Well it's been seven years now that our family has lived in Latin America. The number seven seems to have a lot of significance in relation to time, seven days in a week, seven years in a cycle, even the seven year itch which, in relationships, can spell doom. Indeed, they say that every cell in your body is new after seven years. So here we are new bodies and new attitudes about our life here. We've matured into this culture, our kids have grown up here, and we've made friends. Those things that we hoped for in our life here, have basically happened. Perhaps it is because our expectations were realistic or even set on the low side. But nevertheless, we do like it and we plan to stay.
Belize, Panama and Costa Rica were all on the table when we first considered our move, but our family decided for a variety of reasons that Nicaragua was the best choice for us. Our company, ECI Development has residential resort projects in both Belize and Costa Rica right now, and we are actively scouting for a property in Panama, as well. In fact, my wife and I spent a lot of time in Panama leading up to our move to Nicaragua. The truth is that we like all of these countries, and could easily live in any of them, but we chose Nicaragua because it just fits us better than any of the others.
Let me hit one nail right on the head. The concerns most often voiced about Nicaragua center around safety and politics. Nicaragua is safe, the second safest country in the hemisphere after Canada according to a study produced by Harvard's business school affiliate in the region. We don't have body guards or drivers. The politics of the country are meaningless for expats and property rights are secure for legitimate owners who take care in the due diligence process and perhaps purchase a title insurance policy from First American Title.
But this story is not about Nicaragua. It is about our life as expats in a new culture, how we've adapted, and some funny stories that would happen no matter what country you decide is right for you. However, for anyone considering an expat life in Central America, not considering Nicaragua because of pre-conceived notions would be a huge mistake.
So how did we get here? Where are we at this point? What are the things we appreciate? What things annoy us? How do we feel about our new home and where do we go from here? It's great to have some time to reflect on this and share an update at this seven-year milestone with family, friends, and folks who are considering a move overseas.
So let's begin by saying that it hasn't been all good. No place is perfect and Nicaragua is no exception. Of course the stereotypical Latin American things can get on your nerves like the "mañana" attitude, long lines at the bank, and a general disregard for the importance of time. The law here actually forbids moving cars out of traffic lanes for a fender bender until the police arrive, sometimes backing up traffic for a mile or more. But electronic banking has meant that we seldom if ever walk into a bank anymore. The real trick is to learn to "Hurry while you wait," as Thomas Edison once said.
Attitude is important. Some of the things that are frustrating can also be quite funny. Like parking attendants, who have never driven a car, trying to park people, who don't listen to them anyway. It can be a fiasco that is pure comedy if you'll let yourself laugh. We try, and usually do, but we also know that when we start to get frustrated, it's time to step back and count our blessing.
Overall the good far outweighs the bad and we love living here. In fact, we’ve had some serious discussions in the past year or two about the possibility of moving back the US and they usually go like this, ”If we moved back, where would we put our kids in school? What would that cost? Would they get as good an education? Where would we want to live and what would that cost?” Each time we’ve searched, we’ve come back full circle to remaining here.
But it runs deeper than just cost of living, of course. We like the freedoms we have here. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? But the fact is that the US is quickly becoming a nanny state and I for one, don’t like it.
For example, my wife makes brownies and cookies to take to the bake sale at the girl’s school. There’s no health department regulation prohibiting that. If a teacher hugs my 5 year old, that’s OK too. If someone with an entrepreneurial spirit wants to be a barber, they hang a shingle outside their shop and cut hair. No trade association forces them to go to school and get a license. If you don’t like the hair cut, don’t go back.
In the Unites States, I tell my daughters to stay off the rocks and don’t even think about climbing a tree in public spaces. The fear of lawsuits has every public and private employee declaring even mundane actions off-limits. In Nicaragua we use our common sense. If one of my girls falls out of a tree and breaks an arm, we take her to the doctor and she learns to hold on tighter next time. We even practice sometimes with some cliff jumping in Somoto Canyon, a true national treasure hidden in Nicaragua’s mountainous north.
Even in my business, where I speak to groups about what we do and how we do it, I’m often limited in what I can say due to regulatory issues. Imagine, having to leave the United States to practice my First Amendment right to Free Speech. Sad isn’t it? So for these and many other reasons, we now make our home in Nicaragua and will for the foreseeable future.
Many people look at life overseas in terms of a lower cost of living. This is one huge element in many people’s decision to live overseas. But if one just looks at this side of the coin, it is possible to miss the other side, which, in the end, is the far shinier side. This is the quality of life you can achieve and enjoy south-of-the-border. It is this real blessing that seeps into you slowly, and once it gets hold, won’t let you go. But since cost of living tends to be the first thing people examine, it makes sense to start there with some anecdotes and numbers.
While it is possible to live in Nicaragua and many other countries on $600-$800 per month, let me first say that we don’t. We spend about half of what we spent in the US for the normal living items such as food, house, utilities, entertainment, schools, and classes for the girls.
