Nicaragua vs. Costa Rica
I wasn't sure this article was on topic but I have had so many people ask me for the comparision--that is, people who are considering a move--that I decided to go for it. This is opinion based on two years in Costa Rica and just a few weeks in Nicaragua. Feel free to point out where I am wacko.
My slant is that I have never been in Managua and try to never be in San Jose. I also don't want to live in a "gringo compound". My interest is in living where the locals live.
First, the similarities. I have found the people to be friendly and helpful in both countries. That is, if you are lost of looking for something they tolerate your poor Spanish and will really go out of their way to help you. Sure, there will always be some jerk somewhere but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
Public transport is also very similar. That is, there is an assortment of newer buses, old school buses and such. They are inexpensive to take and seem to go virtually everywhere. The major difference is that in Nicaragua they were smart enough to create bus stops where the bus can get out of the main traffic lane to pick up and let off passengers.
I also see real similarites in housing. There is more brick used in Nicaragua (locally made) whereas cement block is more common in Costa Rica but the homes tend to have small rooms and outdoor space is used for living. The main differnece is that many more rural houses in Costa Rica have cars parked in front than in Costa Rica.Driving
Mild-mannered Ticos turn into lunatics when in a car. They pass on blind curves, have to beat you to the next light, cut in everywhere and try to run over every human being, dog or cat in the street. Sorry to say this but it is absolutely true. IN addition, there are too many cars for the available roads and parking spaces in the cities.
Nicaragua is so different. First, there are just less cars per capita so the car problem is reduced. For example, in Estelí I parked on the street next to a bank (there are three banks on one cornner) in the middle of the afternoon. In Alajuela which has a similar population, you would have trouble weaving past the illegially parked vehicles just to get to a parking lot a few blocks away from the bank.
More important, it seems that pedestrians actually have some rights. Or, at least some respect. I found myself jumping out of the way of an oncoming car in Estelí just to have the car stop and wave we across in front of him. I would use the Seattle vs. Boston comparision for anyone familiar with those two cities.
There are more paved roads in Costa Rica but there are a lot more cars. The result is that the roads are much more crowded and the road surfaces tend to have more potholes that Seattle. Well, actually, it is about the same number as Seattle but in Costa Rica it is not uncommon for a pothole to be from 1 to 5 feet deep.Dress
Ticos (and, more important, Ticas) consider themselves snappy dressers. I see my gardener put on his best shirt and pants, shine his shoes and slick down his hair in order to go into town to pay his water bill. But, in many cases, I find the dress amusing. For example, it seems that wearing a bra two sizes too small is a fashion statement as is wearing a red bra under a blue blouse or a bra with straps under a strapless top. Also, for women, an exposed navel is almost a requirement. This really struck home when I saw an evening gown competition in a beauty pagent and the representative from Costa Rica had an evening gown that exposed her navel.
The only cities in Nicaragua I spent a reasonable amount of time in are Rivas, Matagalpa and Estelí. In all three cities I saw what I would call more normal dress. That is, poor people had clean but worn clothes on and those with more money had nicer clothes. But, they just looked like clothes.Prices
In either country, imported goods are expensive. Ok, let me qualify that. If the product is imported from the U.S. or Europe it will be as expensive as at the source plus shipping and duty. No surprise there. There are, however, importers of goods from China, for example, that have reasonable prices. For example, a compact flouresent light bulb made in China but imported into the U.S. and put in a box that says GE might cost $10 but, in CR or Nicaragua, a similar product imported directly from China might only cost $2.
In either country you can also go into a supermarket and see marked up prices. The real win is if you can buy directly from the producer. Locally grown fruit and vegetables cost close to nothing in either country.
Labor costs are a big difference. I pay my maid 500 colones/hour which is about $1.20. I friend of mine in Nicaragua says that is about what he pays his maid per day. An example I offered on the Nicaragua Living list a while back had to do with someone who wanted a table cloth. Well, what you might be looking for in a plastic package with a label will be expensive if you can find it. However, if you think of a table cloth as a piece of fabric, cut to the size of your table and with the edges hemmed, you can see how adding $1.25 hour in Costa Rica or $1.25/day in Nicaragua to produce that product can make a big difference.
One final note. The biggest difference I see is that Costa Rica has been marketed a lot, Nicaragua has not. Thus, you see ads telling you that you can stay at the Hampton Inn in Costa Rica for only $70/night and that sounds like a real bargain. On the other hand, if you shop locally, you might find a perfectly good room in the same area in Costa Rica for $25 or in Nicaragua for $10.