The Living Memory of Calle Real
One street in the heart of Liberia is one of the few architectural sites in Costa Rica where buildings made from adobe and mud survive to tell their stories.
In Mario Cañas Park, just under the Guanacaste tree, Liberia’s story begins. In the 16th Century, the settlement was known as El Guanacaste, in honor of the trees found in the area.
Here Hugo Zúñiga Clachar, a founder of the Liberia Cultural Association, talks about Calle Real’s material and immaterial historical heritage under the Guanacaste tree’s shade and next to kids who pass by on bicycles and young men with backwards caps who crash their skateboards against the cement.
“A lot of people criticize them but I like having them here. They are Calle Real,” says Hugo as he observes the crowd with the expression of an understanding uncle.
Calle Real is one of two or three historic sites in Costa Rica that still have original mud (adobe and bahareque, which is mud reinforced with stones and bamboo) houses, says William Monge, director of heritage for the Ministry of Culture.
Before the Pan-American Highway was built, Calle Real was a colonial street that was part of the “herding route” to move cattle and travelers between Alajuela and Guanacaste. It was also the main entrance to Liberia. This entrance divided the city’s oldest neighborhoods: Condega, La Victoria, Los Cerros and Los Angeles.
Calle Real’s patrimony lies within the Condega neighborhood. If you don’t know where it is, find the church and start walking southeast. A series of tiles placed in one of the sidewalks a few years ago marks the way.
Caution: If you’re a tourist, don’t expect to find anything like Granada, Nicaragua, or Antigua, Guatemala. Even though this is one of the areas with the best preserved concentration of colonial buildings in Costa Rica (due to a 20-years campaign to preserve them and create a historic district), as a destination it’s still in diapers.
Putting Down Roots
How can a mud building survive in Guanacaste? Unlike other historic areas in Central America where businesses have taken over many of the buildings, Calle Real still houses its original population: the children and grandchildren of the original owners. To this new generation, the historical value is more than a question of heritage. It’s nostalgia.
In the case of Magda Rivas, owner of one of the historic houses on Calle 0
“It’s not easy. A guy comes by every afternoon to perform maintenance,” says Rivas, who comes from one of the oldest families in the area. She and her husband, Evelio Espinar, bought the home in 1980 and pieced it back together because it was separated into apartments.
“Because the resident population has been here for so long, there are deep roots and protection for the buildings,” said William Monge on a phone call after this trip.
Neighbors who have fought to create an historical center support Monge’s vision. “Calle Real’s richness lies in that it’s still lived in. An historical center without human warmth, without the people from the province, isn’t an historical center,” says Nuria Cuadra, president of the Liberia Culture Association.
Cuadra recognizes that some people are “afraid” of creating a historical district because they think they’ll be forced out. Others are opposed to closing streets to make a pedestrian walk, such as a boulevard, because it is a highly transited street in the canton.
In light of all this, Monge explains that the risk of gentrification (when property values rise so high that the residents are forced to leave) is combated in zoning plans that allow economic development while taking into account the neighborhood’s residents.
He knows that maintaining this heritage isn’t just pretty. It’s also expensive.
“You have to look at the economic side of things. It’s a large investment and there is no help from the government. Helping [the houses] survive is a challenge,” he says. It doesn’t matter how historic the buildings are. No state entities currently help keep them standing unless they’ve been declared as heritage sites.
Still, Ana María Tercero Díjeres, who lives next to the Puente Real bridge, works to preserve her home even though she has to sell empanadas to do so. “People have offered to buy it from me, but I say no because this was my parent’s home. They would have wanted me to sell it,” she says.
A Low Flame
Businesses on and around Calle Real feed off the architectural beauty to enchant tourists, but they also recognize that the process to become a truly attractive historical site for tourists is barely crawling forward.
The highway that runs among the buildings attracts speeding cars and motorcycles that are a danger for anyone who dares to stand in the middle of the street to take a photo of the buildings.
“This has been a struggle for years,” says Hugo, one of the main champions of the thrice-presented and rejected Historic Center of Liberia project.
“That plan has been approved two or three times. I myself drew the limits with the community and we put up lamps and everything, but the municipality isn’t interested,” says the Liberian architect Erick Chaves, a scholar in Liberia’s architecture and heritage processes.
Julio Viales, mayor of Liberia, confirms Chaves’s version when he explains that although the plan still exists, it’s not a priority.
Nuria Cuadra, from the Liberia Culture Association, said that they are starting a new process with the Universidad Estatal a Distancia that involves the municiplality, the Costa Rica Tourism Board, and the community to develop a new draft of the same historic district that they’ve spent 20 years trying to create.
Business owners like Deniss Valdeperas, owner of the hostels Calle Real and La Posada del Tope, wish this would happen and that the city could take economic advantage of Calle Real without harming its heritage. On the contrary, being there gives them an identity and sets them apart.
“My little place is humble, but it has an identity. Tourists tell me “this place is different from anywhere else in Costa Rica. What I sell is a Guanacaste-style place” says Valdeperas, although he knows that the tourists who walk by his place won’t knock on his door; everything depends on his publicity in websites like Booking or HostelWorld.
The owner of Cafe Liberia, the Frenchman Sebastien Devenelle, has a similar opinion, although he believes that Calle Real isn’t impressive enough to attract tourists, but rather that the businesses are the ones who bring tourists to experience Calle Real.
“Tourists come to Calle Real for the restaurant and its reviews [on TripAdvisor or LonelyPlanet]. Then, when they arrive here, they say wow, what a beautiful house and all that, but they don’t come just for the house,” he says.
They also agree that building the boulevard so that families can stroll and tourists and residents can enjoy a coffee or beer would bring economic benefits to the area.
In spite of the neighbors’ opposition to the plan, Valdeperas is optimistic: “Wait and see that this is gong to be in 15 years: a boulevard with tables everywhere, like in Granada.”