For example, filet steaks are $2.48 per pound, boneless chicken breast is $1.77 per pound, lettuce $.25 per bunch, cabbage is $.50 per head, tomatoes, $.40 per pound, oranges $.60 per dozen, local cheese $1.35 per pound. These are all prices at the big name grocery store owned by Wal-Mart. If you shop (or let your maid shop) in the local markets, you’ll pay even less for many items.
Part of a successful transition however, is folding new foods into your diet. Some of the easiest are the fruits and vegetables. Our girls are adjusting well. They love the foods here, especially the mangos. The green mango (before they are ripe) with salt on it is a real hit. There are 20+ varieties of mango, and just like apples, we are getting to know the nuances between them.
Some things do cost more here, like gasoline, electricity, and Tostidos brand chips. These can run double or more from North American prices. The trick is to limit the things that cost more and maximize the things that cost less. Quite honestly, we drive about as often here as we did in the States, but the distances are generally closer and a traffic jam is considered to be three motorcycles at a light. Homes designed with cross ventilation and ceiling fans almost never need AC, which is the largest electrical usage in most homes. Tostidos at $7.00 a bag? Well, after all, what would a Steelers game be without some fine cold beverages, sandwiches, and a bag of Tostidos? Some things are just sacred - no matter what the cost.
Concentrating on the lower costs of living is one side of the coin, but the more significant side is all about quality of life. In fact, it’s paradoxical and hard for most folks to comprehend. How can you have a higher quality of life and a lower cost of living? It just doesn’t make sense. A lower cost of living usually means sacrifice and cutting back. Here, our quality of life is significantly enhanced and the cost of living is lower. Just one example really highlights a HUGE quality of life enhancement.
What is this one thing? A maid…yes, for less than $150 per month, we have no household chores. Let me repeat…for $6.00 per day, we have no household chores…..ever. Imagine that.
We have a traditional home. I work outside the house and Carol works at home and with the kids as a full time mom. If we lived in the US, she’d probably be doing most of the laundry, housekeeping, cooking and cleaning. Here she doesn’t have to. She gets to spend an extra hour (30 minutes each way) with them every day because she is free to take and pick up the girls from the school. She creates crafts and games ready for them after school. She’s there rested, relaxed, and ready to listen and engage them in conversation. This, alone, is a treasure chest of gifts for the girls.
School is also extremely affordable, less than $5000 per year for them both. There are some great schools here including an English-language Christian School, a French School, and a Science and Math orientated school. There is also an American School with 1500+ kids, where English is the primary instruction language. The German School was the best choice for our girls because Spanish is the primary instruction language and they have a strong academic curriculum. Learning German is a bonus.
Activities are also inexpensive. The girls take dance from Nicaragua’s prima ballerina for $30 per month. Usually there are 3-5 girls in the class. That’s 20 hours of semi-private instruction per month for $30. Gymnastics is $5.00 per hour, piano $10 per hour, and riding lessons, $50 for four one-hour classes. It’s everything we’d have back home. It just costs less.
For me the quality of life considerations of a maid and part time gardener ($40 per month) are simply that we have a lot more time together as a family. When I get home from work we sit down to dinner and then decide what we want to do for the evening. We love to play games and read and that is exactly what we do. On the Saturday morning there’s no yard to mow so we say, “What do we want to do this weekend?” The bottom line is that household help costing under $200 per month translates into fantastic family time for us.
So what do we do? We spend a lot of weekends at the Gran Pacifica beach where Amanda is learning to surf from our resident surf instructor, Michael Altschul. We started to build the Cobb home there, but while it was under construction last year, a couple decided they liked it and bought it. We have since started a new home, but for now, we rent one of the ocean front condos when we want to spend the night. The 80+ degree Pacific Ocean, air temps in the 90’s, as well as a constant offshore breeze make Nicaragua’s coast delightful, year-round surf and swimming destination.
Turtles are another big draw here. Every year mother turtles find their way back from across thousands of miles of ocean to a tiny stretch of beach where they were born to come and lay eggs and continue this incredible cycle of life. Forty-five days after the eggs are laid into the sand; 2-inch long baby turtles dig their way to the surface and begin their mad dash from the dunes to the sea. At midnight, with the full moon as your light source this sight is unbelievably spectacular.
Granada, a 380 year old city on the shores of Lake Nicaragua is only a 45 minute drive from our home. The architecture of the city is Spanish Colonial with large internal courtyards, fountains and gardens adorning the many hotels and restaurants. A lunch behind the thick stone and adobe walls and under the high ceilings, brick and decorative woods creates an atmosphere cool and comforting, even on the hottest of days.
Next to Granada is the nearly mile-high extinct Mombacho Volcano. When guests are in town we often take them to the zip line course about half way up the mountain. The course is 13 cables stretched from tree top to tree top where we strap into harnesses and zoom from platform to platform in the canopy about 75 to 130 feet above the coffee plantation below. It is exhilarating to say the least.
