As some of you may know CBS’s long time running reality TV series Survivor has been filming in San Juan del Sur.
For the past 5 months they have been shooting Season 29 — Survivor: San Juan del Sur (Blood vs. Water) and the next unannounced season. Both seasons are “in the can” as they say with the premiere of the first season airing tonight.
For those who don’t know Survivor is a huge production. They brought well over 200 crew members to Nicaragua, and hired as many more once they arrived.
Many of the crew — including the host Jeff Probst — have been regulars at some of our favorite restaurants and bars. And we’ve actually gotten to know and become friends with a few.
Our “Survivor” friend Paul will be leaving Nicaragua in just a couple of days, heading home to reunite with his wife and nine year old son in Thailand. And tonight as Survivor: San Juan del Sur (Blood vs. Water) airs we will bid Paul farewell over some 12 year Flor de Caña at our favorite bar - Republika.
With an investment of just under $50,000, Michelle and Austin Drill are now on their way to making a living…selling bagged dirt in Nicaragua.
The former New Yorkers found a place where they could breathe, the easy-going beach town of San Juan del Sur on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, and a business opportunity whose time had come. Today, after five years, they have a good income that supports a great lifestyle.
“We live very happily and very fully here,” says Michelle. “We have an incredible group of friends that keep our social calendar full and provide endless beach, pool, and play dates. This tight-knit group also doubles as a reliable support system that rivals most families.”
Their original plan was to buy a piece of land and build a house that would serve primarily as an investment and vacation rental property. Who knows…maybe even a place to retire to someday.
But plans have a habit of changing direction.
In the time it took to build their house they realized two things. One was that they were really enjoying living in San Juan del Sur. The other was that they had hit on a method of sustainable construction—using earthbags—that had the potential to become a viable business.
They decided to stay.
Like many Nicaraguan expats, Michelle and Austin’s story starts in the U.S. In 2005, they were feeling the confines of the city. They wanted to live in a place where they could appreciate the outdoors while enjoying a more temperate climate. Initially, they moved west to Santa Monica, California.
Austin worked in real estate finance and development; Michelle was working as a freelance producer on television commercials, music videos, and magazine photo shoots.
They dreamed of finding a house with expansive outdoor living, but nothing in California met their vision. Austin suggested they broaden their search. Michelle was thinking another state, but Austin had his sights set on Central America and made a trip down there.
On his arrival in San Juan del Sur he was immediately taken by the vibrancy and authenticity of the town. He called Michelle to tell her he had found “the place.”
Two weeks after receiving the phone call from her excited husband, she was en-route to Nicaragua to meet him. Austin had a few pieces of land scoped out and was ready to make a deal.
Starting to Build
They purchased the land and then collaborated with their friend and architecture professor, Ezra Ardolino, in designing a house that incorporated solar panels, water catchment, and gray water systems. The plan was to use local wood, palm fronds, and clay tiles. They also wanted to maximize the use of indoor/outdoor space and airflow.
“As construction began we realized that we could have pushed the envelope even further in terms of sustainability…so we started to do some research,” says Michelle.
After much exploration and study of traditional earthen applications for construction, Michelle and Austin wanted to put what they’d learned into practice. They decided to build a second, smaller, house on their land. They set a three-month goal to build a small guest house using earthbags.
“Earthbag construction typically utilizes bags constructed of polypropylene (the
same used for rice) that are easily found in Nicaragua,” explains Austin, who notes this is an ancient construction technique.
“These polypropylene bags act as forms, and are filled with moistened earth that is often excavated during site preparation, thereby lowering the energy and cost associated with the manufacturing and transportation of building materials. The bags are laid, tamped into place, and as the earth dries in its bagged forms, these building blocks become strong and incredibly solid.”
Michelle and Austin had intended to continue on with their careers in the U.S., but a few things occurred during this project that gave pause to their plan.
