Amy and Darrell Bushnell had traveled a great deal and with every trip they were finding it harder and harder to return home. When they decided to retire early to another country sooner than they originally planned, they knew they were going to have to find a country that was easier on the wallet. They narrowed it down to Central and South America, and then narrowed it down again to Ecuador, Costa Rica, Panama, Nicaragua and Uruguay. After five trips there, they decided Nicaragua it was the place they wanted to live. They have lived there for 10 years. Here are Darrell’s thoughts on retiring at the age of 55 and living in Nicaragua.
Why was it getting harder and harder to go back to the U.S.?
That is a good question. A lot of people say the commercialism, the bitching, the complaints. I don’t know, I think it was just getting older and it was time for a different phase – a different culture.
One of the biggest questions I come across when I am talking about being an expat is regarding expenses. What is the cost of living in Nicaragua like?
It is very inexpensive here. Some people say it is getting more expensive. We try to just live off of Social Security, and that is just mine. I think you can live on less than half, to maybe a third, of what you do in the United States, but it is really hard to say because it is a lot cheaper to live in Arkansas than it is in New York City, and here it is the same way.
If you want to live in Granada or San Juan del Sur it is more expensive. It is still cheap, but more expensive than other parts of Nicaragua, and then prices drop down in Managua, then Leon and then in the countryside – it really, really drops down. It depends on how you live. Are you going to eat steak or are you going to eat beans and rice?
What would a nice apartment that you felt safe in cost in Granada? For a two bedroom apartment?
If you do not have to live in the center, for $400 to $500 per month you could find a very nice apartment in Granada. You could live very well.
What about planning for costs of utilities, groceries, transportation?
We live here on approximately $1500 per month for the basics, but we own our home so that eliminates the rental costs. We have friends that live on $500 per month and we have friends that live on $5000 a month. Again costs depend on how you want to live and what your extracurricular activities are.
I assume you do not have a mortgage payment?
No, we own our home.
I think people have a tendency to romanticize being an expat. I feel as if there is a stigma in talking about how being an expat is not a 100% magical life. Could you talk about some of the challenges expats have when the move to Nicaragua?
The greatest problems people have are their expectations. When they come down here and they, for example, contract someone to show up at their house and they don’t show up and then they get angry well – they are not going to make it here – it is just the way it is. I constantly tell people that I don’t understand how they think. They come down here and their property taxes are $50 a year. They pay no tax of any consequence, and they expect the same services as the United States – and that just isn’t going to happen. You have to be able to roll with it, but that is true of any culture.
What about earning money in Nicaragua? Have you come across any expats or do you yourself have any creative ways to earn money in Nicaragua?
Legally as a Pensionado, a retired person, I cannot earn money here. I would have to change my status to be able to do that, and then I could work just like a Nicaraguan. But saying that there are more and more young people coming down here and starting a business, a lot of people work online or are able to work anywhere they have Internet access. Most of the people are doing it on the sly because legally they should be paying taxes to someone somewhere, but down here is so loosey goosey. A lot of people come down here to get lost in the country.
On your blog you said men and women adapt differently to countries. I wondered if you saw any differences to how single people or families adjust to being expats?
I can’t go into their heads and explain how they think, but one of our big surprises is how many single older women are down here and retired. It is a very high percentage of the expats. We find that amazing and very interesting. There are a lot of retired teachers and nurses that do come down here. Probably because their pensions are not phenomenal and down here they can live very well, whereas they might just scrape by in the United States.
It seems healthcare in Nicaragua would be a pretty big issue. What is it like? Do you trust it? Would you trust it if you needed something substantial?
Not a simple answer. The healthcare down here is excellent. The doctor we have is Cuban trained and speaks English. We consider him the best doctor we have had in our lives – anywhere. Like almost all countries except the United States, there is universal healthcare in Nicaragua that is free to everyone, but most expats do not find that sufficient or good enough quality.
The private hospitals are only in the big cities. Managua has four or five hospitals that are as good as anything in the United States. Healthcare is much cheaper here. It is less than 25% of what it is in the U.S. I had a colonoscopy. I went in on Friday, and they asked if I could come in on Monday. They charged me about $350 and gave me a DVD to watch. It was excellent healthcare.
