I'd be arrested for taking videos while driving in the States... but this is Nicaragua, and I couldn't pass up the opportunity.
Six years ago my husband, Dan, and I lived in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, for six months. We loved almost everything about this little fishing and surfing town on the country's magnificent southern Pacific coast... except the drive from town to the nearby Pan American Highway.
Back in 2007, any time we had to go to the provincial capital of Rivas or up to the national capital of Managua for shopping or business, we had to face a stretch of road that I still have nightmares about. The 10 or so miles of "blacktop" connecting San Juan del Sur to the Pan American Highway should have taken 15 minutes at most to drive, but the percentage of actual road was far outweighed by the incredible number of large, perfectly round potholes that stretched the drive to an exhausting, wheel-spinning, arm-numbing, spine-jarring 45 minutes or more. The potholes were so big, so round, and so perfectly placed to impede progress that we were convinced someone purposely designed the road to make travel in a straight line impossible. In fact, the only sections of this road that lacked potholes were the parts that had gotten so bad that the road had simply been scraped down to its rocky, tire-shredding base.
Which is why, as we approached San Juan del Sur on our latest exploratory trip of Nicaragua, I could not resist taking out my camera and videoing the drive in from the Pan American Highway. As we turned off the highway and onto the road to the coast, we were greeted by an arrow-straight stretch of smooth, perfectly maintained asphalt that went all the way into town.
I probably shouldn't have been surprised. We've been in Nicaragua for a week now, and the infrastructure improvements since we last lived here are obvious. Long stretches of the highway itself from Managua south to Nandaime that used to take hours to traverse because of closures and construction are now just... a pleasant highway. A brutal stretch of road between Granada and the Pan American Highway, once a wheel-bashing trap for the unwary driver, is now a smooth and pleasant sightseeing jaunt. (This will be especially good news for whoever wins the contest we've just learned about... a month-long, all-expense-paid test drive of life in Granada, one of Nicaragua's most beautiful and historic cities. It's a favorite with expats for its stunning architecture and unhurried way of life, and someone who can convince our colleagues at International Living that they deserve to go will win a free month there. You can find out more about that competition here.)
But the road improvements aren't the only ones we've noticed in Nicaragua. Internet is now everywhere, and much more dependable than before. Stores, including big-box stores, seem to have sprung up in every large town, bringing selection to places that never had it. The capital of Managua now has everything you'd expect in a major metropolis and national capital, including world-class health care in several large medical centers and shopping options that leave U.S. and Canadian expats very little to miss from back home.
It seems obvious to us as we drive these improved roads and visit our old haunts around the country that Nicaragua is on the move. And as we talk to friends old and new, one of the reasons for Nicaragua's new attitude becomes clear. With an uncertain global economy that includes rising prices and falling employment options around the world, Nicaragua is looking like a real land of opportunity, and not just to expats. Nicaraguans who have been living and working abroad are coming back in growing numbers, drawn by the beautiful weather and low cost of living of their homeland... and they're bringing the business skills they've learned and the money they've earned back with them.
We've heard of new medical and dental clinics being opened, new car dealerships being launched, new restaurants springing up all over the country... and all started by Nicaraguans coming home, finding the opportunities and business niches that need filling, and using their experience abroad to fill them.
It's all creating an unmistakable buzz of optimism and prosperity in Nicaragua... but it's not overwhelming or obnoxious, and it's not making Nicaragua a less charming or relaxing place. Far from it. In fact, we find San Juan del Sur and Nicaragua in general just as friendly, relaxing and laid-back as they were the last time we lived here.
But beneath all the sun and the surf, the buzz is definitely here. In fact, it reminds me a bit of the pleasant, reassuring hum of good tires on a long stretch of smooth blacktop.