Nicaragua's Turf Beside the Surf
Sunday, August 12, 2007
Fourteen years ago, on my first trip to Costa Rica, I agreed to check out some land a Canadian expat was selling. Zancudo Peninsula. One lot back from a rustic beach. Lush hills. Thirty grand -- or, about $29,500 more than I had. I excused myself to catch some waves, and ever since have tried very hard not to dwell on how much that parcel must have appreciated.
When I first heard "Nicaragua" and "tourism" in the same sentence about four years ago, I pictured lawless country, bombed-out roads, bandits and a gastrointestinal hit job. But the country, specifically the southern Pacific coast, kept popping up in magazines with reports of stunning beaches, surf camps, eco-lodges and even a high-end hotel with an infinity pool. Oh, and the land prices. "It's the next Costa Rica," the advance party whispered. "Get in now and you won't regret it."
To me, that sounded like a rare second chance. Yes, Nicaragua carries risk: It's the second-poorest country in the region, behind Haiti, and has a corrupt government run by the loosely hinged Daniel Ortega. But with all the natural charms of Costa Rica and an established band of expats, it seemed like a can't-miss proposition.
Over the past five years, real estate sales to foreigners have exploded along Nicaragua's southwest Pacific coast, with oceanside lots starting at about $70,000, up from $20,000 a few years ago. By comparison, similar properties in Costa Rica cost more than four times as much. Numerous American real estate firms, such as Re/Max and Century 21, operate in Nicaragua, making it easy to buy with confidence -- though scams and rip-offs occur. I swore to be diligent and slightly skeptical.
Driving out of Managua in late May, I saw a weary country. The six-month dry season had rendered the land brown and dusty. Emaciated livestock picked at shriveled weeds, shanties dotted the roadside, and desperate residents shoveled dirt into potholes, then stuck their hands out to passing cars. That Third World smell -- high-particulate exhaust blended with garbage and a whiff of sewage -- sullied the air. But farther from the capital, things looked up: children in tidy navy-and-white school uniforms skipping home for lunch; locals cruising to market by bicycle, pickup or oxcart; concrete-and-terra-cotta homes laced with bougainvillea. And the familiar Central American landscape of hills, volcanoes, streams and lakes.
San Juan del Sur, the epicenter of the real estate boom, sits on a Pacific bay at the bottom of a long hill about three hours southwest of Managua. Often described as a sleepy fishing village with an expat surfing scene, San Juan (population 13,000) was hardly dozing: It was noisy and busy, a mishmash of brightly painted homes, Internet cafes, surf shops, hotels, restaurants and pulperias (general stores) squeezed along a grid of cobblestone streets. Then, on the western edge of town, I saw the main attraction: a mile-long arc of gently sloping sand tucked between rocky bluffs and fronted by open-air, thatch-roofed restaurants. But as the old saying goes: Never buy land on an empty stomach.
* * *
After a lunch of grilled fish overlooking the near-empty beach, I dropped into the Century 21 office, a block from the center of town. David Brownlee, an agent from California, pulled up a map and pictures of Costa Dulce, a development on 55 acres of land a half-hour from San Juan.
Brownlee was personable and, at 35 years old, still young enough to be demonstrably bullish on Nicaragua without arousing suspicion. But, as if to underline the risk of Third World real estate speculation, the electricity went out in the middle of his pitch, leaving us to chat in the darkness of an afternoon thunderstorm while waiting for the generator to kick in.
"These lots are incredibly popular," he told me when the power returned. "I had a few guys from San Diego interested in one, and by the time we got back to the office it had sold." It was hard to tell what I was looking at (the color-coded master plan was vague) and even harder to tell if I was being had. (I hadn't discounted the possibility of a ruse, especially after that San Diego anecdote.) Yet, I made an appointment nonetheless to see Costa Dulce.
As I whiled away the day in town, San Juan -- and its residents -- began to grow on me. I found Brent, a 30-ish Floridian with a buzz cut, standing inside the doorway of the Arenas Caliente surf shop.
"This place rocks," said the skinny, shirtless expat. "Came down here three years ago. The only thing I really miss is my dog. We had a hurricane last year, filled the streets with water. That's when I got dengue. Lost 15 pounds. I was scared, man. My girlfriend's grandmother was next to my bed praying over me. I thought I might die. But this place rocks."