What We Eat
After writing my blog Cost of Living in San Juan del Sur, I realized we spend a lot of money on groceries. Although food here can be quite affordable if you eat only local fruits & vegetables, eggs, rice & beans, and Nica cheese, my family demands more of a variety and a lot of protein.
Shopping can be quite a chore in Nicaragua because to get the freshest ingredients you have to go to several stores. I do a meal plan every week and attempt to get all the grocery shopping done on one day. I go to the main grocery store (Palí), a bakery (panadería) for bread, the fish market (Acopio), the vegetable market (el mercado), and a store that sells “Gringo” items aka ingredients not found in typical Nicaraguan food (Miscelanea Sanchez).
It is expected to offer your domestic help lunch if they work during lunch hours, so we feed our house cleaner, Juanita, lunch 6 days per week. Most of these days, she also prepares the meal and we are able to sit down as a family and eat lunch together…even during the work week.
There are a few grocery items that I use regularly that I notice are quite a bit more expensive than in the United States. (*US prices from Walmart.com)
|Item||Cost in Nicaragua||Cost in USA|
|Soy Sauce 15 fl oz||$4.92||$2.28|
|Rice Vinegar 20 oz||$6.44||$2.41|
|Sesame Oil 218 ml||$8.14||$4.15|
|Olive Oil 25.5 oz||$8.64||$5.74|
|Jif Peanut Butter 16 oz||$5.93||$2.48|
|Cheddar Cheese 32 oz||$10||$6.47|
|Hunts Traditional Tomato Sauce||$2.54||$1|
When we first moved to San Juan del Sur I found cooking to be very frustrating because there were always ingredients on the recipes I found that were unavailable here. Then I discovered a Facebook group that was created for people here to share their recipes and often explain where to find the obscure ingredients or what was used as a substitute. This changed everything! Listed below are a couple of the meals we ate recently with links to the recipe if I used one.
Eggs and toast
Bagels & Cheese
Spicy Peanut Noodle and Pasta Salad
Chicken Breast Wraps
Shredded Beef with Rice
Chicken Breast with Rice & Beans and Cabbage Salad
Ground Beef Tacos
Fried Chicken with Rice & Beans and Cabbage Salad
Coconut Kale with Roasted Fish and Coconut Rice (substituted a white fish instead of salmon)
Curried Lentil Soup
Spaghetti alla Carbonara
Caramelized Pork Tacos with Pineapple Salsa
Parmesan Chicken & Pasta
Pork Fried Rice
Kale & Butternut Squash Lasagna
Creamy Lemon Parmesan Chicken (substituted lime and lemon essential oil)
Brown Sugar Glazed Pork Chops & Pureed Cauliflower
I tried to carefully keep track of all our expenses this past April. I did not include the expenses incurred from building our house including the cost for our monthly daytime laborer and nighttime watchman.
|Storage Unit in USA||$232|
|House cleaner with insurance||$290|
|Gym Membership & Boxing Classes||$100|
|Escuela Adelante Preschool||$100|
|San Juan del Sur Day School||$300|
|Ballet Lessons (5 classes)||$40|
|Dentist - Cleanings for whole family||$140|
|ATM Withdrawal Fees||$35|
|Vacation to Puerto Sandino||$200|
Trials and Errors of Construction
The first part of our construction went surprisingly well. We live down the street from where we are building, so we were able to check out the progress on our home daily. We were often surprised at how knowledgeable our contractor was and we started to stop second guessing him. Maybe this was our demise, but we’ve never built a house before, so some of the things we are finding that were done incorrectly is stuff we would have never thought to research.
Polished Concrete Floors
It all started here. We had been in search of someone able to make a smooth concrete floor for us when our contractor told us he knew how to do it and gave us a great price for the job. The next day when we went by the property he was already pouring half of the main room in an L shape. My husband, Kharron, had done some research and knew we needed metal within the concrete so that it wouldn’t have cracks. We were immediately worried that there was no rebar below what they had poured. Our contractor assured us there was, but the next day when they were pouring the other half of the main room, Kharron heard the guy assigned to created the wire mesh asking questions about his task. Perhaps there was no metal below the first pour?
