SAN JUANDEL SUR – The most important tourism infrastructure project in Nicaragua’s history has – for the past four decades, at least – also been one of the country’s most elusive and frustrating promises: The Carretera Costanera, or the PacificCoast highway.
The plan has been discussed by politicians for 44 years, used by brokers as a real estate sales pitch for the past decade, and designed – and then redesigned and redesigned again – by government engineers for the past five years. Yet as the calendar dutifully ticks off each passing month and year, deadline after deadline comes and goes with little to show for the promises made: The 2005 groundbreaking of the coastal highway got pushed back to 2006, and then again to ’07. Now it’s 2008, but hope springs eternal.
The Costanera is once again back on the drawing board for redesign.
The good news, however, is that the government promises that this time it’s really going to happen, thanks to “ALBATurismo,” a joint initiative by President Daniel Ortega and Venezuelan counterpart Hugo Chávez to develop Nicaraguan tourism and combat poverty.
“This Costanera highway represents the possibility of developing tourism projects in Nicaragua in accordance with the logic of our government – a sensible, responsible and community tourism with respect for culture, nature and different ways of life,”Ortega said Feb. 25. “This is a project that will have a great beneficial impact on thousands of Nicaraguan families.”
The coastal highway, currently in a threemonth redesign, will extend 130 kilometers from the Costa Rican border to Masachapa, and then connect to theOld León Highway
– also under reconstruction – then up through the northern Pacific department of Chinandega and all the way to the Gulf of Fonseca on the border with El Salvador and Honduras. The two-lane tourist highway will start in the south, in the border municipality of El Naranjo, then travel up through El Ostional, San Juan del Sur, Tola, Salinas de Nagualapa, Tupilapa, Huehuete, Casares, La Boquita, Pochomil and Masachapa.
Tourism Minister Mario Salinas acknowledges that the coastal highway has been a bit of a “myth” in past years, but insists that now the plans are being made workable and affordable.
“The highway had been designed by the previous government in a utopian and unviable manner, with a high cost of around $250 to $300 million, and which didn’t take into account any scenic aspects,” Salinas said.
“What we are doing now is redesigning the highway taking scenery into account and at a cost that, truthfully, will allow this to become a reality.”
The new estimated cost is $120 million, and the redesign plans are expected to be completed by the end of May. Construction is expected to start by the end of this year and be completed by 2010.
The coastal highway, once finished, will form the backbone of Pacific coast tourism development, connecting the 100-plus dots formed by different development projects along the shoreline.
Salinas estimates that the coastal highway will help to bring in $600 to $700 million in tourism investment as well as increase tourism traffic, helping to create 100,000 new jobs over the next four years.
“Tourism is an instrument that is very efficient in combating poverty because tourists come to Nicaragua and consume our products,” Salinas said. “We think that in the coming years, the number of tourists who come here annually will increase to 1.2 million or 1.4 million people, who each day will be drinking a cup of Nicaraguan coffee.”
Just Do It
As the central government’s plans continue to inch toward an eventual Costanera, the municipality of San Juandel Sur, which arguably has the most to gain from a new coastal road to Costa Rica, is doing everything in its power to help the process along.
Eduardo Holmann, the mayor of San Juan del Sur, has been in meetings since last year with his Costa Rican counterpart from the border municipality of La Cruz to make a grassroots reality of the aging promise. The two border-town mayors have selected the route – the historic horse path from San Juan del Sur to the El Naranjo border crossing – and already graded it into an all-season dirt road. Since then they have also started talking to area landowners to determine the best spot for the border crossing.
On Feb. 19 a delegation from San Juan del Sur’s mayor’s office met a similar delegation from the La Cruz mayor’s office to negotiate acquisition of a four manzana piece of land to use as a border crossing and set up trailers to act as a temporary immigration checkpoint. The mayors are currently in the process of connecting electricity to the border outpost and hope to have the new crossing open by the end of next month.
The plan, according to Holmann, is to get all the groundwork completed so that the final project can be presented to both central governments as a done deal that just needs a signature on the dotted line.
That, of course, presents the real possibility that the Costanera could be operational even before the final design for the highway is completed in May.
But it wouldn’t be the first time in Nicaragua that the cart gets put before the horse.