Unlike the television show ‘Fantasy Island’, here you will not be greeted by a midget with a cute French accent named ‘Tattoo’, nor Ricardo Montalbon. But there is one place where the spirit of that program lives on… Isla Ometepe, Your Fantasy Island!
Some thirty years ago in the beloved television series, people from all walks of life would travel to that imaginary island to live out their fantasies, albeit for a price… and the price sometimes was very dear. On Isla Ometepe (Ometepe Island), fortunately prices are still low, but there can be a hidden price as well. Like on the original television series, it will be different for everyone.
I think most everyone has their own fantasy of a place where they would like to live. Maybe it would be their own private island with a cast of characters located somewhere distant and little known. On Isla Ometepe there is an open casting call, and people are slowly auditioning for a part on this fantasy island. But the truth here, like in the television program, is that things aren’t always as they first seem. Some ‘parts’ have been cancelled after only one season. In a way this is true for a lot of expat destinations, especially the ones less visited. People come with preconceived ideas and fantasies, and fall in love with the idea of living in a special place where they can create their own reality… Isla Ometepe is such a place!
For those unfamiliar with Ometepe Island, here is a brief summary; in Nicaragua lies what is arguably the 10th largest freshwater lake in the world, Lake Nicaragua. This lake contains Isla Ometepe, 276 sq. kms in size, making it the worlds largest and highest volcanic island on a freshwater lake. It is located 17 km at its closest point to land by ferry from the village of San Jorge near Rivas. Vehicle-handling ferries and smaller lanchas make the one-hour crossing 12 times a day. The latest population estimate is currently about 42,000 of mostly peasant farmers. The temperature is very warm ranging from 26 to 32 Celsius most of the year with a dry season that is accentuated by cooling winds from the lake, especially on the windward (east) side. The wet season lasts from mid-May until sometime in October. The economic activities on the island include farming, ranching, and now eco-tourism. There are medical clinics in the main towns of Moyogalpa on the west side and Altagracia on the east side. Moyogalpa has the dock where most will arrive. When some people see Isla Ometepe as they approach by boat, they are so awed by the surreal site of this figure eight shaped island with its twin volcanoes, they wonder if it isn’t some sort of Jurassic Park!
In 2010 the island was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Preserve and within has varied terrain and microclimates. Monkeys, birds and other wildlife inhabit Ometepe as well, making it a nature lover’s paradise. There are many small hotel-resorts and eateries located strategically throughout the island. Many resources are available on the Internet for tourist information, but my article will try to focus on living here.
I can only imagine that the first visitors in the 16th century must have thought they had found a lost world. The original inhabitants would probably have liked it to remain that way, but instead were pillaged by these pirates and their paradise was lost forever. Things changed very little after that, for hundreds of years since there was no technology available, and hey, it’s an island!
After the Somoza – Sandanista conflicts were finally settled, tourism started to appear slowly. The roads were bad and little transportation was available at first. This has changed and now the road between Moyogalpa and Altagracia is excellent and the other roads around the island are being improved. Although not yet paved, around the Maderas side the plan is to have that completed soon as well. About three years ago, the sparsely occupied Madera side received electrical service, the other half had service already. The government of Nicaragua realizes that tourism and retirement living are some of the best options for income, so places with potential are receiving improvements. Cell phone and Internet service is available in most parts of the island, along with DirecTV that has many English channels. Where landlines haven’t appeared yet, they use cellular-based Internet modems to log on. Most of the tourists still carry backpacks instead of suitcases, but the curious older set has arrived now as well.
Nicaragua is a very economical place to retire and residency is easy to obtain with a pension income requirement of only $600 a month. Three new banks have recently opened and now the number of ATMs has increased to four; this in itself speaks loudly of the future here. Currently there are approximately 100 foreign residents on the island, mainly Canadian and American citizens with a sprinkling of Europeans as well. Not planning on expatriating full time? This would also be a great place to spend the winter. The 90-day tourist visa you receive when entering is easy to renew by making a short turnaround trip to the nearby border with Costa Rica. Because this is easily accomplished in a few hours, there are ‘perpetual tourists’ making their home in Nicaragua. On your way back, you can stop at a good sized supermarket in nearby Rivas, an interesting city where most things including a hospital are available. Going there for a shopping trip and including a lunch is a nice way to spend a day. Add an extra two hours for a journey to Central America’s oldest city, Granada, and you can have a gourmet dinner in beautiful colonial surroundings. Once every couple of months you may want to go to Managua for a change of scenery, visit the new shopping malls complete with cinemas. Costco and other modern supermarkets are located in Managua, so you can stock up on harder to find items.