When we went out the following day the main room and two of the bedrooms had been completed. There was a very obvious line between the two parts in the main room. Our contractor told us that it was only because of the difference in time of drying, but it wasn’t the color that was the problem. After about a week and all the floor was complete that line began to crack, as well as other parts of the floor. The cracks were small, and only surface level, but my fear is that people would see the cracks and think that they were a foundation problem.
We brought our friend who is a contractor out to see our progress and he immediately told us that our floor was done incorrectly. It was a very windy day and some of the gusts would lift our zinc roof up slightly. After further inspection our friend told us that a cheaper, thinner roof and beams were used. He explained that it is okay to use those materials, but the beams then need to be closer together. As the zinc moves with the wind, the screws holding it down will loosen. This was pretty upsetting to hear. A leaky roof is not something we want for our future home and rental. We started to film the movement so we could question our contractor, when suddenly he pulled up in his truck. The workers had obviously let him know that someone was looking at his work and that he should come to the property. Our friend and he argued a little and it was decided that we should have a 3rd party engineer come and inspect the construction.
We found someone we felt qualified to assess the work and a price we could afford and are very happy we did. Before we knew it, lines were being cut into our flooring to give it more room to move with the ground and we had decided our type of soil was no place for a smooth cement floor and ceramic tile was a better option. Beams got added to our roof without us having to ask and all of the work the engineer requested was completed.
We had heard that its cheaper and better to break up the finishings of the house to different contractors, so we had hired our initial contractor only to do “grey labor” which includes the floor, walls, roof, sewer, and electrical tubing. We were going to hire someone else to actually wire our home to make sure we had a qualified electrician do the job. After interviewing several Nicaraguans and feeling less than satisfied with their abilities, we found a qualified Gringo to do the work. The Gringo pay rate is out of our budget, so we worked out a deal where we would pay him hourly. In order for him to work less hours, he would teach us how to do each part and make sure it was done correctly after it was completed. Immediately when he, Kharron, and our cuidador started to pull wires through the tubing, they realized that a lot of the tubes were too flimsy and kinked for the wires to be able to be pulled through. Electrical cables got stuck in the tubing underground and the metal wires the contractor had in place to attached the cables to disconnected within the walls. We had to make the decision to either rip up the floor or cut into the walls to install new tubing with cables. We decided up was the best way to go.
We spent weeks redoing the tubing and demolishing our walls so that the electrical was done correctly. Since we had the saw, some of the tubes that came out low on our wall and would be a problem once we did the ceiling, were moved to the correct location as well.
We’ve had a lot of hard lessons so far. Kharron especially learned a lot during this phase. We now know why most of the cement floors we see here in Nicaragua have cracks and that those are only the surface layer. We learned there are different grades of zinc roofing and support beams and it is important to double check once your contractor has purchased these items. We also know what to look for when installing electrical tubing and how electrical wiring works. We still have a ton of projects left, which is why I’m titling this Part I.
Wow, has it been two years already? This last year has really flown by. I remember there being almost painfully slow times in the first year, but that was not the case in the last year. We have a more solid footing in our community, in our friend group, in our work, and in our routine.
Both kids go to school until afternoon, leaving me time to focus on what I want to do. At first with my new found freedom I immersed myself with “work”. I started working as a Project Manager for my husband’s website development company, Señor Coders, I blogged more, and I volunteered more. Then I realized one day, that that’s not what I wanted to be doing with all my free time, I really wanted to get back into exercising regularly. I started going to the gym a couple days a week, we take boxing now a couple days a week, and I run more often. I’ve allowed myself the flexibility to be more spontaneous with my time, like taking a random hula hoop class.
We found a great solution for babysitting, so we feel like we have more freedom to go on impromptu date nights and overnights without the kids. Something that I’ve learned as I watched families return to their home country earlier than planned, is that taking advantage of the inexpensive labor here is important in making Nicaragua manageable. Life here can be more complicated and navigating a third world country is not easy, so not having to worry about cleaning the house or watching the kids full time is not only a luxury, but often times seems like a necessity. Being able to afford help in the home is a major perk of living here and those who do not indulge tend to have a longer list of cons of living in Nicaragua.
