When friends suggested that we meet up for a few months of remote working in Nicaragua, I initially balked at the idea.
Nicaragua is a de facto one-party state - one of those classic cases where someone came to power democratically and is now clinging on to it in a very undemocratic way. So, my mental image was of a dangerous and unpredictable place where gringos aren't very welcome - like I experienced when I backpacked through Venezuela years ago.
But some research set me right on a few counts. It's the cheapest and second safest country in Latin America (only Uruguay is deemed safer). And there's a sizeable number of immigrants from rich, democratic countries.
So I decided to hold my nose with regards to the politics and give Nicaragua a try, and it turned out to be a good decision. The beaches are lovely, the booze and food relatively cheap, and things function more or less acceptably by third world standards.
For me as an outsider, there were some signs of the authoritarian situation, but these didn't require much nose holding.
In San Juan del Sur, the backpacker-surfing-party town on the southwest coast where we spent most of our time, there was almost no police presence. Until one weekend, when the place was suddenly swarming with police in riot gear, and a navy gunboat dropped anchor in the bay. We asked about it and were told, "Oh, the president's children are in town on holiday."
Some taxi drivers would tell me in a furtive way that they don't like the president and his government. But maybe they were just angling for a tip.
The lines between Party (FSLN - Sandinista National Liberation Front) and State seem to be very much blurred. For example, the livery of the state-run ferry company sports the flag of Nicaragua as well as the red-and-black flag of the FSLN.
The political situation did affect me personally in one way. I bought some shares on the NYSE through my online share trading account, and the next day my access was blocked. It turned out that this was because of the USA's financial sanctions against Nicaragua. I had to email the trading platform proof that I had left Nicaragua (which only happened more than a month later) to get my access reinstated. This made me wonder how the hell do immigrants from the US manage their financial affairs "back home".
Speaking of immigrants. Some of them, as well as some Nicaraguans, seem to suffer from an inferiority complex with regards to neighbouring Costa Rica. Whenever a conversation turned to Costa Rica (as in "So, where are you going next?"), the first thing they would say is, "Oh, Costa Rica is very expensive!" Yes, it is very expensive compared to Nicaragua - not a very high bar. But that's just about the only negative thing one could say about Costa Rica when you compare the two countries. And so they latch onto that.
You know those imaginary fights you sometimes have in your head with imaginary people? (Or maybe that's just me.) I had a bitchy remark ready if an immigrant were to piss me off in a major way, but fortunately this didn't happen in real life. It would have been, "Nicaragua is where gringos come to retire when they can't afford to do so in Costa Rica."
I, too, probably won't be able to afford to retire in Costa Rica, but I will definitely not retire in Nicaragua while the political system is what it is.
Which is a pity, because otherwise I really enjoyed living there for three months.
Selected pool tables of southwestern Nicaragua
Selected sunsets of southwestern Nicaragua