US seniors go south - way south
The cost of living in the US has retirees heading to former cold war hot spots.
For many Americans, Nicaragua is still best known for left-wing guerrillas and right-wing strongmen. Its tumultuous past was immortalized by P.J. O'Rourke, along with places like Lebanon and communist Poland, in his 1988 book, "Holidays in Hell."Skip to next paragraph
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But 15 years later, this Central American nation is emerging as a US retirement heaven. Inexpensive colonial mansions line Granada's streets. Cheap land surrounds picturesque crater lakes and active volcanoes. And the cost of living is a fraction of what it is in the United States.
Going south - even south of the border - is nothing new for seniors. Americans have long been retiring to expatriate communities in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, and Costa Rica. But as those destinations boom, Nicaragua - as well as Honduras and other nations once considered infernos of the cold war - is becoming a new frontier for today's retirees.
"A lot of my family and friends ... think I'm crazy," says Tony Nowicki, a retired pharmacist who sold his home in Houston and bought land on the outskirts of Granada last year. Here, newly built homes painted pastel orange and turquoise stand next to one-room wooden shacks topped with tin sheets.
Moving abroad is a lifestyle choice for most. As concerns over dwindling social security and soaring healthcare costs grow, many Americans are opting to spend old age in the developing world, to lead a life they otherwise could not afford. But they say there are trade-offs, such as cultural and language barriers, isolation, and living in a place where political stability is fragile.
"You know what stops me from going back?" Mr. Nowicki says. "I'd have to go back to work.... At 62, it's not something you can go back to easily."
Nicaragua, where an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 Americans live, is the second- poorest country in the 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.
Here a three-course meal at a top restaurant costs as little as $40 for two. An ocean-front, five-bedroom home can sell for $180,000 - a price that has doubled or tripled in the past five years. A full-time maid costs around $100 a month. It's even possible to buy an island in the waters of Lake Nicaragua, famed for its freshwater sharks.
Like many of his peers, Howard Cox moved to Nicaragua last year, fleeing the "cost and crime" of Costa Rica, where he had lived for more than 15 years. The number of Americans there has swelled to more than 20,000 in the past decade, which many retirees say has contributed to robbery and fraud.
There are things the father of two longs for in Nicaragua: his grown children, American food, the infrastructure. He tires of the potholes that riddle paths serving as major throughways in most of the country. "And everything is mañana," Mr. Cox sighs.
"I had a great life [in the US]. My kids are there. I wasn't planning on spending my life in this part of the world," says Cox, who moved abroad after a divorce. "But I'm never going back. This is the way a 65-year-old should be living."