I’m more comfortable with our Nicaraguan life style. More at peace with the bumps in the road…. Literally, we drove a few bumpy dirt roads over the weekend and on Sunday night our brakes weren’t working properly. Now used to these types of hiccups, my husband and I discussed our plan of attack. How to get the car in the shop, how to get the kids to and from school, etc. Its a discussion we’ve had many times that used to stress and frustrate me. Now I’m comfortable hailing a cab and I know the best places to catch them and how much I should pay. Some even know me now and know where I live. The kids are used the taxi etiquette of trying to all squeeze on one seat so Mommy only has to pay for one person. My husband, Kharron, knows exactly where our mechanic is located in Rivas, knows the mechanics phone number, understands his Spanish, and knows where to catch a collectivo taxi back to San Juan del Sur. We’re a smooth running, disaster management, machine now.
Of course what’s really marked the last few months of this last year is purchasing property and building a home. This leap of fate has tied us further to Nicaragua, expanded our Spanish vocabulary, and brought a huge challenge into our relationship. Everything from setting up a Solo 401k, to looking for property, designing our home, finding a contractor, digging a well, and now construction, has been arduous. Often I feel overwhelmed and under qualified. I push on, making decisions on things I know nothing about and trusting that Kharron’s online research & my gut feeling yields the right results.
To be honest, we bit off more than we can chew and our finances are thin. We used all of our retirement funds to build the shell of the house, but now we have to use our own monthly income to finish the inside and landscaping. Our plan is to make the house livable as soon as possible and use the money we will save on rent to finish the house. I am not looking forward to the stress of living with no closets or cabinets and a construction site for a front yard, but the payoff should be worth the misery. It will be a humbling experience for the whole family and reinforce some life lessons that were part of the goal of moving here. Learning to live with less.
Mostly because of the slow finishing of the house, we decided to stay an extra year in Nicaragua. We had planned on moving back this July, but now we will use the next year to complete our home to a rentable standard, decide on a career for me, and work on making Señor Coders a viable business that can sustain us in the United States. I feel a bit bittersweet with this decision. I do not feel like I am finished with my life in Nicaragua, there is still so much I want to see, learn, and accomplish. I want Titus to be old enough to remember his life here and the people who cared for him. We had a rich life in California and I do miss it. I still miss my friends and our neighborhoods and the weekly get-togethers with people I love and who love me. I was foolish to think I would make the same close relationships with people here as I have in the US. Those types of bonds take time, more time than I will have in this country.
“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.”
-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
So onto and into the third year we go, ready to be stretched and forever changed.
Its getting HOT here, so my husband, Kharron, and I finally decided to try the “helados” (ice cream) that people sell out of their homes. The flavor choices today were passion fruit, cocoa, peanut butter, and coconut. I chose cocoa and Kharron got passion fruit. We were both pleasantly surprised by the abundance of flavor. Like a lot of the bagged food here, we bit a small hole in one of the bottom corners and squeezed out bites of the sweet, cool substance with our teeth. Conveniently there is a home selling these right around the corner from the office, and at $.20 each I think this is going to become a daily afternoon ritual.
I’m not travel agent, but after 2 years of living in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua I’ve had my fair share of friends and family come visit. My husband and I blundered the itineraries of the first couple visitors by planning extraordinary adventures for them to conquer while on their 1 week vacation away from grind of North America. Turns out, people go on vacation to mostly relax! Lesson learned, we now have perfected the best course of action to crush Nicaragua from an San Juan del Sur base.
Day 1: Take in paradise
We’ve learned that when coming to San Juan del Sur, what everyone really wants to see is a beautiful beach. The most beautiful beach, maybe in all of Nicaragua is arguably, Playa Hermosa. For a $3 entrance fee, this beach comes with palapas equipped with hammocks and tables & chairs, bathrooms, fresh water showers, surfboard or boogie board rentals, spa services, horseback riding, and of course a restaurant and bar. It’s easy to spend the day on this massive white sandy beach and soak in the tranquility you came for.
For Dinner we usually opt for something more lively and take our visitors to the only brewery in town, Cerveceria. Here you can sip on strong beer, order from a American-Style menu, and listen to live music.
Day 2: Enjoy town
San Juan del Sur has a lot of offer and it’s nice to devote a whole day to enjoying downtown. For Breakfast we like to take our friends to our favorite spot, El Gato Negro. The house roasted Nicaraguan coffee always hits the spot. It’s easy to get lost in the mouth watering food descriptions, but you really can’t go wrong with what you order.