But what people forget is most do not pay anything for health insurance in the United States. I was in the corporate world. I had a HMO. All my life I hardly paid anything for healthcare. Health insurance was usually included in the job. So a lot of people come down here, and say, Wow it is really cheap healthcare – but down here.’ but you have to pay for it. A friend of ours had to have two stints put in. I think it was $18,000. Now $18,000 is a small fraction of what it would have cost in the United States, but he did have to come up with that money, and in the United States it probably would not have cost you anything.
It is an interesting point.
It would have been under Medicare or something.
I am curious as to what your family and friends reaction was when you told them you were moving to Nicaragua?
What we expected, “Are you crazy? Why in the world would you ever go there?” We have had a few friends and a few relatives visit us, but the vast majority will never ever visit us.
What are the visa options in Nicaragua if you are in your 30s or 40s and wouldn’t qualify for a Pensionado visa? Are there different visa options?
There are different kinds of residents. The most common of course is the Pensionado Visa. There are a lot of benefits to it. You can bring in a car with up to a $25,000 value, you can bring $20,000 worth of household goods, and the residency lasts about five years before you have to renew it. But if you don’t qualify for that then you will probably have to come in as a Rentista, where you have to show an investment by starting a business and investing X amount of money – I am not exactly sure how much it is – but last I heard it was around $35,000. I have had other friends that have bought a house and rented it out and that satisfied the visa requirements.
What about buying a house in Nicaragua? I read on your site that it certainly does not come with the conveniences that buying a house in the United States does, but is it a process you trust? Do you have advice for someone who is looking to buy a house in Nicaragua?
We have arguments about this among the expats all the time. My personal opinion is to find a very good and trustworthy realtor and lawyer to make the process work for you. Half the expats will tell you to never use a realtor, but for first time buyers I think they need the knowledge of someone who can help them through the process. Now I have lived here 10 years and do not need the services of a lawyer since I have more knowledge now of the process.
What is the argument for not using a realtor?
Part of that argument is simply, this is a very inexpensive place to live. It is also extremely close to the U.S, so we get a lot of anti-establishment people. They don’t want to pay the realtor’s commission though a good realtor will usually save you the amount of the commission. And many have a friend or relative here which they think can find them that great deal and not pay the “gringo” price. They come down here and think, ‘I am not going to use a realtor. I am going to use my friend that speaks Spanish to help me, and we will go out there and get screwed by ourselves.’ Our experience has been that those that do not find a good realtor and a good lawyer very often have problems in the purchase process but the key is finding a good realtor and a good lawyer.
What about the costs of housing in Nicaragua? If you wanted to buy a three bedroom house in San Juan del Sur or Granada, what do those costs of housing look like?
They are all over the map. It is certainly cheapest to build. We just built a house here, and we built it for under $40 a square foot, and we built our dream house. If you are in San Juan del Sur or a historic center or near the beaches around San Juan del Sur, it is the most expensive. It also depends on the house, but I think you would have to pay around $100 a square foot for a very nice house in those situations, but if you move a mile outside of town the prices are going to drop by half or less. If you live in Matagalpa or Estelí or Leon you can buy a beautiful house for $40,000 to $50,000.
You hear all kinds of horror stories about Americans buying property in another country, and then the government shifts and all of the sudden they do not have a house. Is that something you worry about being a home owner in Nicaragua?
Certainly there is more risk in different location though not necessarily from the government taking your land. The east coast here is the wild, wild west. I would be more wary of the east coast. In the areas that are more popular – Granada, Managua, Leon, San Juan del Sur or even Estelí, I think they are pretty rock solid. I have certainly heard of people losing their house or the ability to build on the land or unable to people off the land, but upon investigation there was usually more to the story. So I don’t think there is that much risk but make sure you get a good lawyer to do the title search for you. Always speak to other expats in the area.
What about language? Do most expats learn the language in Nicaragua? Do they just struggle by with the necessities?
Most expats do not speak a lot of Spanish and most expats do not have a vehicle. Amy and my biggest disappointment here is the level of fluency we have. We have gone to many, many, many classes. We are educated people, but we are disappointed at our level. We speak enough to get out of trouble and take care of ourselves, but we thought, ‘Six months and we will be fluent.’ But we are disappointed in our level. We are amazed how few expats speak so little Spanish or will ever learn.
Is there any tension between the expats and locals? I would imagine that would be frustrating to the locals to have expats living in their country that at least seemingly refuse to speak the language.
