San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Can ‘La Ciudad Blanca’ Live Up to Its Name?

THE first part of the intrepid traveler’sdream came true: You fly into CentralAmerica’s most popular country from justabout anywhere in the world, skipping SanJosé altogether. For visits to Guanacaste’swhite-sand beaches, world-famous rainforests, and treks up to the mountains toclimb active Rincón de la Vieja Volcano,you can now cut out the middleman.As an alternative to flying into a massivemetropolis and enduring a long journey, yousimply fly into Liberia, just 40 minutes fromthe beach and the mountains.Now imagine this: Instead of arrivingat a functional, utilitarian agricultural hub,you fly into the La Cuidad Blanca, whereneatly whitewashed adobe walls open ontointernal gardens, and shady plazas providethe venue for daily interaction with neighbors.Small cafés with outdoor tables takeadvantage of the evening’s cool breezes,and walking the cobbled boulevards feelsmore like Barcelona than Costa Rica.It’s just a dream, but it’s the talk ofLiberia.Last year, more than 145,000 touristslanded at Liberia’s newly inauguratedinternational airport, and a small boomensued. The city’s proximity to first-classbeaches, tropical forests, mountains andvolcanoes make the White City a greatgateway for exploring Guanacaste, whichis Costa Rica’s late-blooming traveler’sparadise. The city’s Spanish colonial feeland the region’s excellent hotels andrestaurants have the potential to putGuanacaste on the map as one of theworld’s truly unique destinations, residentsagree.The local government sees this potential.The airfield has been transformedfrom a sleepy airstrip into a bona fide internationalairport. Liberia’s hospital hasundergone extensive improvements, makingit one of Costa Rica’s best. The internalinfrastructure has seen marked improvements,with newly paved roads extendingto the Nicoya Peninsula town of Filadelfiaand the Pacific beaches of Tamarindo andCarrillo.“We’re doing everything we can toattract investment in the region,” saidManuel Torres, an official with theMunicipality of Liberia, the governmentoffice that oversees improvements in theregion. “Now we have a new, modernshopping mall here in Liberia, and thePapagayo Project is well under way and isgoing to be huge,” the engineer continued,referring to a multimillion-dollar tourismand residential project under way on theGulf of Papagayo.THE municipality has spearheadedinitiatives to attract other industries linkedto the airline industry, such as airplanemaintenance facilities and cargo storage, inaddition to smaller commercial ventures.Regarding tourism, however, the localand national governments are still in thegoal-making phase. First on the municipality’slist is a feasibility study.“Before we do anything, we need tostudy tourism and what needs to be donefor it to flourish in the region,” Torres said.Once the feasibility study is in place,Torres said, the city government can begindrafting a Regulator Plan, which will outlinegrowth in the area for the next 50 to100 years, including zoning laws, buildingcodes and restrictions, and the cosmeticlook of the city.THIS look is part of the key toLiberia’s future success. Costa Rica’s boxycement constructions hold little charm fortourists, according to informal surveys bytourism-oriented businesses. Preservingwhat’s left of Liberia’s colonial character ishigh on the municipality’s list.“We aim to rescue Liberia’s culturehere,” Torres said. The city plans to createa “cultural corridor,” where traffic will beblocked off and buildings will be restoredto their turn-of-the-century appearance.Building codes will prohibit new constructionsthat don’t incorporate colonialdesign.The importance of doing this is evidentin other colonial cities in Central America,where such codes already exist. SanCristóbal (Mexico), Antigua (Guatemala)and Granada (Nicaragua) are all enjoyingsteady waves of tourists who come toenjoy the Old World feel of cobbled streetsand Spanish-style facades.THE district south of Liberia’s downtownis one of Costa Rica’s densest areasof preserved colonial architecture.Wrought-iron benches line shady sidewalks,and large wooden doors open to colorfulgardens. Residents believe Liberiacould be preserved and transformed into acomfortable colonial city where visitorsmight want to spend a few days. That,combined with the proximity to Guanacaste’sattractions, could spell successfor the city, they say.As it stands right now, however, mostvisitors use Liberia only as an overnight enroute to the beaches or mountains. Themunicipality is vastly underfunded, and thenational government has offered little support.The process is slow. Within five years,in fact, Torres said the municipality hopesto have the feasibility study done and theRegulator Plan in the works.“It’s all a question of money, and wedon’t even have the money to perform theinitial study,” he lamented.LOCAL business owners are doubtfulthe municipality’s ideas will takeplace.“I’ll believe it when I see it,” said asmall hotel owner who asked not to beidentified. “We’ve seen some changes, andcertainly seen an increase in tourism busesand people here, but the municipality hasno money and little organization. There’s alot of work ahead, and nobody seems towant to do it.”Meanwhile, construction in Liberiacontinues unabated. Without new buildingcodes, it is doubtful that landownerswill choose to construct in colonial style,according to local architects. Until thecodes are established, each new constructionwill chip away at the city’s colonialcharacter.Franco Ardissone, general manager ofthe Best Western Las Espuelas in Liberia,cites local leadership as a problem.“There hasn’t been anybody who hasstepped up and said hey, we need to dothings like this,” he said. “We need somebodyto give the city direction. There aregoing to be a lot of changes here in thenext five years, and something has to bedone so people will want to visit theWhite City, which is now painted all sortsof colors.”

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