San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The ‘White City’ Honors Its Heritage

In today’s fast-paced world, time can seem to pass so quickly that before one can stop and take a look around, one’s entire world has changed. Liberia, on the other hand, has made it a priority to stop, take a look around and try to preserve its cultural heritage.

Liberia, capital of the northwestern Guanacaste province, is Costa Rica’s second largest city and boasts an international airport that receives about half a million passengers a year. Despite this evident development, Liberia is also known as the “WhiteCity,” after the whitewashed adobe walls attesting to a colonial architectural heritage that has remained largely unchanged.

The city’s 18th century origins arose from the need for a rest stop on the trade route between San José and Nicaragua. Liberia was established as the midway point, and the community began to develop.

According to Nuria Cuadra of the Liberia Culture Association’s board of directors, the city was never colonized by the Spanish conquistadores because they weren’t interested enough in Costa Rica to explore much of the north.

Nonetheless, Costa Ricans from parts of the country that were colonized moved to Liberia, so it wasn’t left completely without Spanish influence.

“As a result, the original traditions and culture in general didn’t need to adapt to foreigners,” Cuadra says. “The Liberia natives are the great-grandchildren of the (city’s) founders.”

Frozen in Time

Many of the houses and buildings in Liberia, particularly those in the city center, have remained untouched since they were first built. The city boasts 10 protected heritage buildings, six owned by the province and four privately owned, including the Iglesia de la Agonía, the oldest church in Liberia, built in the 1850s in the neoclassical style.

Also largely unchanged is the city’s Central Park. Always bustling with people, the park is surrounded by mom-and-pop eateries and shops, with benches lining its white  walkways and well-manicured trees scattered around its central plaza made of white stone.

“The Central Park has remained exactly the same since it was constructed, except for maybe an added bench or another planted tree,” Cuadra says. “I hope it will always remain that way, because it’s such an important part of our city.”

The culture association and the Culture Ministry, with the support of most Liberia residents, are attempting to have the entire city center declared a protected heritage site. That means no new houses could be built here, and any repairs would have to maintain the original style of the building.

Cuadra says the conservation project’s main challenge is finding financial support, as well as recruiting the professionals to carry it out.

“We would need architects, inspectors, consultants and engineers. All of these people are essential for the potential reconstruction needed, and that costs money,” Cuadra says.

Guanacaste Regional Culture Director Vera Vargas acknowledges the importance of preservation for Liberia residents, but also for tourism potential.

“We want Liberia to be a place where people can enjoy history from another time period,” Vargas says. “Our heritage is part of our attraction.”

She says residents of the city center who own colonial-style houses may apply to have their homes declared heritage sites and thus protected.

Costa Rican artist Karen Clachar had her family’s Liberia home declared a heritage site, but also took preservation to the next level by creating a collage of photos, news clippings, songs and even books on the outer walls of the dwelling on Calle Real, the city’s first road (TT, Nov. 23, 2007).

“What I basically did was ask everyone from the community to donate evidence of their memories to the public art project,” Clachar says. “The response was overwhelming. It’s so nice to see how contagious it can become when people want to preserve their heritage.”

The project was initiated two years ago, and Clachar continues to add to the collage whenever possible. She says it has been interesting to see people’s different reactions: Many students copy down information, some people take pictures, and a few older ladies – claiming to be “the only one still alive in that picture” – even asked for chairs so they could just sit and look at the house.

“It’s what I call a collective memory,” Clachar says. “It brings to the table just how much we lose that we’re not aware of.”

The Importance of Identity

Ligia Zúñiga, the first woman governor of Guanacaste (1990-1994), has lived in Liberia all her life. She fears that efforts to continue development are placing Guanacaste’s cultural heritage at risk.

“We’re losing our identity,” Zúñiga says. “We need the government to realize that preserving culture is a priority, or we’ll end up a place with no identity, like Cancún (Mexico).”

Vargas says the Culture Ministry feels it is beginning to develop without being ready, but that it’s possible to move forward without destroying one’s heritage as long as the necessary precautions are taken. “Guanacaste isn’t all just beach and sun,” she says.

Cuadra says Liberia has always had open doors, and they want to keep it that way, as long as visitors appreciate their heritage. She calls Liberia a hidden gem that, once visited, isn’t easily forgotten.

“Everyone from Liberia is very attached to their home,” Cuadra says. “They might leave for school or work, but in the end they always come back.”


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