San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Masaya: More Than Just an Artisan Market

MASAYA – El Malecón, the windswept boardwalk that peers out over the yawning Masaya lagoon at the foot of the burping Santiago crater, will see $1 million in investment over the next three years as part of a facelift to make this city’s famous lookout point more tourist-friendly.

Masaya’s roads and historic neighborhoods will be marked with street signs, its markets will be lit up with new lighting, and its parks and plazas will be festooned with a dozen new fountains.

It’s all part of Mayor Orlando Noguera’s plan to go out with a bang in his last year in office.

“We have an enormous intangible cultural richness,” the white-bearded Noguera tells The Nica Times in an interview in his office.

“You sense it out there in the street when you talk with the vendors.”

It would be hard to prove the 57-year-old Sandinista mayor wrong, seeing that Masaya’s Old Market is the mother of Central American bazaars.

This 168-year-old town attracts an estimated 400,000 tourists a year, but most don’t make it far beyond the famous artisans’ market, where intense colors, folkloric music, stalls filled with arts and crafts and vibrant vendors delight tourists.

But Masaya, Noguera stresses, is much more than its market. And one of the mayor’s priorities is to help his city take full advantage of its natural endowments so that Masaya can reap more benefits from Nicaragua’s budding tourism industry.

The $1 million project to fix up the aging malecón, which offers breathtaking views of the smoking Masaya Volcano and the windswept waters of Masaya Lagoon, is being made possible in a large part due to Austrian aid. The project is part of a three-year, three-phase effort to illuminate the lake-ridge boardwalk, repaint it, and offer visitors more food and beverage services.

“We want to take advantage of the beautiful landscape, the view of the volcano,” says Noguera, an electrical engineer who got into politics with the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).

Laguna de Masaya’s slopes, a popular perching place for birds of paradise, were once spangled with indigenous Chorotega villages that clashed with the Spanish upon their arrival.Masaya has since been a hotbed of revolt – against U.S. mercenary William Walker’s forces in the 19th century, followed by the U.S. Marines in 1912, and finally against the National Guard during the Sandinista revolution.

On the far side of the lagoon, accessible from the Carretera Masaya, is the city’s other major attraction: the VolcanMasayaNational Park, where hikers meander through an extraterrestrial-like landscape to the gaping and smoking crater.

Back in town, a block from the Malecón is a cluster of world-famous family-run hammock shops, where elegant and colorful hammocks sway in the wind while gracious workers toil away. Also overlooking the lagoon is the city’s baseball stadium, named after Roberto Clemente, the Puerto Ricanborn Hall of Fame outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates who died in a plane crash while heading to Nicaragua to donate aid to victims after the 1972 Earthquake.

Today, foreign tourists and Masayas fill the cozy park to root for the local team, the Wild Animals of San Fernando.

A short cab ride from the city, visitors find Coyotepe, a fort used to battle U.S. Marines in the early 20th century, and later turned into a prison under the Somoza dictatorship.

The mayor is also making efforts to spruce up the downtown. The $15,000 street sign project, which is to be completed in March, is being financed by Dutch aid and will involve putting up 50 signs on street corners, as well as assigning street numbers to addresses. The town’s neighborhoods will also be labeled to make the place more tourist-accessible.

Masaya will also touch up its many parks and plazas with better lighting and illuminated fountains, and will pave an additional six kilometers of roads next year, including some that lead to the popular market.

“In 2010, the whole city will be paved,” the mayor said.

Inside the market, Noguera’s administration has made strides forward with quarterly health inspections in conjunction with the Health Ministry that require the market to close down altogether for a day or two at a time.

Noguera’s administration has already spent $80,000 to improve lighting in the market, and is in the process of completing a wall that will close off the dump area from the market itself.

The city’s main church, San Fernando, is also being completely renovated with private loans and financing, and should be completed this year.

“We’re making many efforts to make Masaya more attractive to international and national tourists,” Noguera says.


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