After this, we usually will slip on down to the lake and take a boat ride around some of the 350 small islands that were created when the volcano blew a side out about a million years ago. The quest is always the same, Monkey Island, maybe 50 feet in diameter covered with dense vegetation and trees. It is wise to bring bananas or oranges for the monkeys. But Cheerios work well too. Usually a mama with a baby clinging tightly to her back will come swinging through the branches and hop right onto the boat where you can get up close and personal with these fascinating creatures.
The ride back to the dock takes you through numerous channels and by an old fishing trawler that according to my daughter is really a pirate ship. You’ll see many homes built on these small islands. Some of them are spectacular getaways for the country’s elite, others are small and simple. Grand old trees create natural colonnades between islands, their branches intertwining high above. The Oro Pendula bird creates nests like that of the Baltimore Oriole, only three feet long with a bottom the size of a basketball. Water lilies and other water plants give a splash of color to the hundreds of shades of green around. A trip through the islands is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
Perhaps our family’s favorite part of the country is Nicaragua’s mountainous highlands. These hold a special appeal to us. Selva Negra, a coffee plantation, eco-resort, self-sustainable farm nestled in the cloud forest at 4500 feet above sea level is a place we visit often. The farm/resort is owned by Eddy and Mausi Kuhl whose granddaughter Rachel, has become my oldest daughter’s best friend. The friendships developed there between the kids and with Rachel’s parents and grandparents is one of the many friendship ties that bind us tightly to this country.
This is also my favorite climate in the whole world. I enjoy the cool nights in the low 70’s and days in the mid 80’s. Eternal spring… as some call it. The cloud forest is unique with mists and fogs passing through the forests in the morning and evening, blue skies and puffy white clouds in the day, and clear, black, star filled skies at night. It is home to exotic plants, animals, and troupes of howler monkeys screeching their calls from the canopy top hundreds of feet up. I wear the place like a second skin.
Beyond climate and costs, another important aspect of quality of life is culture and activities. Nicaragua is awash in wonderful festivals, theater, restaurants, and activities for nearly all interests. Just in the past 90 days, we’ve attended a ballet from Spain and the Hungarian orchestra at the national theater. Over the years we’ve seen the Bolshoi, the local orchestra, folkloric ballet, and numerous other performances there as well. There are smaller venues where we’ve enjoyed modern dance, poetry readings, classical guitar, and avante guard performances. Rarely, if ever, is a ticket over $10.
Culinary life here is fantastic as well. My wife’s favorite restaurant is Casa de los Nogueros run by a Cordon Bleu chef who worked for years in many of Europe’s finest establishments. White table cloth and fine chine meals complete with appetizer, dessert, and wine might set you back $35-40 per person. If four-diamond dining isn’t your thing, we have Japanese and sushi, Italian, Chinese, seafood, steak houses, Middle Eastern, fusion, TGI Fridays, Pizza Hut, McDonalds, BK, Sbarro, Subway, to mention a few. There are thousands of local joints serving up the Nicaraguan fare of roasted meats, gallo pinto, fried cheese and plantains. The only food we crave and don’t have is Thai. (yet)
For kids of all ages, the festivals and circuses are frequent and lively. Russians on Ice was fantastic with its skaters, dancing, juggling, clowns and performing magic tricks, but the hit of the night for the girls was the skating bears. One thing Carol and I found odd was the juxtaposition of Russian skaters, wearing red, white and blue American flag outfits, playing American disco music, while we were sitting in a tent in Nicaragua. Globalization is occurring and we can't escape it.
Globalization really is what offers us the ability to have a new and better life as expats south of the border. We like the modern conveniences of North America paired with the cost and quality of life advantages we find here. There are several million folks who, like us, know and live this very lifestyle every day. You can, too.
Our company was created, and is dedicated to serving people who are making a decision to explore a life overseas. For instance, we have created a set of 15 questions that anyone considering property ownership outside North America should ask the developer. We’ll send them to you so you can be armed with the information you’ll need to make wise and informed purchasing decisions. Request them at email@example.com
We’ve also created lifestyle budgets complete menus of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners that North Americans traditionally eat. These show the breakdown of cost of living items including utilities, food, a maid, golf membership, taxes, HOA fees, and other miscellaneous items. A high quality lifestyle, at Gran Pacifica including five to six rounds of golf per week, can be had for as little as $1500 per month, per couple. Of course, if you have more, you’ll be able to save and build a legacy for your kids and grandkids. Request the lifestyle budget from firstname.lastname@example.org
ECI is helping folks create a new future with a lower cost of living and a higher quality of life. The Ernst and Young report issued last year states that 60% of US retirees will have to cut back on spending by 24% or more if they don’t want to outlive their assets. What is incredibly satisfying is to show someone that they don’t have to cut back at all, in fact they can have a richer, fuller life here, south of the border and pay a lot less for it. It’s this paradox revealed that brings the greatest joy and satisfaction to everyone involved.
Take a look and see if a life outside North America makes sense for you too. It just might.
Michael K. Cobb
CEO and Chairman