CATARINA – For years, Pablo Gaitán sold his handicrafts on the dusty side of the potholed highway outside of Catarina.
But when the government recently completed the expansion of the highway, which connects Managua with this breezy artisan town – one of Masaya’s historically rich Pueblos Blancos – there was nowhere left for Catarina’s artisans to ply their trade.
In an effort to relocate the artisans, the Sandinista government has built a $300,000 artisan village on the highway in Catarina, which has not only given them a cleaner and safer new place of business, but has added a new attraction to a town that’s becoming a nascent tourism destination.
Catarina’s main draw for visitors has always been its windswept lookout point with stunning views of Laguna de Apoyo and Lake Nicaragua, where you can feast on fresh fish while live marimba bands sing to a cool breeze. The streets lined with plant nurseries leading up to the mirador add to the town’s unique tropical feel.
The recent expansion of the highway has literally paved the way for more visitors, and the sprawling artisan village – complete with a garden, an amphitheater, a gazebo and restaurants – and promises to attract more Managuans and international tourists alike, says Nicaragua’s Culture Minister Luis Morales.
“The biggest challenge to bringing more tourism was the abandoned highway,” said Morales at the Aug. 23 inauguration of the first phase of the artisan village project, which includes shops for 40 families. As part of the project, which is being financed with funds from the presidency, artisan families from Catarina and the neighboring community of San Juan de Oriente are being given 20-year loans with the idea that they will eventually own the shops.
“This is benefitting 40 poor artisan families,” Morales told The Nica Times. “Those families were living on the side of the road.”
The project’s second phase, which will open next month on the other side of the highway, is a two-story complex of 17 artisan shops and restaurants.
With $300,000 in financing from President Daniel Ortega’s mysterious coffers, the project is being executed by the controversial Citizen Power Councils (CPCs), Sandinista neighborhood groups that critics claim are “para-state” affiliations.
Catarina’s CPC leader Ballardo Guerrero, who is also running for mayor on the Sandinista party ticket in Catarina in upcoming November elections, said the borrowers will make monthly $50 payments to pay off their debt.
“They’ll all benefit from this for at least 20 years,” Guerrero said at the inauguration, at which red and black Sandinista flags were hung up throughout the brand-new artisan village.
For Gaitán, a San Juan de Oriente artisan who has made a living selling his pottery and other handicrafts in Catarina, the biggest benefit is that he and his family no longer have to run the risk of being blindsided by a semitrailer truck going 50 miles per hour as part of their daily work routine.
“This whole structure is safer. We were on the side of the road, where there was no safety. That’s the biggest thing,” he said.