Curious about the cost of short-term living in a beach town in Nicaragua? San Juan del Sur? I certainly was back when I was planning our round the world trip. Even before that!
Now I’ve got the scoop on it. And probably more opinion than you were looking for.
This is unlikely to be a popular post among the San Juan del Sur expat community. I did rely on information from popular bloggers in the area in the years leading up to our RTW trip. In fact, SJDS was on our list because of them. Though at the time, I didn’t realize that everyone was trying to sell me something. Including the bloggers.
I drafted this post while we were wrapping up our one month stay in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua last March. I’m not sure how I forgot to publish it. We really enjoyed our time in SJDS but like many things on our RTW trip, it was not as we expected it to be.
High COLA in a Poor Country
According to the CIA.gov website, Nicaragua is “the poorest country in Central America and the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere”.
Certainly a large proportion of the poorest population is spread throughout rural and remote areas of Nicaragua. This makes it fairly easy to keep your eyes shut and forget that Nicaragua is such a poor country. Although sadly, hiking around the outskirts of San Juan del Sur we did see a great deal of poverty despite the town’s affluence. And expecting a waterfront parkway, we drove through a shanty area in the colonial city of Grenada where hundreds of tin shacks lined the shores of Lago de Nicaragua. Humbling for sure.
San Juan del Sur is a touristy Nicaraguan beach town. It’s a popular destination for Nicaraguans, for expats and for a crazy amount of Canadian tourists. So the cost of living here is skewed by high-priced lodging, real estate (relative), and goods and services. Gringo dollars combined with a pretty affluent local population who benefit from tourism dollars (only if they’re lucky enough to be involved in the business) make San Juan del Sur a high cost of living area (COLA) of Nicaragua.
The prices in San Juan del Sur were certainly not reflective of Nicaragua’s economic position on the world stage. At least not by what gringos are charged for the same goods and services and for the higher end comfort and accommodations they demand.
The Gringo Price Gouge
For sure a lot of things were pretty cheap for this gringo family. But as usual, we were subject to some pretty stupid pricing if we decided to partake. We ended up doing most of our shopping at the Pali grocery store which is owned by the Walmart chain. With no air conditioning and plenty of food shortages, this is where most of the locals shop.
We tried to shop at the local fruit and vegetable vendors, but more often than not we got ‘special’ pricing so we only frequented a few. And we gave up on the butcher because he always rounded up regardless of the fraction of kilos that were being wrapped up for us.
This type of business logic baffles me. I was ready to be a loyal daily customer to any one of these local food markets but instead I gave up on them after just a couple of gringo gouges. Too bad for them.
Loco Expats and Unreasonable Expectations
Since we’re only Somewhat Out There, our beaten path has taken us through plenty of tourist towns with plenty of tourist traps. San Juan del Sur has to have the most expensive restaurant menus we’ve seen on this trip. Most especially if one accounts for economy. Some of the beach-side restaurants had egregious prices. Crazy crazy Manhattan prices at current exchange rates. Some hyperbole there.
Not surprisingly, these restaurants are owned by expats. For expats.
These are rustic palm-roofed feet-in-the-sand beach side restaurants. In Nicaragua! Aside from a glorious sunset, there is nothing special about them except for an over-inflated sense of self.
I surmise that once Happy Hour ($1 USD Tona beer) lubricates their pockets, tourists are happy to pay 700 Cordoba ($22.50 USD) for a simple local dish they could have paid $3 for just down the street.
That, or, like some of our condo neighbours, people are using old exchange rates. It continually amused me. There were some older bachelors staying in one of the four townhomes attached to ours. Cooling off in the plunge pool, we frequently chatted with them. Very nice Canadian guys. They return year after year and stay several weeks. We got a lot of ‘intel’ from them about where to eat. This place for breakfast, ‘only 130 cord for a glass of OJ’. Same for eggs. And coffee. ‘Only a couple of bucks’. 130 Cordoba is NOT a couple bucks. It’s currently $5.34 plus the cost of buying foreign currency. When people use that logic for all their spending, they’re continually spending more than twice the amount they think they are.
