your prescritions and records to a local doctor who speaks some English, set yourself up with him ($20) and have him review you issues. No one here keeps records like in the US, so keep your own records. Outside of cancer drugs as they are so specific to treatment modalities I would not worry."

In a discussion about medical care in Nicaragua, one expat said, "Many doctors are Cuban trained. They are liked and respected. The best hospital in the country is the Military Hospital in Managua, just a name, don't have to be military. It is brand new and up to date. Rich Nicas go to a hospital in Masaya. Some doctors speak English. I have talked to many people in outlying areas that have used the public health facilities which they say are slow but the staff was good. They were satisfied with the care. Specialists are in the big cities where the population is. Every community is different you have to go there and talk to people. You will get a wide variety of opinions. Medical care is very different. Labs are self standing and you don't need a referral. You can get tested and then take the results to a farmacia and they tell you what to do. It has worked for us. Doctor's offices are very different. Many doctors make house calls. Hospital Vivian Pellas in Managua is run on the US model - lots of testing, expensive drugs and very expensive. They have many specialists. Word on the street is to avoid them."

If you are interested in private expat health insurance in Nicaragua, get a quote from our trusted expat health insurance partner, CIGNA.

Lots of Expats Start Businesses in Nicaragua -- Only a Few Make It

When a man considering a move to Nica asked about starting a real estate business and his wife continuing her massage therapy work, a lively discussion about expat owned businesses in Nicaragua ensued. One helpful piece of advice was, "You and hundreds of others want to move their family here and start a business. We watch businesses come and go on a regular basis and we entertain ourselves making bets on how long they will last. Both businesses you mention are already packed with foreigners looking to make some money. The Pacific coast is being bought up by high end investors from the East Coast of the US. It doesn't sound like you could compete. Foreigners who moved here ten years ago have built successful businesses, those moving in today have a difficult time ahead of them. I wouldn't come without at least $100,000 and a ticket home with money in the bank to start over." Another advised, "Make it your business to find out on your scouting trip how much it will cost a month to support your family in Nicaragua. Multiply the monthly cost by how long it will take to become profitable. But remember it may take a long time to make a reliable living selling real estate and massage therapy in a place like San Juan del Sur, where multi-lingual real estate salesmen and massage therapists may well already outnumber the fishermen."

"There are a lot of opportunities for starting businesses especially in the tourist sector. On the social side, there are many opportunities to teach skills to the people here from agriculture to running a business. Don't expect a high salary or a highly profitable business but then again, money is not everything and you can live here very inexpensively," said another expat.

Becoming a Resident of Nicaragua Takes 3-4 Months

"Nicaragua wants you to move here but that does not make it easy. Average time to complete the process is 3-4 months and that assumes you arrive with all of the necessary documentation. Becoming a resident does not affect your USA citizenship. Yes, you still must pay USA taxes," said one expat who retired in Granada.

Boredom Can Be an Issue for Expats in Nicaragua

In a discussion about moving to Nicaragua, an expat cautioned, "We are watching many friends go into boredom, boredom, boredom because they are all settled down and don't have anything to do once the dust settles. They spend mucho tiempo drinking and hanging out. It is hard to describe how much game night every Wednesday excites us. We like our life in Nicaragua, but use it as a base for travel and exploration. When we are home in Nicaragua, we catch up on the garden, the house and people. We are lucky to live in an age when we can go almost anywhere to see what there is to see."

Another expat said, "The biggest problem we see people struggling with after moving is what now. After the move is over and you settle in, what are you going to do? Drinking, womanizing, and watching sports on TV only go so far and none do well over the long run. When you get to town, ask yourself what you would be doing everyday if you lived there. The most successful expats reinvent their lives and do things like hobbies or volunteering. We are watching many people fall out after an expensive move. They are bored. Nicaragua is a small country, you have to invent your own life."

Rent Before You Buy When You First Move to Nicaragua

"We bought a home but I recommend you rent first for at least six months. Not everyone likes it here. You do not have to be a resident to buy a home or own a business in Nicaragua. It is fairly easy to buy a home but be careful! Everyone will try to sell you property and many of them are not stellar examples of character. Work with a known real estate agency. It is easy to forget to do the normal due diligence when you are looking from your potential property watching the sun set over the ocean," advised one expat.