After breakfast a stroll on the bay or walk around the shops is a good way to work off your meal. This day is all about leisure and spontaneity, so do what you want. If shopping is what you crave, do it! If having a cocktail excites you, go for it!
We love Villas de Palermo pool & restaurant, so if our visitors are not staying someplace with a pool or feel like going out, then this is the first place we suggest. The food is good, so it’s a great place to soak up some sun and enjoy some lunch with an ocean view.
Happy Hour is a big part of our life and our new favorite spot is The Beach House. Sunsets are always spectacular in San Juan del Sur and this nautical-inspired restaurant is the perfect place to end the day.
Day 3: Get some culture – Granada
Start your day early and grab a quesillo for breakfast on the way, just outside of Catrina. Quesillos are a corn tortilla wrapped around a soft white cheese with cream. If you want, they will add an onion & vinegar based chili. You eat them by ripping a hole in the plastic sandwich bag and chewing pieces out of it, so it’s a great food for on-the-go.
First stop is Isletas de Granada. Drive East through town until you reach the lake, then South until you come to where all the boat tours leave from. There’s a restaurant connected to the boat dock, so if you’re interested in a full meal or a drink before or after your ride, they’ve got you covered. An hour boat ride through the Islets should be no more than $20 for the whole boat. They take you around the small, individually owned islands while you admire the homes. Last stop before you return is Monkey Island where they feed a few bananas to the inhabitants and then you weave your way through the other side of the islands. There’s longer tours where you stop at an island restaurant, but I’ve only done the hour long.
Depending on your mood, Granada has a lot to offer. Horse & buggy tour around the town, tour of the cathedral, Chocolate Museum, A butterfly sanctuary, hanging in the park, or just leisurely strolling through town, stopping in on whatever you fancy.
Our favorite place for lunch The Garden Cafe, not only because it has delicious food, but because they devote 2 whole rooms to the workmanship of local craftspeople and non profits.
We usually head home before dinner because we don’t enjoy driving at night out of town. If you do stay for dinner, Restaurante El Zaguan is a great choice. If you’re too tired to go out or cook, Don Monchis Pizzeria delivers all over San Juan del Sur.
Day 4: Action thriller
Start with a delicious culture experience at the Mercado in town. There are 4 different restaurants to choose from. All are good, so choose the one that has seats available.
Zip Lining, or Canopy Tour as they call it in Central America, if fun and relatively cheap in Nicaragua. Parque de Adventura is our favorite to take visitors because the Polaris ride up the narrow trail is an experience of its own. Once at the top there is a huge platform where you can buy a sandwich and drinks and take in the massive views. There is also a little park for the kids and an iguana sanctuary.
For happy hour, get to the beach between 4pm & 6pm and go to El Timon for $1 appetizers. This place gets over priced outside of happy hour, so walk over to G&G Gourmet for an outstanding meal at affordable prices.
Day 5: Volcano Day
Get a breakfast bagel to-go from Dale Pues and start at Mombacho Volcano where you can take a tour to the top and walk the perimeter or do the coffee tour. The views from here are out of a fairyland, so prepare yourself to be astonished.
Get to Laguna de Apoyo no later than lunch time. All the resorts there charge about $6 to use their facility for the day. They seem to all have kayaks, floating docks, SUP boards, and restaurant with servers. We usually go to Laguna Beach Club, but we hear Monkey Hut and Paradiso Hostel are great as well. Relax, swim, and enjoy the spectacular view of an imploded volcano.
Give yourself at least an hour travel time to get to Volcano Masaya by 5pm. There might be a wait, but you’ll be one of first groups for the night tour and be able to watch the sunset over the active, glowing volcano.
Day 6: Hermosa again
It’s your last day before back to the grind, so why not enjoy a relaxing day on the beach again. Start with a smoothie, or maybe a piña colada and chill. For dinner, the new mediterranean restaurant, Jicaro Garden is a great way to end your vacation. Leave full, happy, and relaxed.
There’s so much to do in Nicaragua beyond what is reachable in a few hours from San Juan del Sur, but most of our friends & family don’t have the ability to take more than a week away. You are still able to get a taste of what Nicaragua has to offer without having to explore the whole country. This itinerary has been tried and true with just enough relaxation, culture, and action to keep you talking about Nicaragua for years to come.
I made a little video of the sights I see on my morning runs.