After traveling to new cities and exotic locations for around three months straight, we needed a settle. When we arrived in Managua Nicaragua on New Years’ eve (2016), and had just said goodbye to my mom after our trip through Costa Rica, we experienced some severe culture shock and homesickness.
We had just arrived in the poorest country of Central America, after all, and Managua’s poverty level was a bit overwhelming at first. Though culture shock is a well-known side effect of expat life, it is very difficult to deal with at times. As soon as New Year’s fireworks erupted all over the city at the stroke of midnight, we were able to take in the moment and calm our emotions a little better.
Our need for a one-month settle was apparent, and we decided on the colonial city of Granada, that in past years had become a more well-known expat destination. We were aware of the growing expat community there, but we weren’t sure how to connect with them. Fortunately, when we found the Vista Mombacho apartments and made our booking, and we were pleased to find it full of other expats. Most of them were years older than us, but we made memorable connections all the same.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF GRANADA
Granada has a colonial feel about it that is clearly becoming more appealing to tourists. The central park is filled with tour groups during the day, wandering backpackers like us, and expats taking haven from the winter months back home. There’s also plenty of expats in Granada that live there permanently.
Our first realization was that though Nicaragua is the poorest country in this region, it is growing in the right direction. Nicaragua (and especially Granada), seemed like Costa Rica would have been economically 20 years ago before tourists started to flock there for seasonal vacations. It was clear that the tourism industry was beginning to boom in Granada, and though great for the economy, we could sense both the positive and the negative side effects of this.
Though the economy was clearly on the rise, we noticed the infrastructure hadn’t quite caught up. Granada is fairly small, and the downtown area traffic was congested in some places. (Still way better than traffic in Mexico though!) Power outages were a regular part of life and seemed to occur every few days, sometimes for 10 minutes and other times for 8 hours. Also, the cleanliness of the streets left something to be desired. There was lots of garbage sometimes, and lots of poop. Bird poop, horse poop, dog poop, cat poop, homeless person poop – you name it, it was on the streets of Granada.
On the plus side, the Nicaraguan people are very friendly. We noticed a bit of a standoffish feeling at first, and sadly, a clear divide between tourists and the locals. However, we quickly learned that smiling, waving, and saying hello in passing immediately brightened their faces. We found that as long as they knew we meant well they were very nice people to be around.
SETTLING INTO DAILY LIFE
Living in Granada was what Scott and I consider our first real experience living abroad. We had never actually lived in an apartment in another country before, with the exception of a few short-term Airbnb’s in Mexico. We are indeed wanderers at heart. Still, it was a pleasant experience being able to find our own style and daily routine in Granada.
We became regulars at a few local bars and restaurants in town – Nectar Bar for $1 tacos and tequila shots for taco Tuesdays, and The Grill House on Fridays where we would meet with the rather large expat crew from Vista Mombacho and around for beer and conversation. There was the Blues Bar right down the street from our place, an excellent local bar in someone’s front yard and the perfect place to chill. We had some rather lively party nights there!
Our favorite local spot though, was a family-owned restaurant called La Frontera. This is where we had the absolute best burgers we have ever tasted, and that’s no joke. They were only $6USD and couldn’t be beat! Besides, how could we not fall in love with a place that gave away free heavy metal calendars with the purchase of a burrito? They also played classic rock music videos on flat screen TVs from YouTube all night, and only the best – Metallica, Santana, Hendrix, and even some Manson and Korn too. It was a really cool place and we definitely recommend it.
Mostly, our days consisted of working on this blog (Wi-Fi and power permitting), and immersing ourselves in the history of Granada and the culture of the Nicaraguan people. We found that Granada has an exceptionally resilient history, and a turbulent one at that. Around 1660, Granada was attacked and occupied by Spanish pirates lead by Henry Morgan. This would be the first pirate attack of three in Granada’s history.
Each time, the city was destroyed, and each time the Nicaraguan people rebuilt. Following this trilogy of pirate invasions and pillages, the brazen William Walker also invaded Granada in the 19th century. He claimed to be a “filibuster”, though he was clearly an imperialist pirate. He conducted a fraudulent election around this time and declared himself president of Nicaragua. Leave it up to Americans to capitalize on everything! In reality, the U.S. government didn’t approve of his tactics, and the Navy extradited him back to the states on two occasions.
It is clear that Granada has an interesting and lengthy history, and also a historic track record of being resilient. The culture is deep, prominent, and proud. During our time there, we fell in love with it. The cultural center downtown had events and happenings nearly every night, and we were especially impressed when we turned the corner one taco Tuesday and found a fire dancer show going on in full swing!
Our daily costs were reasonably low, and it was nice being in a good apartment complex that was a beautifully restored historic building. We had a library, a pool, and a wonderful roof terrace. We also had 24-hour door men at the complex. We became good buddies with our favorite door man, a friendly guy named Juan. We met so many other expats too, and our stay there was very comfortable.
After settling in Granada, we came to realize that one of our most difficult hurdles to overcome was teaching ourselves how to move more slowly. We were faced with our own questionable habits and how to solve them. We were worried that we weren’t doing enough around the area and weren’t so clear on how we would spend our time, and we were finding out what pace made us the happiest.
We became content doing things more “touristy” every once in a while, to fill up recreational time. We wandered often, exploring the outskirts of the central area and we spent a whole day exploring the rather large graveyard in Granada. We visited Volcán Masaya to witness flowing lava in the crater, attended an all-night tree house party in the jungle, and took a historical walking tour to get to know the city. Still, feeling like we should be “seeing” more things since we were indeed traveling was something was we hadn’t anticipated to encounter in expat life. In the end, we held our contentment in high regard and took note of the things that brought us happiness, and we carried on.
MOVING DAY – WHY WE DECIDED NOT TO STAY
Granada taught us many things. When it was time to go, our wandering souls were ready for new adventures. We had a renewed outlook on what our expat life entails, and what our long-term expectations were. We loved our time in Granada, and for us, it was a great place to settle. Even though we loved it, we knew we would probably never end up there permanently.
Tourism has nowhere else to go than up in Granada. Also, we did love the fact that healthcare was cheap and efficient (we had many conversations about this with other expats), but we weren’t fans of the capital city of Managua, which is where most of the care has to come from. Still though, Granada helped us to find our footing in both slow travel and our expat life in general.
It is extremely common for people to visit Granada and never return home again. Seriously, we met over half a dozen people who had done just that! Granada works perfectly for many people looking to go expat, and it is a great place for it. The community is strong, the culture is thick, and living is simple and happy. Our recommendation for potential expats to Nicaragua is – take a long visit there. Explore Granada and the surrounding areas too. Connect with locals and other expats as often as possible. You just may lay your permanent expat roots here, and find your ideal paradise.