Granada, Nicaragua is a peaceful lakeside city with impossibly charming cobblestone streets and trendy modern restaurants and health spas nestled in adorably restored colonial Spanish buildings. It’s a conservative city that enjoys a certain degree of isolation from Nicaragua’s turbulent revolutionary past. It’s the Nicaragua you could take your elderly mother to. She would have a lovely time.
And that’s what a number of elderly mothers are doing. Retirees from Canada and the United States are flocking to Nicaragua, and Granada in particular, to live out their twilight years on a budget. The AARP lists Granada as one of the best places to retire abroad, citing the city’s beauty, but also it’s affordability. It’s a city where you can live like a king off of social security. They mention one couple that purchased “3,500-square-foot colonial house with patio and pool for $180,000”. Other articles highlight the lack of taxes on foreign investment and real estate purchases. The great recession has led to a number of people trying to live out the American Dream in the hemisphere’s second poorest country.
I was lucky enough to spend a week in a local family’s spare bedroom. Like most Nicaraguans, the family I stayed with were very warm, welcoming people who made me feel more like a cousin come to visit than a paying guest. They took most things in stride, but when they complained, most of it was directed at the “extranjeros” (foreigners) that were invading their city. (They seemed to forget that I was actually an extranjero too.) This influx of people from the North were changing things fast in a place that has stayed relatively the same for generations.
Many Nicaraguans feel that these gringo retirees and expats are taking advantage of them and their country. Despite being advertised as an affordable destination for us, Nicaragua is not a cheap country for the people who live there. People who have jobs get paid low wages and often have to work multiple jobs if they can or find additional work in the unofficial sectors of the economy on the side. The woman I stayed with worked as a teacher, but also rented tables and chairs and sold ice, as well as renting out the spare room. Even with all that, her adult children still lived at home and also worked in order to pitch in and pay the bills.
They were lucky. Unemployment is high, and many people are forced to migrate to the United States or Costa Rica to even find work. Despite rapid growth and development in recent years, modern conveniences that we take for granted are still out of reach for much of the population. To tell someone who is struggling so hard just to get by that their homeland is “cheap” has to feel like a slap in the face.
Granada is also gentrifying. Much like gentrification everywhere else, formerly long standing businesses are being forced out to make way for yoga studios and organic vegetarian restaurants. Many people are having trouble remaining in their homes as real estate prices are pushed up… they’re still cheap for us, but growing out of reach for the average Nicaraguan. Sure, this means the colonial buildings in the city center are being repainted and maintained, but what about the people forced out of the buildings and into the tar paper and zinc roofed shacks outside of town?
The people moving in are often not bothering to try and adapt and get
along with the locals. Many are skipping the colonial buildings entirely and heading to new construction gated communities outside of town. Most won’t even talk to the locals, unless they’re giving orders to their maid or driver. They refuse to even try to learn Spanish.
Now, maybe you’re saying to yourself “but they come here and don’t even bother to learn English.” First of all, shut up you dummy. Second, English is considered by many to be one of the most difficult languages in the world. Spanish, on the other hand, is relatively easy.
Third, learn a little bit of history. Nicaragua (and Latin America in general) has been considered the “backyard” of the United States for decades. The U.S. government actually militarily occupied the country from 1912 to 1933. After that, the U.S. backed the bloodthirsty dictatorship of the Somoza family for decades, until the revolution of 1979. Ronald Reagan and the CIA funded the Contras against the revolutionary Sandinista government in a brutal civil war that devastated the country and was partly responsible for Nicaragua’s dismal economic conditions today.
The relationship between the United States and Nicaragua has been uneven at best, at worst the United States has acted like a violent abusive bastard.
Despite this, Nicaraguans are nothing but warm and amiable to people from the United States. Apart from whatever misgivings they may have, they continue to welcome retirees, expats and tourists with open arms. The very least that we can do in return is to have some respect and try and learn a little bit of their language and culture in return.
If you do go to Nicaragua, whether just to visit or to move there, don’t go because somebody told it’s a budget Costa Rica. Don’t go because you want to exploit the poverty your government caused. Go because Nicaragua is a breathtakingly beautiful country with a full of amazingly strong, friendly and wonderful people.