“While we were building, many neighbors and passers-by stopped to inquire about our ‘bunker’. And once we approached completion, many more asked how much it cost…how long it took to build…and eventually, if we would be interested in building one for them as well,” explains Michelle.
With construction of the home they initially designed complete and the building of their guesthouse well underway, it was time for Michelle and Austin to make a decision. List the house as a vacation rental…or move in?
With the economic market in the States collapsing—and their work there significantly slowing down—Michelle and Austin wondered if they might actually be able to earn a living in Nicaragua in natural building.
“It was a leap of faith, but we both felt the pull of Nicaragua so strongly, we took on a ‘now or never’ mentality. In early 2010 we packed up our lives in California and officially relocated to San Juan del Sur,” says Michelle.
Setting Up Business
Not long after settling in, Michelle and Austin teamed up with local non-profit organizations, such as Comunidad Connect and the Newton/San Juan del Sur Sister City Project, to construct community projects throughout Nicaragua.
“With some alliances formed and a couple of new projects underway, our local bilingual paper ran a story on a school we were building—garnering further interest from the expat community—which led to our very first private client hiring us to build a casita on her land,” explains Michelle.
Austin oversaw all fieldwork. He toiled alongside the crew onsite each day and worked at negotiating rates for material purchases. He also spent time conferring with engineers and electricians. Michelle took care of accounting and payroll.
“We began to grow and realized we needed to legitimatize our company. A local lawyer assisted us in applying for our Nicaraguan residences, and nearly six months after acquiring the proper paperwork from our own country and submitting it to the government, we received our residence cards,” tells Michelle.
With residence, Michelle and Austin were able to register their company with the town’s mayor’s office. They hired a licensed accountant who was familiar with the intricacies of Nicaraguan labor and tax laws, enrolled all of their employees into Nicaragua’s social security plan, and promoted their trusted crew leader to assist in daily operations.
With an investment of $28,000 for construction of a casita—and an additional $20,000 for a vehicle, tools, web development, and office supplies—Casa de Tierra was officially born.
And now, just a few years later they are starting to see a return on their investment.
Living in a developing country, Michelle and Austin saw firsthand the lack of effective and affordable housing, and believed that natural building had the potential to play a major role in addressing this need. Their goal at this point is to reintroduce environmentally-sound, economically-efficient, and structurally-effective building techniques.
Casa de Tierra uses a wide range of materials and methodologies that emphasize ideas of sustainability, while preserving traditional design concerns of aesthetics, utility, durability, and comfort. The concepts appeal to a variety of clients.
The company works with non-profit organizations on projects to create schools, composting toilets, and health centers in underprivileged areas. It also works with people who are interested in incorporating sustainable techniques into their otherwise conventional homes, as well as landowners who simply seek to build homes at modest prices.
“In recent years, there’s been a big shift in thinking regarding the environment and our social responsibility for it, and that awareness has been a boom to our business,” explains Michelle.
Operating a business in Nicaragua is far less expensive than in North America, but it certainly doesn’t come without challenges. Skilled labor is hard to come by, especially when you are in a business that is new to Nicaragua. On the job training is really the only option.
With the minimum salary for the average construction worker at $244 per month, wages are considerably lower in Nicaragua. Michelle and Austin pay their crew on a sliding scale, rewarding their more experienced and skilled employees for their loyalty.
It is however, important to know that in addition to providing a minimum salary, employers are legally responsible to pay an additional two months’ salary per year per employee. One for vacation pay and one in December as a Christmas bonus. They are also required to pay into a social security fund. Additional employee taxes, fees, etc. equate to approximately 44% increase in the initial base salary.
For Michelle and Austin, life in Nicaragua hasn’t been all business. In 2012 they welcomed a baby boy to their family. Bodhin Drill was born at the Metropolitano Vivian Pellas hospital in Managua where both Michelle and Austin were thoroughly impressed by the quality of health care provided.
