This is my personal blog. Travel, financial and political observations. Notes to myself and my friends. Content development for my monthly newsletter, Porter Stansberry's Investment Advisory (www.stansberryresearch.com).

Sunday, February 26, 2006

What You Can't Buy in Nicaragua

Rancho Santana, Nicaragua
February 25, 2006

The first thing I noticed when I arrived in Managua (Feb 15th) was flat screen televisions.

They were above the baggage claim carousels, in the airport. You might not have looked twice at them. But when I first came to Nicaragua, the airport didn't even have air-conditioning. My first hotel room (the Best Western across the street from the airport) didn't have showerheads. Cold water poured out of a hole in the tile. Very few people had cars. Beggars lined the dirt streets. The whole place seemed more like Beirut circa '83 than a tropical paradise.

And that was only in 1999, seven years ago.
Now there are traffic jams and Mercedes dealers. There are million dollar beachfront homes. And office towers in Managua. Hotels and restaurants. The works. It's becoming, slowly, a nice place.

Best of all, there are still some things in Nica that you can't buy. Which is why I love it. And why I continue to go back.

Most Americans think of Nicaragua as a poor cousin to Castro's Cuba. “Russia with palm trees,” I’ve heard people say. And when I began traveling to the country, their impressions weren't far from the mark.

Americans look at Nica's poverty and wonder -- how can people live this way? My wife’s dog, Jesse, portrays the same attitude after she kills a ground hog. She’s a hunting dog, a vizsla. Dogs like this have been bred for centuries to hunt and kill. To Jesse, it feels like she’s playing. To the ground hog, it feels like Jesse is trying to rip its head from its body. Back broken, bleeding and near death, the ground hog lies motionless. Jesse just looks up at us and wonders why the ground hog doesn’t want to play anymore.

The United States has invaded Nicaragua 13 times in the last 100 years. The last invasion took the form of arming and supplying a band of mercenaries who used terrorist tactics across the country, destroying towns and killing thousands of innocent civilians. These terrorists were Reagan’s “freedom fighters.” The invasion was funded against our own laws using the proceeds from arms sales to Iran. It’s more evidence that the fools who run the post office shouldn't be allowed to own guns, let alone use them around the world. But that's another story. What matters is that ever since Iran-Contra finally focused public opinion on our government’s private war, things in Nicaragua have been much better. Without our support, the Contra’s made peace. The country disarmed. And since then, slowly at first and now more rapidly, the quality of life has been improving.

Nicaragua was a war-torn country until 1989 -- and it shows the scars. But things have changed dramatically in the last seven years. Real estate prices have gone up, in some places, by tenfold. The entire pacific coast is in the midst of a land and development boom.

I spent the last ten days holed up in a villa, over looking the SW Nica coast, about 200 feet above the rocky coast line, with its sublime hidden beaches. At night you could see the Milky Way all the way from the watery horizon, 180 degrees across the sky from the mountains behind me. It was breathtaking. And even prettier in the daylight. The house was surrounded by a dozen different flowering plants, including a few I recognized, like bougainvillea. Planters filled with basil surrounded the pool. There were plantain trees and dozens of other fruit trees in the yard. It smelled like the Garden of Eden.

My friend and publishing partner, Bill Bonner, built the house a few years ago. You can rent it for something like $200 a day (http://www.ranchosantana.com/). Or there's a top shelf hotel, Morgan's Rock, a little further down the coast, if you want more services (http://www.morgansrock.com/). But, it's a bit more expensive.

I've been going down to this part of Nicaragua for years. Originally I went for the surfing. Then I went because some friends and business partners of mine (including Bill Bonner) bought a large ranch and developed the premiere residential community in the country, right here on the coast, where I just happened to love to surf.

This year I didn’t even go surfing, but I still had a great time. Things happen here that don’t and couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world…

We were sitting out by the pool last week, enjoying another day in paradise. It was about 2:00 PM. I was inside talking to the maid, who was cleaning up after lunch. Outside, through a window, I see a Nicaragua boy, probably about 14 years old. Tall and rangy, he looked strong and tough. He was carrying a large netted sack. And even from the kitchen I could see the telltale tentacles of lobsters sticking through the netting. Knowing that he couldn't have gotten into the community through the front door, I figured he must have climbed straight up the cliff behind the house. But he wasn't wearing any shoes.

