FOR many Americans, Nicaragua is still best known for left-wing guerrillas and right-wing strongmen.
But 15 years later, the Central American nation is emerging as a US retirement heaven where inexpensive colonial mansions line Granada’s streets and cheap land surrounds picturesque crater lakes and active volcanoes.
Going south is nothing new for American senior citizens. There are large expatriate communities in Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica. But as the cost of living rises in these areas, Nicaragua, along with Honduras and other nations once on the front line of the Cold War, is becoming the new favourite.
Nicaragua, where an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Americans live, is the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere after Haiti. Though many still associate it with its revolutionary past, according to the Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism, it’s the safest nation in Central America.
A three-course meal at a top restaurant costs as little as 22 for two. An ocean-front, five-bedroom home can sell for 100,800 - a price that has doubled or tripled in the past five years. A full-time maid costs around 50 a month. And it’s even possible to buy an island in the waters of Lake Nicaragua, famed for its freshwater sharks.
"A lot of my family and friends think I’m crazy," said Tony Nowicki, a retired pharmacist who sold his home in Houston and bought land on the outskirts of Granada last year.
However, some are worried the stability will not last. "I’m worried about demographics," said Raymond Lyons, a retired border-patrol agent for the US government, who moved to Nicaragua two years ago. Some 40% of the population is 14 or younger, and the unemployment rate is 11%.
"There are so many young boys sitting around with nothing to do, nothing to lose," he added. "This place is ripe for another revolution."