When I set out to make my first trip to Nicaragua 13 months earlier I had no idea what to expect. Aside from the urging of several people within the publishing and real estate industries with whom I would be dealing upon arriving, there was little to get excited over. Like many who had then and have since prodded me to be careful and peppered me with questions about the country’s instability and rampant turmoil, I was uncertain and questioning my own judgment. This time I knew what to expect, from the length of travel, to the layout of the airport, to the three hour drive to the coast; I was eager to get there and excited at what I would find. After all, it was more than a year since my first trip and surely much had changed since then for the better.
After my first stay at Rancho Santana, the emerging private development on the Pacific coast, I was convinced that for the relatively low cost and potential for future growth, and in spite of the risks involved, investing in a home there was worth pursuing. Dollar for dollar, there were few other places to present such value, least of all among any of the major U.S. cities where for a year-round warm climate and priceless view of the Pacific, you’d likely begin in the neighborhood of half a million and peer upward from there.
I had acted quickly and evidently entered the market early enough so as to be amongst the first such homebuyers to purchase a “casita” before their incremental ascent into the six-figure segment; a price line I was unwilling to cross from the onset. There is, after all, limited homebuilding to take place, in terms of pre-developed homes put up for sale. This says nothing of the several plots of land previously purchased by many a prospector that dug their heels in months before me and can likely already claim two-fisted profits. There are several homes that have sprung up since, and several more expected to appear in the future, at which point those fractional plots of land would fetch innumerable numbers compared to the song they first sold for.
Besides the six-plus hours connecting flight and structural jungle that is Miami International Airport, all of which I chose not to remember prior to my departure (side note – “airbus” is a dead giveaway; next time, I’ll make the upgrade), everything was the same upon my arrival. I had a good feeling from the minute we landed. After nearly twisting my ankle traversing a long flight down to customs accompanied by a too-big for boarding bag from the pleasant lady previously seated to my right and back a row, I palmed the customs agent the customary five bucks–you give them your paperwork, passport and a five spot and go on your merry way–and then searched for my contact from the Hotel Las Mercedes for the short trip across the street. Upon check-in, I was led to my room, dropped my bags, engaged the A/C, rinsed off, and headed for the poolside seating of the restaurant with my complimentary copy of Between The Waves visitor’s magazine, famished and fiending for a cold one. Yes, by this time everything was exactly the way I remembered it.
My ride arrived the next morning and we proceeded to the “Ranch.” In spite of the similarities along the way–the narrow roadways plugged with potholes, the intermittent towns and vacant spaces–I wondered about the possibility of driving there the night before to get a jump on things. And again, as the first time, as great as my ability to steer through tight curves and crowded city streets as well as off-road type terrain, I couldn’t have conceived it.
Managua, the capitol city of Nicaragua, once beleaguered and steadily bustling, is definitely a place I want to spend more time in. Of course there were still a lot of pushcart peddlers for stores and short angle cut-outs for roadways, but there were also real signs of progress from the external widening of the airport itself, to unlikely restaurants and pubs boasting an Italian and Irish authenticity. However, I couldn’t make many distinguishable differences good or bad from the first time besides the widening and paving of soon to be main roadways taking place. So while many areas still remain a struggle to get from point A to B, there is a steady, if slow, progress at improving the city’s drivability which is a good sign of things to come.
I was excited to be there and to see first hand some of the changes taking place now that I was an established homebuyer whose casita was completed and ready to accommodate. While a vacation wrought with plenty of tourist activity in the surrounding towns as well as a relaxing stretch at Santana would have been welcome, being there was more a matter of dotting the “I’s” and crossing the “T’s” to ultimately give my seal of approval that at long last the house was complete and the last several months of e-mail discussions with project management had led to fruition.