So now what about the fantasies of the newcomers – has reality dashed their expectations? What would they hope to find, a tranquil, relaxing place? An adventure-filled island with much to learn and explore? Or maybe just a place to hide out per say, escaping from a world now filled with smart phones, greedy people and ignorant politicians. The list goes on and on. The first expats that moved here were a hearty adventurous bunch, and they needed to be since the life here was not easy then. Many things were not available on the island, thus requiring a trip to the ‘mainland’. There still are occasional power outages, water problems and certainly insects and tropical heat. Of course there are ways around all these problems and most people here have learned to be self-sufficient, some even live off the grid. One of the biggest problems can be isolation and boredom for some after all the adventure and struggles of establishing yourself have passed. There isn’t much of a social scene yet and cultural events consist mostly of local fiestas and festivals. You don’t speak Spanish? This could further isolate you, and even if you have a basic knowledge, as the undereducated local population is not the easiest group to test your new Rosetta Stone Spanish on. However this is a great place for people who want to get away from it all. Maybe you would like to start a little organic farm, hobby business, or do other pursuits that you never had the time or place for earlier in life. One also could consider giving back, doing something meaningful and satisfying by volunteering to somehow assist the ever-present needs of the poor. If you can keep busy on your own terms, your fantasy will come to life here.
De plane! de plane! At the beginning of each episode of Fantasy Island, Tattoo would yell from the bell tower announcing the arrival of the next group of visitors to the island. Now the big announcement is the opening of a new airport on the island that will include commercial flights to Managua and Costa Rica. This will mean new opportunities and conveniences for the residents including airfreight and air-evac medical services. Will there be a boom in real estate speculation? My answer to this is that there is plenty of land available, but perhaps some of the best locations may soon be acquired and then demand for the remainder will build slowly. At this time, tourism is very seasonal and it is hard to make ends meet for people who depend on cash flow from some types of businesses. Don’t come here with the idea of making money and you will probably do just fine. The best opportunity I can see would be constructing rental properties since vacancies are low. There are also many fixer-uppers, and with the manpower being only $5 a day for laborers and $10 for skilled workers, this could be profitable. The big money in Nicaragua is currently at the coast; the smart money will be here.
As I said in my opening paragraph, the imaginary caretakers of the island will not be there to greet you, but one of the ‘stars’ of the island would be if you requested. He is Sam Bauer, a bi-lingual, sixty-something American expat from Oregon, who has been on or about the island for the last 11 years. He is currently the only one doing real estate and has a website that you can check to get an idea of what is available, www.sambauernicaproperty.com Sam has the local knowledge you need to buy property safely and learn the location of available resources. He also specializes in overseeing construction projects for people who cannot be there, etc. Having knowledge of who does what, which workers to hire, and where to save money on materials etc. makes Sam your man of choice here. He knows what is hidden and what some people are hiding! I have known him for 20 years.
I have visited Isla Ometepe three times over the last 10 years and have definitely seen a change for the better here. My personal opinion; I think this is a great place for retirement on a budget or with some money creating your own reality! Forget your warm clothes – shorts and sandals are the norm here. This is a place where you can live cheap by a sea on a tropical island, but without saltwater or tides. Once you get yourself established on the island, your expenses will be very low since there is not much to spend money on here. Seeing colorful sunrises almost daily or the full moon rising out of the water on the eastern side here is something to indeed cherish. On the west side the sunsets are spectacular. Enjoy wide-open spaces, no congestion or pollution, a colorful group of locals, a cast of real ‘characters’ for neighbors, and the only limitations will be your imagination! This place is taking off, the new airport is proof! I was so inspired after my last visit I made a short youtube presentation to give an insight not provided by the websites. Please enjoy it, and thanks for reading!
Isla Ometepe, Fantasy Island! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IYTNfoRsA_g
Just remember…This fantasy isn’t for everyone! (Thank God!)