Michelle originally had a hard time imagining raising a child in a foreign country without family nearby. But soon after becoming pregnant, she started to connect with a community of expats who were also creating families in San Juan del Sur.
“Our new friends provided us with insight into preferred obstetricians, pediatricians, hospitals, childcare, daycare, and schooling. They also shared their personal experiences on parenting away from ‘home’,” says Michelle.
With Bodhin’s second birthday approaching, he will soon start classes at San Juan del Sur Day School, a private international school located just five minutes from the Drill’s home. The school employs teachers from the U.S., Canada, Ireland, Holland, and New Zealand, and they cater to the dozens of families living in San Juan del Sur.
Currently Casa de Tierra allows Michelle and Austin to earn a modest income, but in Nicaragua “modest” funds a very comfortable lifestyle.
What began as an investment property has turned out to be a whole new way of life. In their initial weeks and months in Nicaragua Michelle and Austin assured each other that if they couldn’t make it work in one year, they’d return to the United States.
“We’re now on year five and have been steadily building our business and rooting our lives here,” says Michelle.
Michelle and Austin have learned starting with a plan is important, but being able to adapt and take full advantage of the opportunities available makes life in Nicaragua that much more exciting and fulfilling.
Author’s Note: This article was written by Gordon and originally published in the August edition of International Living’s Incomes Abroad newsletter.
One of the perks of semi-retirment is the freedom to come and go as we please.
It was Monday. The maid was coming to do her once weekly clean and I wanted to get out of the house. So after a wee bit of discussion Gordon and I agreed to take a little trip…on the motorcycle…with our Miniature Schnauzer Maggie.
We packed a bag, donned our helmets, scooped up Maggie and headed south on our 125 cc Yahama.
After driving an hour over a very rough and bumpy road…right about the time when I felt like my butt couldn’t take one minute more…we finally arrived at our chosen destination – Playa El Ostional.
As I stood ankle deep in the warm water, admiring the view across the ocean to Costa Rica the horrible pain in my butt became a distant memory.
One Toña for Gordon, two for me and a romp on the beach for Maggie and we were ready for some lunch. We could have easily spent the day on the beach, but the sun was hot and our stomachs were growling. We were ready for some shade and something to eat.
Comedor Blanca Rosa turned out to be a great choice for lunch. We feasted on a pargo rojo entero (whole red snapper). The fish was light and flaky, cooked to perfection. The 15 cordobas ($0.60 USD) Victoria Clasica’s we washed it down with complimented the meal very well.
Although El Ostional is only 27 kilometres south of San Juan del Sur it is a place we’ve never been to. No matter how near or far we travel it always feels great to get away and explore someplace new.
If you’re in the San Juan del Sur area and want to get off the beaten path, away from the tourist scene, a trip to Playa El Ostional is definitely worth the the bumpy ride.
The house we are currently renting is for sale!
To view the flyer in full size just click on the image below. If you’d like more information please email us at email@example.com.
It’s always exciting for us to explore a region of Nicaragua we’ve never visited before.
Elisha’s parents were visiting from the East Coast of Canada. It was their forth visit to Nicaragua and they were excited to embark on a new adventure. Word of a newly paved road to the Río San Juan was enough to cement our decision.
The drive to Tipitapa is very familiar to us, as it is on the way to the airport, but this was our first time making the turn east toward the back side of Lake Nicaragua. The newly paved road extending all the way to San Carlos cuts driving time from ten hours to only four.
The port town of San Carlos is located directly on the mouth of the Río San Juan and the shore of Lake Nicaragua. The town itself is unremarkable, and for us, it was just a place to park our truck and catch a ferry down the river.
We parked our truck in the government operated ferry lot. The cost for parking was $2 per day.
There are two ways to travel along the Río San Juan. The fast ferry or the slow boat. We opted for the fast ferry. Our tickets cost $6 per person for the 1.5 hour trip to the town of El Castillo. The slow boat, although nearly half the price, takes twice as long.