Whereas before there was much more room to explore, both the local area, and the opinions of the relative few on-site, there was more stress involved; I was there with an air of skepticism to basically allow myself to be talked into buying. Now it was a done deal, from the Declaration of Covenants from the Homeowners Association, to the insuring process, to the recently signed rental contract, I was there as a homeowner with roughly 1,200 new square feet of space to sit in along with the plenty of sun, surf and sharp landscape. In spite of the new responsibility, there was less stress and more anticipation… more building and more people.
Having recently completed reading Jim Rogers’ Adventure Capitalist, essential for anyone thinking of investing overseas in any capacity, I learned one thing far and above anything else: “When in Rome, talk to the Romans.” While I now consider myself something of an “adventure capitalist”–though I’ve still another 115 countries and some 150,000 miles to cover–I was equally as inquisitive as before, maybe more so now that I had my own stake there… as well as a few lingering reservations. My “Roman” of choice turned out to be a Panamanian driver who took me from my hotel to the ranch, and I wasted little time tapping his brain.
Never previously associating myself with such a title, my mindset was that of a capitalist for sure, having dropped down a sizeable sum to move things along from one year to the next, and so my concerns and second guesses did exist. I’m not wealthy enough to go country to country for first hand accounts on socio-economic conditions and where could I patronize this or that market with millions in pocket money; so my primary purpose was to see what I had to show for my investment and what could it amount to in the future? A conscientious co-worker ensured it would not be my only concern.
The driver, whom I knew from my original expedition a year earlier, was the perfect resource to speak on this agriculturally rich but politically poor country to determine the power the dollar still yields. To be sure, for every dollar returns roughly 15.75 Nicaraguan Cordovas. In the nearby locales, one dollar could purchase a bottle and a half of Gatorade, a pack of smokes, two handfuls of Frito Lay-like snacks, or a smile on the bellhop’s face for carrying your lone bag to your room for the night. Things are significantly “pricier” in the bigger city of Managua, yet still reasonably cheap by comparison: my room for the first night ran me roughly $65 and featured all the expected amenities including the extra bar of facial soap, skin cream and two bottles of spring water. Including that, plus meal, three beers, two skinny feline dinner guests, tax and tip, the total was barely a hundred. Difficult to come by in most other places, and probably not too far off in the distance there.
While the talk last year was of the critical role Enrique Bolanos was going to play in rejuvenating the Nicaraguan economy and continuing to raise the country up from the depths of decimation brought on by many years of man-made (governmental corruption, civil unrest) and natural disasters (Hurricane Mitch), this time around I was hearing more about what the expected new officials aim to do once the old are replaced in the next couple of years–Bolanos’ five-year term is up in 2006. The country is still dependent on foreign aid and debt relief, yet there is ample evidence of Nicaragua’s growing popularity for foreign investors and ex-patriots seeking a change of scenery. Far from the sites and sounds of a London or Tokyo, however, there are still a surprising number of new developments cropping up along the roadways and pasted within the pages of the popular Nicaraguan visitor guide.
The government is continuing to drop a tax exemption lure for foreign investment, particularly in the real estate and tourism industries, and many companies are biting. Companies such as ReMax Metro, a U.S. real estate firm, the Mexican-based American Movil in the up and coming cellular sector, and The Senika Industrial Park, the result of a $50 million investment from a forward-thinking Korean parent geared toward textile manufacturing and electronics. Today, Nicaragua is among the fastest growing tourist and investment destinations in the Central American region.
All of this bodes well for the country and its people, of course, as more and more building takes place, business moves in, jobs are created, and the rest of the world begins to see the abundance of potential offered by Nicaragua’s land and natural resources, and the positive role they can play as the country continues to rebuild itself from the inside out… or outside in as the case may be.