Later in the week, I met a neighbor, Mike, who has a boat and a compressor set up. We went diving up down the coast, hitting four different spots over about five hours. We got exactly one lobster. But this boy, with only fins and a mask, had found more than two-dozen. Then he'd walked up a 200-foot cliff without any shoes. He was going door to door, hiding from the security guards, selling his fresh catch, which was still dripping and cool from the sea. We bought 11 of his lobsters for dinner that night. We paid $2 each. And gave him a $3 tip.

I don't know of anywhere else in the world you can have an experience like that. But it happens every day in Nicaragua.

This year my wife and I took her parents with us. (Dad's in the pool, left.)

On our first night, before we were familiar with our surroundings, Mom stepped into a rain culvert, badly spraining her ankle. We were walking out to go to dinner at the clubhouse. It was pitch black dark and she never saw it. It was a big, deep hole, about two feet below the level of the sidewalk. It was a nasty fall. She scratched up her foot pretty badly and I know it really hurt. It began to swell instantly.

There's a health clinic for the residents and the local community that the developers helped build, but it was closed by the time we got there. A sprained ankle wasn't serious enough for us to drive to Managua, so we decided to treat it with ice and get it checked out by the doctor at the clinic the next day.

A few minutes later we're sitting at the clubhouse bar, eating and drinking. Mom's got a big bag of ice on her foot. One of the waitresses asks Mom if she can take a look at her ankle. She says her father was the village’s doctor before the clinic came. "I have experience treating this kind of injury." There was something about the obvious compassion in her voice that made it easy to trust her.

Mom took off the ice and the girl sat down, putting Mom's ankle in her lap. She lightly touched and prodded, twisting gently and pushing up and down. Mom winced when it hurt. And told her where it didn't hurt. Then the waitress said, "Your ankle is still dislocated. It will hurt for many days until it heals. Or, if you prefer, I can put it back in its socket. This will hurt. But as soon as I am finished, it will feel much better and you will be able to walk. The swelling will be gone by morning. You won't need to ice it."

If it had been my ankle, I would have said "no way." But the girl and Mom had some kind of immediate bond. Mom said, “Go ahead. Do what you can to help me." Everyone braced for something terrible. But all the girl did was continue massaging Mom's ankle. She did this until Mom relaxed. Then she swiftly pushed Mom's foot as far as it would go, up towards her shin while aligning it carefully exactly in the middle of its side to side positioning. Mom reacted violently, sitting up immediately and putting her head back in obvious pain. She stifled a sharp cry. The whole thing was over in less than 2 seconds. Mom said she could feel her ankle crack back into joint. Much of her pain was gone. Although she walked with a slight limp for the duration of our trip, the swelling never came back.
I'd never seen anything like it. We left a generous tip.

There are so many other things...The fruit stand lady and her adorable little boy, with huge dimples...the former aerospace engineer, Keith, whose restaurant is literally 100 yards from the ocean in the most beautiful Pacific cove you can imagine... The guys selling fish, right off their boats, for $1.00 a pound -- huge dolphin and red snappers... the howler monkeys... the way the breeze roars all day and all night, but lets up a bit in the afternoon...

Yes, the developers are coming. Now there are only about 20 houses at Rancho Santana. Soon there will be hundreds. Most of the Pacific Coast is being developed. In other 10 years, the tranquil beauty, the isolation, the privacy and the naive charm of the people will probably be lost.

See it now.


P.S. -- If you want to go, I highly recommend staying at Rancho Santana with a group of friends or family members. If you’d rather stay at a hotel, in addition to Morgan's Rock, Pelican Eyes (http://www.piedrasyolas.com/) is also very nice. Wherever you stay, make sure to hire a "ponga" (boat) for a day to see the whole coastline. It's stunning and you'll find dozens of beaches you can have all to yourself. American Airlines has non-stop flights from Miami. Continental has direct flights from Houston.

P.P.S. -- If you do go down to Rancho Santana, make sure to look up my friend, Tommy Gordon. He's selling real estate down there now, but even if you're not in the market, there's no one better to show you around. He's the cowboy in the jungle.


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