Our boat passed by small homesteads with herds of cattle grazing on the river banks. We made a fews stops along the way to drop off passengers and supplies to the homes on the river — a reminder to us that there are no roads in this region and that the river is truly the life blood of the people there.
The hour and a half trip on calm, flat, slow moving waters was both relaxing and exhilarating. We enjoyed the ride down river so much that the slow ferry might be our choice next time.
The charming riverside town of El Castillo
Upon arrival in El Castillo time seemed to slow. We wandered down the main road (which is actually just a wide cobblestone sidewalk) looking for a place to lay our heads for the next couple of nights.
After checking out a handful of places we came to Hotel Victoria.
Hotel Victoria looked grand and we expected the room rates to match. Although rooms in the newly built section of the hotel were in the $60 price range, we were pleasantly surprised to find out that the smaller rooms in the original building were half that.
All rooms at Hotel Victoria are equipped with hot water, AC and TV. Breakfast is also included in the room rate.
Hotel Victoria sits directly on the river’s edge with abundant balcony space and plenty of hammocks and rocking chairs to relax in. From the restaurant you can sit and watch the daily river lifestyle float by.
El Castillo is a small village without any roads or cars. In fact, the town is so small bicycles aren’t even commonplace.
The residents of El Castillo have been neighbors (in the true sense of the word) for generations. Everyone we met was friendly and accepting, in a relaxed way, that didn’t show much fuss. Maggie ran around off leash the entire time we were there. By day two many locals knew her by name and often called her over to visit.
There are few dining options in El Castillo. The best and most popular restaurant is Borders Cafe.
The friendly, flamboyant owner Yamil serves up some of the tastiest pasta dishes we’ve had in Nicaragua. He uses fresh fruits and vegetables grown from his very own garden.
His beers are the coldest I have ever tasted. How Yamil is able to get each bottle of beer completely frosted over without freezing the contents has left me perplexed.
What to see and do on the Río San Juan
On top of the hill overlooking the town and the river sits the Fortress of the Immaculate Conception.
El Castillo de la Inmaculada Concepción was built to protect the waterway against pirates, as well as opposing forces like the British. A self guided tour of the fort costs just a couple of dollars, with $1 extra for cameras. The views alone are worth the price of admission.
Nena Tours is the most popular and well established tour company in town. Fishing, kayaking, canoeing and caiman observation tours are available. Nena Tours also offers overnight camping excursions where you sleep in hammocks over platforms built in the trees.
They have English speaking guides and the tours are very reasonably priced.
Indio Maíz Biological Reserve
Our chosen tour totaled $79 for the four of us, with no extra charge for Maggie. With some locally sourced fruit, snacks and wine we hopped aboard our panga (small boat) with a guide and captain en route to Indio Maíz Biological Reserve.
A few meters up the river we checked in at the park warden’s office where we were greeted by a baby ocelot. This 16-week old rescue cat who had been named Bartola, was already bigger and undoubtedly more fierce than Maggie and tried relentlessly to capture her.
In the reserve you have a chance to see howler, spider and capuchin monkeys, sloths, caiman (small crocodiles) and hundreds of species of birds. Some hikers have even spotted species of wild cats, including jaguars.
On our hike we sampled sap from a tree that was a natural gum and helped with intestinal troubles. We also sampled a plant that is used as a natural anesthetic. Chewing on a tiny bit of leaf made by whole mouth go numb…for nearly twenty minutes.
By the time we returned to our boat we had seen (and tasted) enough of the rainforest. Sticky with sweat we were ready for some refreshment and a cool off. As we headed towards the swimming hole we spotted a couple of caiman floating in the river.
100 meters around the bend is where we came to a stop.
We looked at each other with trepidation. Swimmng in the river…with caiman so close?
Too hot and thirsty to worry much about personal safety, and a guide’s promise to keep watch, we waded into the water with plastic cups full of wine.