"Spend as much time prior to moving as possible in different months of the year to experience the seasonal changes. Also, try to stay as near as your choice property if not in/on it to experience everything that will be around you. Roosters crowing, dogs barking, pigs grunting, early street cleaners or whatever can make a real difference, good and bad," recommended another expat.

If you're looking to buy a home in Nicaragua, see our Houses for Sale in Nicaragua page.

Quality of Housing Outside of Big Cities

"House is a vague term. Most of what exits in the north I call 'shed houses'. Masonry walls and floor, tin roof, no ceilings, poor plumbing and electricity, etc. As somebody pointed out, availability is the problem. Go cut a deal to stay in a hospedaje with better construction for a while till you get the hang of it. The fact is that many Nicas live in poor housing has little to do with what foreign people want to live in, especially retirees. Except when those foreigners go to look for housing that is fit for long-term use because it is very rare. I suspect that only a couple percent of the housing in Nicaragua is suitable to the standards of lower middle class foreigners. Keep looking or build it yourself. Some of the best housing on the market are the houses of Nicas who have moved to the states. They don't want to pay a caretaker so they rent them out or sell them," remarked one expat.

Living Off the Beaten Path in Nicaragua

An expat living in the village of Mechapa, Nicaragua described life in the small village. He said, "This is an incredible area for those wishing to escape the trappings of larger, more touristy cities and towns. For all of it's natural beauty, truly secluded beach and quiet atmosphere, there are always challenges. For example, energy is spotty, telephone service isn't available yet without an antennae, fuel and propane must be purchased 1 hour away in Chinandega... But it is a special and definitely 'off the beaten path' way of living!"

Some Expats End Up Wanting to Leave Nicaragua

"We see people who underestimated the cost of living and are now stuck, they don't have the money to leave. Be careful, what you see may not be what you get," explained one expat.

"Congratulations on giving it a trial. So many seem to want to move here with all the possessions they can. But almost certainly doomed for disappointment. With 3 months I recommend not renting a house or apartment. Rent a room preferably week to week and travel until you see what you are looking for. The ones that really stump me are ones wanting to drive here in their 30 year old car and a U-Haul in tow with 5 dogs and 8 children inquiring about the high paying jobs in construction and good schools for their kids. Those are not well planned relocations. What I try to convey is not to burn all the bridges behind expecting this to be paradise.. unavailability of fundamental items and boredom are big problems. What might be good advice is to bring some items to sell. I sure could go for some packaged flower seeds, outdoor bug lights. Some Zatiarin's, dinner mixes, and other food items. I would gladly go 3X the purchase price. Nothing heavy nor expensive. Just things I crave that are not available here. I could also go for a good Norelco shaver," cautioned another expat in a thread entitled, Nicaraguan Test Run.

Crime in Nicaragua

"It is relatively safe and we have experienced less crime here than in the states. We use common sense such as using taxis after dark, not driving at night, etc. Having said that, Nicaragua is a poor country and there is more common theft. For example, if you lay your phone, IPod, laptop on your table at a restaurant and turn away, it will be gone. It is important to have good neighbors and to form friendships with them. Our home has never been robbed in the past five years here," said one expat.

Need more information on living in Nicaragua?

Login or Register and visit our Nicaragua Forum. Talk with other expats who can offer you insight and tips about living in Nicaragua.

About the Author

Betsy Burlingame Betsy Burlingame is the Founder of Expat Exchange. She launched Expat Exchange in 1997 as her Master's thesis project at NYU. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University with a BA in International Business and German.

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Comments about this Article

May 28, 2017 11:48

I have been living in Nicaragua for 9 years and the information in this article is right on. One thing that was not mentioned in the article is I do not recommend shipping your belongings here in a container. There are many problems and months before you get your things. If you have your residency your belongings are duty free, but their are some hidden costs and lots of headaches.. Most everything one needs can be purchased here.

First Published: May 24, 2017

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