I have very little friction and I am amazed. People ask, ‘What is number one reason you moved here?’ and we always say the people. We are amazed at how open they are to us and how warm they are to us considering the U.S. sponsored the Contra War and hasn’t been very nice to many of Latin American countries especially Central America. They certainly do not like any of the Bushes or Reagan, but they love Obama, and they love Clinton. I have seen very little bias against citizens of other countries. Nicaraguans are very United States oriented. The dollar is accepted everywhere. In fact, I almost never use the Cordoba. Almost 25% of the population receives some kind of monthly remittance from United States – either from relatives or because they lived there before or because they served in the US Army.
What advice do you have for people wanting to move to Nicaragua? What do you wish you would have known before moving there?
Don’t bring anything.
Why is that?
We brought minimal and we wish we would not have brought that. We didn’t know the revolution in eReaders was going to be coming along in a few years, and we brought a ton of books because we are heavy readers. We brought a lot of DVDs and CDs not knowing all that would be obsolete. We brought a little bit of furniture and brought our vehicle. I am not too sorry about bringing the vehicle. It has lasted about 10 years, and it is a good vehicle for here. There is no need to bring anything. Remember the country is much more advanced now than it was before. There are a lot of things available now that we could not find before.
What if an expat wanted to move down there and get a job? Are there jobs available for expats in Nicaragua?
No. There are hardly any jobs, and your competition will work for less than a dollar an hour. You have to create your job. You have to start a business – a B & B, a restaurant, any kind of business, even a consulting business may do well with the expat community. There is kind of a rule that you should not take away a job that a Nica could do.
What about safety in Nicaragua? Do you have advice for people moving down there on being safe or the differences between the US and Nicaragua in regards to safety?
Speaking about crime is like speaking about temperature in the United States. What is the temperature in the United States? Well, it depends on where you are. It is the same way here. Petty theft, opportunity theft, yeah that is pretty rampant but that happens to tourists – it does not happen to us because we would not put down an iPhone or anything of value on a table in a restaurant – even the waiter will take it. I have never been robbed. We have never been mugged. My wife did have her purse lifted. And she will tell you herself it is because she did something stupid. She put her purse on a table in an art class and walked away, and came back and it was gone. But violent crime? It is so rare. It just doesn’t happen that much. It makes the headlines when it does happen, but I won’t say a guy on a motorcycle might not snatch a gold necklace off your neck.
I have read that Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Central America.
I grew up in a farm in northern Illinois. Is it as safe as my hometown? No, but it is very safe. We have never been mugged. We have never had a violent encounter, and we have been here going on 10 years.
The other thing I thought was interesting on your blog is talking about the expat community there. I thought it was very reflective of my own experience in that some expats are great people and some are people who did not fit into their own country and are looking for somewhere else to live. How does the process of building a community in Nicaragua look? Is it easier than in the United States? Is it harder?
I think it is harder here. We have a lot of good friends, but God we have a lot of curmudgeons here. It is not that they are bad people. What kind of person pulls up stakes and goes to a third world country – especially say Nicaragua versus of Panama or Argentina or somewhere? It takes an independent person; probably a strong willed person, certainly independent thinking, and we call those people Type As. And if you put a lot of Type As in a room there is a lot of hair pulling. They are all good people, and they are here for the same reason – because they love Nicaragua, but it has been a challenge [building community]. We are still a young country here. Trying to do something at the community level is difficult. It is hard to get agreement among the expat community. Even the Facebook groups get rough.
Has there ever been a time you thought about bagging it and going back to the US?
Never. We like Nicaragua because it is different enough to be interesting but not different enough to be bizarre.
Having tasted this now? No. We would fold up and die if we went back to the US. Now I wouldn’t say we wouldn’t move to another country. If I had more money I would make this my base and live six months a year in a different country for the rest of my life.
Is there anything you miss about home?
A good cheese steak sandwich.
We do have family and we do have friends, but we have decided to go with the tough love philosophy. If they don’t make the effort to spend time with us here, we probably will not make the effort to spend much time with them there. We do love our friends and family. We go back but not that often – probably every two or three years – and you probably have to push me to do that.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
We like Nicaragua. We like the people of Nicaragua. I know everyone always says the same thing but always move here for six months before you decide if and where you want to live. We first visited over a five year period. We moved to San Juan del Sur and found it did not suit our lifestyle. We felt like idiots. We didn’t fit in at all, and then we moved to Granada and loved it. Always try places out before you buy. If you are the person that is going to show up and buy a house in three days, you really need to hold on to see because there are not that many people moving here yet, and if you decide to sell it might be a long time to get it sold.
Ready to visit Nicaragua to if it is the place for you?