For many visitors of the Río San Juan the big draw is the world class fishing. There are a handful of lodges on the river that specialize in trophy fishing for the huge tarpon and snook that are prevalent in the waters there.
Fishing regulations on this river are well policed, so if you plan on fishing on the Río San Juan it’s important to book your excursion a week to a few days in advance to allow time for your guide to secure the necessary permits.
El Castillo is a quaint little town that makes you feel at home within minutes of stepping off the boat. The region has the infrastructure for tourism, but it really hasn’t arrived yet. The locals are not jaded or opportunistic when dealing with visitors. They are truly welcoming — which is one of the reasons we can’t wait to return.
Planning a trip to the Pacific coast of Nicaragua? We highly recommend The Insider Guide to San Juan del Sur.
Our friend Brooke Rundle (with Claudia Gonella) has just published this content packed 180-page travel guide all about San Juan del Sur.
From now to September 5th The Insider Guide to San Juan del Sur is available to purchase online for just $4.70, which is 40% off the cover price. A 30-day money back guarantee comes with the book, but we guarantee you won’t need it.
This informative and inspiring guidebook will be available on Amazon soon…but for 2 times the price…so buy it now!
Munchies Bluues is a very successful pizza restaurant where reservations are required and often need to be made days in advance. Through careful observation we have compiled a top ten list of DOs and DON’Ts to follow if you want to make it as a restauranteur in San Juan del Sur.
1. DO specialize in one food. If you serve pizza don’t offer other Italian options like pasta.
2. DON’T allow menu substitutions. If someone makes a request for something silly like Hawaiian pizza simply ask them to leave.
3. DON’T take walk in traffic and DON’T do takeout. Reservations only!
4. DON’T worry about location, location, location. It doesn’t matter so DO set up in a remote location…like in the jungle…20 minutes from town…nowhere near a public transit route.
5. DON’T worry about signage. If you aren’t cool enough to be in the know, then you aren’t cool enough to go. That same adage applies to the phone number needed to make a reservation.
6. DON’T have staff. Customers can learn to write their own kitchen tickets, serve themselves beverages and tabulate their own bill at the end of the night.
7. DON’T over-extend yourself. Opening three nights a week is more than enough. Opening for lunch is for losers. 6:30 PM until everyone is fed and watered is the recipe for success!
8. DON’T advertise on Facebook or in local newspapers. And DON’T worry about a website. Word of mouth is all you need although there seems to be no way to avoid that pesky Trip Advisor from finding you.
9. DON’T take shit from anyone! The customer is NOT always right. And if people refer to you as the Pizza Nazi wear the title like a badge of honour.
10. And last, but certainly not least, DO serve the best authentic, thin crust, wood oven pizza in Central America!
Although items 1 through 9 seem counter intuitive this business model not only works, but has stood the test of time for long time resident Nicaraguan expat Sergio.
Roman native Sergio Tarantini offers only the best ingredients served in the traditional way. He is a unique individual and restauranteur who loves to entertain in the kitchen. With his eclectic song selection pumping through the speakers (all of which are pointed towards him) he dances while spinning pizza crusts in the air.
Sergio’s is a place to hang out with old friends and make new ones while sipping wine, feasting on delicious pizza and enjoying a night away from the hustle of San Juan del Sur. It’s a dining experience must for travelers in the San Juan del Sur area and a great meeting place for expats.
We are feeling charitable today so we will provide Sergio’s phone number 8814-8530, but you’ll have to figure out where it is located on your own. Refer to item number five in the list.
As Gordon and I prepared for our move to Nicaragua two and a half years ago I tried to envision what life would be like. I knew it would be different. I knew there would be challenges, but looking back I realize there were a lot of things I hadn’t “really” thought about.
In this article I will describe 5 challenges I faced as part of becoming a Nicaraguan expat.