In concluding my last article, I was struck and somewhat disheartened by the living conditions that persisted for many of the people, particularly in the rural regions out toward the coast. For all of the positive progress being made, Nicaragua still remains debt-ridden with one of the lowest per capita incomes and high unemployment rates. Many complete families live in one room, shack-like homes along the side of the road, susceptible to year-round heat and wicked summer storms. Considering its troubled past, one can only hope the government continues to push for progress that sees the promise of producing and promoting from within and the furthering of education and job creation that will stimulate the economy and generate the cash flow that’s been missing all these years. Ultimately, if slowly, the end result will pull a numerable populous from poverty toward prosperity.
While I was pleased on a personal level with the way Rancho Santana was developing for me as an investor, I learned it was becoming more and more popular with tourists and Southern-tip travelers from the U.S. looking for surf on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Families were taking week long getaways to spend at the Ranch as well as the surrounding areas up and in from the coast. There is, in fact, plenty to see and do in the nearby areas in places like the historic city of Granada, former capital of Leon, and San Juan Del Sur, along the Southern coast. There were more than a few excited travelers basing themselves in one of the recently available rental homes at RS–a definite attribute to the care and attention given by the management and their staff once the word got out. And it’s continuing to spread.
In spite of a brief break in the action by way of changing contractors, homes are rising up left and right, pre-planned casitas like mine, and beautiful hillside homes with ocean views. Everything was going according to plan. Rancho Santana was slowly but surely becoming everything it was conceived to be: a beautiful tropical island-like private getaway for investors, vacationers and their families, with additional amenities cropping up in and around its 1,700 acre compound.
As more and more tourism avails and renters and buyers play their roles, more and more acreage becomes fair game for further developing. Recently enacted plans include relocating the stables, installing a new block of office space and on-site housing, a convenience store… “convenience,” particularly that of a modern kind, is about as absurd in this locale as my approaching a day laborer seeking directions to the Lincoln Tunnel. A local medical center was just completed–a free clinic that will serve the inhabitants of both Rancho Santana and the surrounding areas to provide much needed healthcare and security for nearby residents that might otherwise have to trek some 14 miles to Rivas.
At the end of my trip, I felt an overall degree of satisfaction not only that my own interests were secure, but that the developers were giving back to the community in a way that I honestly didn’t conceive of earlier… not that I was overly conscious of it in the first place. Many of the same staff members were still employed in the RS clubhouse and there were plenty of new additions since. The pursuit of progress was indeed outpacing management and its facilities, and expansion was to be seen in all directions.
There was a waiting list of buyers for the next wave of housing due for completion in autumn 2004, and an additional development was being surveyed only minutes up the roadway in the hills. More building, more managers, more workers… more wage earners. Many of whom I came in contact with were satisfied that the developers placed the interests of the people–the native people–well within the context of the foreign investors they hoped to entice. New names, new faces… and not to mention local taxes, which went straight to the municipal government presumably for roadway repair and modernization… neither of which was yet evident as we’re still traveling through an 1860’s South Dakotan trailway in all directions from the first signs of civilization.
However, for every Rancho Santana, where outside and potentially inside, buyers are afforded the opportunity for property and/or home ownership, an opportunity thus exists for the many nearby residents that might spend countless more years wondering about their future, and when, or if, it might arrive for they and their families. I have witnessed first hand, not only my own investment flourishing, but that of the people, granted the opportunity for an enriching education and the ability to earn a genuine income while developing skills to take with them wherever they go. Where governmental accountability lies amongst any of this, however, is anyone’s guess. Most inferences I had made to people about local funding and area improvements were met with shrugs and scowls.
At present time, there were a total of roughly 100 Nicaraguan people employed as a result of Rancho Santana. It’s not a landslide, but it’s a start, and there are more and more developers seeing the potential for property building and pumping fresh blood into the still pale economy. Maybe in time, with foreign investment a foregone conclusion, the government can hammer a tap into the fertile soil to generate a greater degree of self-sustenance to rebuild and revitalize from the resources within. Still acknowledged by many as undiscovered, it may not be long before Nicaragua, long an underdog country counteracting countless conflicts, becomes the new star in town that everyone’s drawn to.
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