With even the Taco Stop displaying an overpriced menu, we ate out only a handful of times. We enjoyed Happy Hour and the amazing sunset at the beach restaurants and then headed a few blocks in for a more reasonably priced and delicious dinner.
We never did find a local for locals Nicaraguan restaurant in San Juan del Sur.
Charge What the Market Will Bear
This one baffles me as well.
It certainly makes more sense at home than here in Nicaraguan expat market. Won’t people spend more when a consumable is more affordable?!?
Take my beloved German bakery here in San Juan del Sur.
100 Cordoba for a baguette. Or a ‘loaf’. Yummy, but just a plain loaf of white bread. At ‘artisan’ prices.
In their defence, the German Bakery does make simply the best cinnamon buns … in the world!
OMGosh. Talk about gooey caramelized yumminess. At 40 Cordoba ($1.64), they’re a rare treat for a local. But IMHO worth saving up for. I don’t even like sweet stuff. But OMGosh yum.
Given the decadence, we split two buns amongst the five of us (somehow I only ever got a 1/4). I can see this ‘unusual’ (for Nicaragua) baked treat being priced as it is. But 100 cord for a loaf of bread?!? That’s $4.29 CDN.
Or you can buy a loaf of worse-than-WonderBread here at the local Pali for 37 to 57 Cordoba depending on sales ($1.51 – $2.34 CDN).
Okay. On to the cost of visiting for one month.
Tourist Card – $10 USD
Visa fees have been quite a significant cost for us on our travels (multiply by five people). Of course, we knew this going into the trip and even debated only going to countries with no Visa requirements for Canadians. That is certainly doable. There are more than enough countries to visit Visa free than we have time to fit them all in. Here is a very handy Wikipedia page that we still use – Visa requirements for Canadian citizens.
Anyway, $10 USD for a tourist card. It’s a cost, so I’m listing it here.
Two bedroom condo rental in San Juan del Sur – $1,167.90 USD (30 Nights)
We don’t need to be in the nicest digs. But we do have some basic esthetics that we prefer to be met. Being value minded, cost is always a factor for us. So is comfort.
Certainly a two bedroom apartment meets our needs. That is, if all five of us are permitted to stay in that size an apartment. Japan was a particular challenge for us which is why we opted not to stay in an apartment there.
We’ve used VRBO.com and HomeAway.com several times over the years. AirBnB was never practical for us. This time, we found the best value on TripAdvisor.com. We had no idea that we could book an apartment directly on their platform. The apartment that we booked had no reviews. So, we were taking a chance that it would be a big dud. And we were going against our habit of renting only a well reviewed accommodation.
San Juan del Sur was a bit of a challenge though. It was a tourist town. With tourist prices. And this led us outside our usual search platforms.
That price in the title up there is on the (very) low-end of two bedroom rentals. You could rent cheaper for a more local abode. But San Juan del Sur is not a place that one could comfortably go without air conditioning at some point during the day. We met a man who was staying down the street from us. His house had no AC and he couldn’t tolerate the nights any longer. So he rented one of the units next to us for three times the price.
We loved the condo. It was short walk to the beach and had amazing views from some pretty nice outdoor spaces.
Electricity is expensive in Nicaragua
We’re convinced that the owner of our vacation rental made an error when he posted rates on the booking engine. Electricity is quite expensive in Nicaragua. I read that several hundred dollars each month would be an easy threshold to reach for electricity if air conditioning is used regularly.
Our rental price included electricity and potable water. Both these amenities were excluded in the rental fees of all the other units. In addition, we ended up booking a 30 night stay instead of a four-week stay because the fee dropped several hundred dollars. The 30 night option no longer reduces the fee.
The in-town property manager had a different idea about what was included in our rental. But the owner stuck to his original description of inclusions without hesitation. In appreciation, we used the a/c judiciously. But we still needed our drinking water replenished almost daily.
Groceries – $820.03 Canadian
I should put some exclamation marks up there. This is almost as much as we spend in Canada each month for our family of five.
For the record, we ate like locals. In season fruits and vegetable since there were no other options. Lots of chicken, beans and rice.
We did splurge on a jar of peanut butter. And lots and lots of bakery bread since the store stuff was blech. But it’s amazing how much five people consume in a day.
