Daniel Ortega was re-elected president of Nicaragua in 2006. He's since been elected for a second consecutive term, in 2011, and sits as Nicaragua's president today.
Those facts worry some folks. Daniel Ortega was the leader of the Sandinistas, the group that ousted the dictator Samoza back in 1979, and the same guy who, then, once in power, confiscated land and redistributed it to the poor. Investors have had concerns about what 21st-century Ortega might get up to.
I don't see today's Ortega as a worry. It's a different world from 1979, and Ortega is a different guy who, in the intervening decades, has come to appreciate what capitalism brings to the party.
Nicaragua has suffered through a century of troubles, including, most recently, both the re-election of the Sandinista icon Ortega and the global downturn that started in 2008. In the wake of these back-to-back events, both investors and tourists became thin on the ground in this country.
Given the volume of traffic today in Granada, Nicaragua's crown jewel colonial city, I think it's safe to say that the tourists have returned full force. The pedestrian street lined with restaurants that extends from Granada's main square toward Lake Nicaragua is crowded with shoppers and diners every afternoon and evening. I don't think this little colonial city has seen as much activity as it is seeing right now at any other time during its almost 500-year history.
It's not only tourists who are feeling comfortable enough to give Nicaragua another chance but investors, too. The property market is returning. Sales are being made at greater rates than at any time since 2008. After more than eight years in office this time, Ortega hasn't made a move against anybody's property. To make the point again, today's Ortega is not 1970s Ortega. Ortega today is the capitalist version of a Sandinista, with an understanding of the importance of personal property rights.
For tourists, Nicaragua is an absolute bargain. The super low cost of everything attracts backpackers, of course, but it also attracts others looking for a high-quality vacation at a bargain price. The country now boasts legitimately four-star hotels that charge nothing like four-star prices. You can stay at the La Gran Francia in Granada, for example, a hotel I'd rate as four stars, for $60 a night, including breakfast and Wi-Fi.
For surfers, Nicaragua is a mecca. This country's Pacific coast serves up some of the best breaks anywhere in the world. Those who make their way to try them out aren't just 20-somethings with shaggy hair and empty pockets. Today's surfer is as often a grown-up guy with a grown-up job and real net worth. He's been surfing since he was in his 20s and sees no reason to stop now just because he's a few decades older. These older surf dudes, with available capital, were an important part of the property boom Nicaragua enjoyed pre-2008 and are back in the country buying again, helping to fuel the return of this market.
For retirees, the attractions are both the long Pacific coast and the very low cost both of living and of beachfront property. Layer on the warm weather, the incredibly friendly Nicaraguans, and the country's recent pensionado residency visa program (the world's cheapest), and you've got the full retiree package.
I see Nicaragua as a top choice for a retiree on a small budget. You could live well in Granada, for example, on $1,200 a month. The minimum wage in Nicaragua is less than $250 per month. A retiree with income of $1,200 is wealthy compared to most locals.
I also, though, see Nicaragua as a top choice for a retiree with a bigger budget who wants to use it to buy a "luxury" retirement. Increasingly, this is possible in this country. There are not only four- and five-star hotels and restaurants now, but international-standard development communities, too, especially along the Pacific coast. You could retire to one of these communities, furnish your new home with custom-made furniture, have a maid, a driver, and a gardener, eat out at high-end restaurants four or five nights a week, take regular weekend trips to explore the country, on a budget of maybe $2,500 per month or less.
Of course, you have to keep this idea in perspective. Nicaragua remains a developing country with limited infrastructure. Even that has improved in recent years, though. It used to be that we said take a look at Nicaragua because it was a much better value than Costa Rica. Costa Rica has always been more expensive, but it used to have better infrastructure and more destinations developed with the foreign retiree and expat in mind.
Today, Nicaragua remains much cheaper than Costa Rica, but its infrastructure has improved. I'd say it's now on par with that in Costa Rica. Considering that real estate prices in Nicaragua are essentially what they were eight or nine years ago for most types of property, the infrastructure improvements make the country an even greater value.