Opportunity’s Knocking in Leon, Nicaragua

03-Dec-2013

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By Jason Holland

Canadian Andrew Blyth first came to Leon, Nicaragua, seven years ago to look after some properties his parents had purchased. The family had visited back in 2003 and fallen in love with the city. “Their eventual goal is to retire down here and open a bed and breakfast,” explains Andrew.

But Andrew, who’s settled down with his Nicaraguan wife and three kids, found an area ripe with opportunity to serve the growing tourist and expat market—as well as locals—and decided to start his own business. Opened in December 2010, his restaurant, called El Desayunazo, specializes in breakfast.

He offers the Nicaraguan staples like rice, beans, and plantains, as well as more North American-style fare like pancakes. Nicas eat early, before work. Travelers and expats come in later.

El Desayunazo fills a gap in a restaurant scene that ranges from the simple comedor, which serves traditional Nicaraguan dishes, and used to be the only game in town, to today’s variety of international cuisine, including sushi, Spanish tapas, American burgers, and more.

“There was a hole there. There was no place to get good bacon and eggs,” says Andrew, who explains that there are many other opportunities in Leon for quick-thinking entrepreneurs. “There’s still very little here. So anybody who has a big idea— it’ll work.”

His investment of $5,000 got things off the ground. And although there were some struggles in the beginning—he had no previous restaurant experience and the local bureaucracy proved tough to navigate until he hired a local accountant—his business has taken off.

Operating expenses are very low. He uses a mix of local suppliers for fruits and veggies, as well as purveyors based in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, for imported items—you can’t have pancakes without maple syrup. He pays very little in taxes, about $90 a month.

“It would have been impossible for me to do this in Canada,” says Andrew.

He more than supports himself and his family. It helps that the cost of living in Nicaragua is low. The cheap living, combined with tropical weather and friendly people, has been a big draw for tourists and expats to Nicaragua in recent years.

“I’ve seen a dramatic increase in tourists this year. Before it used to be mostly backpackers, and there are still a lot of them. But now we have more families with young children and retirees,” says Andrew. “There are also a lot of people who come here for a few months to learn Spanish. Sometimes they end up staying.”

The sprawling modern city, population around 200,000, surrounds a historic center filled with colonial buildings, from government offices to homes to what seems like a church on every other block.

Many of the grand old homes, where nobles and rich merchants lived, have red-tile roofs, vividly-painted exterior walls, and interior courtyards surrounded by open air living areas.

“It’s really cool because I come from Canada where the houses are very sealed. Now I wake up in the morning and sometimes there are birds in my room,” says Andrew, who lives next to a church in what used to be a bishop’s residence.

Leon recalls Nicaragua’s better-known colonial city of Granada. But where that city has become a well-trodden tourist and expat destination, Leon, while growing in reputation, has stayed off the radar of most. As a result, you won’t see many “gringo” faces, though that is changing, says Andrew.

But Leon is far from being overrun, says Andrew. “I still meet people who have lived in Leon for 10 years, and I’ve never seen them before.”

Andrew keeps pretty busy with his business—at least in the mornings. But he has plenty of time to spend with his family. One of their favorite things to do is head to the coastal towns of Las Peñitas and Poneloya to cool off.

“The good thing about Leon is we’re about 20 minutes from the beach,” says Andrew. “And we have a little farm we like to go to with the kids as well.”

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