27 avocados (28 Cordoba each), 12 bananas (3 Cordoba each), 2 pounds carrots (12 Cordoba/lb), 7 bunches of cilantro (2.76-4.76 Cordoba/bunch), 8 cucumbers (5.50-10 Cordoba), lots of garlic, 17 green peppers (3-6 Cordoba), 9 bunches of lettuce (17 Cordoba), 30 lime (3 Cordoba each), 17 mandarin oranges (2.50 at the Pali or 5 Cordoba at the market), five pounds onion (17 Cordoba/lb), 6 papaya (30 Cordoba), 1 pineapple (14 Cordoba), 25 plantains (3-6 Cordoba each), 6.5 pounds potatoes (16 Cordoba/lb), 2 bunches of radish (14 Cordoba), 21 tomatoes (2-4 cordoba each), 2 huge watermelon (25 cordoba each) – At the time, 10 Cordoba was 40 cents Canadian.
Let’s call it a labour of love. I only did this for Nicaragua. I recorded every single item we bought during our stay. I was curious to see what we were paying for what. And how much it all ended up being.
So that’s our fruits and veggies for a month.
I’m sure no one (but me) is interested in further minutiae. Though I have it if you want it. So I’ll just give some category breakdowns.
Fruit & Vegetable – $86.59
Baked Goods – $165.34
Cheese & Dairy – $164.91
Coffee, juice & milk – $51.90
Beans, crackers & rice – $39.12
Snacks – $35.76
Fish & Meat – $235.58
I can’t help myself. Clearly you need some specifics here. Just skip over if you’re not interested.
Large balls of local cheese that tastes similar to fresh mozzarella were 109 Cordoba. It looks like we went through 15 of those. A carton of 15 eggs was 71 Cordoba. We consumed 18 cartons – wow. Having ice cream was not living like a local. But we had beer. The kids deserve a treat as well. A 5 gallon tub was 130-157 Cordoba. These were a challenge to get home before they melted. One litre of plain yogurt was 51-56 Cordoba. Butter – 32 Cordoba for a stick.
Coffee!? Well, this stuff is a big crop in Nicaragua. We kept our eyes out but could only find good coffee beans for 335 Cordoba for a 2 lb bag. The pre-ground, vacuum packed not very good coffee was 94 Cordoba per pound. Cartons of milk from the shelf (not refrigerated) were 26.86 cordoba. I think they were litre cartons.
Yes, we bought some ice. Apparently I broke down three times. 42 Cordoba for a ten pound bag.
We went to the fish market many times. The catch of the day was 120-140 Cordoba per pound. We enjoyed grouper, red snapper and some unknown fillets that we couldn’t remember the spanish name of for about $5.50 CDN per pound. Fresh ceviche (yum) was 400 Cordoba for 2 kilograms. That’s $17.15 per container. A bit of splurge I guess. But it fed all five of us. And we only did it four times during our stay.
I could go on. But I’ll try sparing you again.
In addition to the groceries, we spent $61.42 on household goods and toiletries. Toilet paper (because you all want to know) was 170 Cordoba for 30 jumbo rolls of pretty good stuff.
Vices – Turns out that beer is too expensive when you buy it in bulk
There is a distribution centre in San Juan del Sur. We read about it before our arrival. A bottle of the local Tona beer sets you back 18.67 cordoba (or $0.80 Canadian). Not bad. You do have to leave a 6.25 cordoba (27 cents) deposit for the bottle but it was refundable without a hassle.
As you may have guessed, we dropped 300 Cordoba on bottle deposit and transported 96 bottles of beer to the condo. We had a car rental but they deliver for free.
It didn’t take long before I asked Rob what happened to all the beer. Turns out that it is much more economical (for us at least) to buy beer at the local convenience store where a 356 ml can is 26 Cordoba ($1.11). Our overall beer expenditure went down considerably after that.
More to Come
I still have lots more to say about San Juan del Sur. But I’ll wrap this post up here. If you made it down this far, thanks for reading.
Car rental (and insurance), transport from Managua to SJDS, dish soap, what’s in the wind here and a bit more superfluous details. Bet you can’t wait.