SAN JUAN DEL SUR – The drive to Rancho Santana looks much like it did 15 years ago, when developers first spotted the potential of Nicaragua’s undiscovered Pacific coast.Heading north from the biggest neighboring town, Rivas, the dirt road passes small farms and a handful of modest villages, where curious children are quick to wave to outside visitors.
But once inside the gates, Rancho Santana’s sprawling 2,700 acres offer a glimpse into a rapidly expanding future. A total of 40 homes are now perched on the hillside property, which features stunning ocean views, five private beaches and a helicopter landing pad should anyone grow tired of the bumpy ride in.
While other developments are following close behind, only Rancho Santana can boast that a life of luxury is already here.
“We are the first community on the Nicaraguan Riviera,” said Tom Gordon, the group’s sales manager.
The distinction may not last for long. According to the consulting firm Calvet and Associates, more than 40 developments are sprouting up along the highly regarded stretch of coastline, billed as Nicaragua’s version of the French Riviera. The projects, which vary in size and offerings, start about 50 miles due west of Managua and end near the Costa Rican border.
The fastest-growing section is just outside of San Juan del Sur, a once sleepy fishing town surrounded by jutting ocean cliffs and expansive, white-sand beaches. Some 18 different projects are now competing for buyers’ attention.
“Each has a little different character,” said Steve Snider, a longtime real estate agent who has watched the area quietly transform into a leading tourist and retirement destination.
“There’s something for almost everyone.”
The High End
With its helicopter landing pad and sprinkling of million-dollar homes, Rancho Santana clearly has the very wealthy in mind. There’s currently a clubhouse, oceanfront restaurant and bar, tennis court, two pools and a full-service convenience store on the gated grounds. The developers have also built a medical clinic just in front of the entrance, which is used by both the local community and Rancho Santana residents.
The many restaurants and bars of San Juan del Sur are less than half an hour away. Enough amenities are already in place for several residents to live at Rancho Santana year-round, according to Gordon.
“We are not betting on infrastructure,” he said. “It’s already there.”
Much more is planned for the future, including a trolley service that can transport people around the seven different development sites. The chance to buy an acre lot for $50,000 is running out quickly, but Gordon said there are still plenty of opportunities to buy more expensive property for building luxury homes. Beachfront condos are also in the works.
Despite its exclusive nature, Rancho Santana provides a front-row view of one of the top surfing beaches in the area. On a recent afternoon, several surfers were finishing up their day at the new clubhouse, rehashing stories of six-foot swells. A boat picked up the group and took them back to San Juan del Sur, which is more in line with the typical surfer budget. Residents of Rancho Santana can try their hand at surfing or relax on a secluded beach all to themselves.
“There are not many places where you can find five beaches,” Gordon said.
Just down the road from Rancho Santana is another exclusive development, which matches surfing with the more traditional retirement sport of golf. The new course has only five holes at this point, but it is the first and only functioning golf course on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. Late in the day, golfers can hear howler monkeys attempting to break their concentration.
“Surfing drives rental property,” said Ollie Fischer of the Vamos group, a Danish company that is developing Iguana Golf and Beach Resort. “But a lot of people also like to play golf.”
Fisher and his two partners believe there is a large market for business-class surfers who don’t want to spend all day in the ocean. A total of six medium-sized condominium complexes are planned for the project, which sits along a flat stretch of farmland wedged between two dramatic cliffs. Private villas are also available.
The prices – a 1,500-square-foot condominium goes for $171,500 – are among the lowest in the area. A golf club membership costs $7,500.
Though less extravagant than its neighbors, the Iguana development features a broad, soft stretch of white-sand beach that runs one and a half miles long. Residents can surf right in front of their villas, or head north or south to catch even bigger breaks.
Fisher said they expect to finish 30 homes and condominiums by the beginning of next year.
Among the most imaginative neighboring developments is ArenasBay, run by Armel González, a prominent Nicaraguan developer. The cornerstone of the project resembles a well-fashioned series of tree houses – some 34 homes are to be propped up on steep cliffs that circle a small inlet and private beach.
The various designs call for construction to be above the tree line, providing a clear view of the ocean and surrounding coast. A wooden boardwalk will connect the entire complex, and will be wide enough for golf carts, the preferred transportation for getting to the clubhouse, restaurant and spa.
The first homes should be up and running in the next six months, González said, though buyers can wait three years after buying a lot to build. He has had few troubles selling the properties so far.
“We have a little bit for everyone,” González said.
The new growth outside of San Juan del Sur has even spawned its own highly regarded restaurant, Giant’s Foot, hidden – literally, with no sign on the door and little way to distinguish the eatery from the humble collection of homes – in the small fishing village of Gigante.
“If it’s good enough, people will find me,” said Maria Esperanan, who studied cooking in France and now caters many events in Nicaragua. Her menu is based on whatever the local fishermen catch that day.
“I like it here,” she said. “It’s a very comfortable life.”
The San Juan del Sur area is by no means the only prime beach spot. Several projects are planned farther north. The largest is Gran Pacífica, a fast-moving development that combines modern residential living with the extras of a high-end resort.
A one-hour drive from Managua, the group’s 2,300 acres of oceanfront property will soon hold numerous homes and Miami style condominiums, along with a 27-hole golf course and a five-star hotel. Having fixed the main road to the entrance of the development, the emerging neighborhood now has sidewalks, plenty of construction and the outlines of several golf fairways.
“The reality is here,” said Mike Cobb, Gran Pacífica’s leading visionary. “In three years, this will be a city.”
A number of projects are still only in the planning stages, but the diversity of plans offer a wide range of choices for prospective buyers. Some developments, such as Montecristo, follow along the same lines as Gran Pacífica in trying to create a new community, complete with a golf course and European-themed beachfront villas.
Others, such as Las Fincas de Escamequita, attempt to blend in with the natural environment.Houses there must be kept to a certain size, and the group plans to plant 45,000 trees on its private reserve.
A new coastal highway, on which construction is scheduled to start next August, will better connect the various developments.
The Pacific coast is not for everyone just yet; the large, gated projects are relatively isolated, and no now matter how hard developers try to recreate a sense of community, some visitors find them too cut off from the rest of Nicaragua.
But for striking views, good deals, and now the modern comforts and activities of home, the vast Pacific coast is finally attracting attention.
“The Nicaraguan Riviera has the most beautiful beaches and charm,” said Joe Rosko of International Living, one the first groups to recognize the country’s development appeal. “It’s what we’ve all been waiting for.”