LIVING ON A BUDGET
“What do you mean I can’t buy a bottle of wine to give to our friends who have invited us over for dinner?”
Prior to moving to Nicaragua the word “budget” wasn’t really part of my vocabulary. Gordon and I were far from what you would call wealthy, but if either of us wanted something we bought it. I rarely looked at prices when I was grocery shopping and whether it was clothes, cosmetics or over-priced Starbucks coffee I consumed a lot!
Now that we have a monthly budget of $1400 USD we actually have to pay attention to how much money we are spending on a daily basis. We can’t always partake in all the activities we would like to. And we definitely don’t buy things we don’t really need.
Over time I’ve become comfortable in our spending and realized that being on a budget isn’t all that bad.
Coming from Canada I knew it would take time to get acclimated to the heat in Nicaragua, but what I hadn’t thought about was the fact that we wouldn’t be living with air conditioning. For us time at the beach isn’t followed by afternoon siestas in a chilly air-conditioned room…and that’s because electricity in Nicaragua is expensive.
For example: If we used air conditioning an average of 8 hours a day we would have to pay at least $150 USD for electricity each month. When you consider over ten percent of your budget could go to paying for electricity (i.e. air conditioning) it really changes your perspective.
We currently live in San Juan del Sur where daytime highs average between 28ºC – 34ºC. Average lows only drop to between 18ºC – 24ºC, but sleeping with a fan at the foot of the bed, taking cool showers before hitting the sack and only turning the air conditioner on for a few hours a night in the hottest months of April and May works for us.
Forewarning: If you are someone who isn’t prepared to live without air conditioning you’ll definitely need to add extra into your budget for electricity.
Whether it’s barking dogs, announcements blaring from loud speakers on a truck, roosters crowing, firecrackers going off or bad karaoke coming from your neighbour’s house noise is everywhere in Nicaragua — and it’s hard to escape — especially if you live in town.
Having a set of earplugs nearby at night helps, but if you’re someone who can’t live with a lot of noise I definitely recommend living out of town. You still won’t be able to escape the odd rooster, random barking dog or troupe of early rising howler monkeys, but life will definitely be more tranquil.
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE
Typically when you’re vacationing in a destination where you don’t speak the language it’s pretty easy to get by. Besides good food and drink — which in a pinch you can obtain by pointing to — what more does one need? Maybe directions to the beach? Generally there is little need for a common language.
This is definitely not the case when you are living in a place where you don’t speak the language and need rent an apartment, buy a cell phone or get your truck repaired. Not speaking Spanish made completing these tasks (and others) nearly insurmountable, but somehow we managed.
Learning the language has definitely made day to day life in Nicaragua easier.
Going from working full time and having a relatively busy social calendar to being unemployed with no friends was a change that definitely took some time to adjust to. My wish of having nothing to do all day came true, but I quickly learned that having nothing to do all day is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Since moving to Nicaragua I’ve learned that I am happiest and most content when I am participating in meaningful work or activities. Whether it’s helping out at Bar Republika, volunteering with local organizations like Comunidad Connect or meeting with a concierge client incorporating, structured activities into my life works better for me.
It took some time, but my circle of friends has grown and now my social life competes for time with my other activities. I’ve found balance and life is good!
In summary Gordon and I quickly learned that living as an expat in your favourite holiday destination is very different than being a traveler there. Life doesn’t suddenly become a vacation just because you move somewhere warm and tropical.
Admittedly, in the beginning I really struggled with some of the changes and challenges life in Nicaragua presented. Gordon on the other hand settled into semi-retirement and life in a new country with relative ease…which seems to be the way with most expat couples we have met here.
All in all I have no regrets with making the move to Nicaragua. There have been many foreseen and unforeseen challenges along the way, but that is life in general. In my opinion overcoming challenges is rewarding and fulfilling no matter where you live. Expecting the unexpected is good advice and certainly holds true in Nicaragua.