Motorists routinely brace themselves to face the trucks and long lines of cars between San José and the Pacific port of Puntarenas, on the infamous Highway 1 to Costa Rica’s northern beaches and Guanacaste province. But imagine the reality a hundred years back. Then, it was an arduous two-day trek on horseback or oxcart through mud and rock-strewn gullies to reach the coast.
One pioneering family from the western Central Valley coffee town of San Ramón took the initiative to provide a roadside resting place for travelers and their livestock moving along the ancient trail, and so renowned was their hospitality that the area is still named for them.
In the late 1800s, Adelino and Aurelia Cambronera turned their simple wood home into an overnight resting spot, providing food, fodder and safe shelter for man and beast. Strategically located 15 kilometers west of San Ramón, Casa Cambronera became a legendary stopover for the foot (and hoof) weary.
It is fitting that Casa Cambronera has been reborn as a 21st century equivalent of “Costa Rica’s original rest stop.” Last year, Iguana Tranquila (Calm Iguana) was inaugurated on the old site. It’s an attractive mix of quality art and craft store, landscaped garden with trails, simple café and spotless bathrooms. It is also the sales office for the Iguana Land Company, offering ocean-view lots in a proposed carbon-neutral eco-community farther up the highway at San Jesús.
The place is hard to miss, with eye-catching boards on the highway and a colorful wood-carved iguana sign in front of the prettily restored house.
U.S. transplants Mike and Jacki Styles, a concert organizer and real estate agent, respectively, radiate enthusiasm for their adopted country and the Iguana Tranquila project.
“I chose the name Iguana Tranquila because it sounded cool and reflects the name of the holding company,” Mike Styles says. Visitors asked where the iguanas were, so it was a short step to installing an iguana sanctuary in the gardens with a view to releasing the animals into the wild.
Styles describes their market as “partly the independent traveler who will enjoy the house and how it reflects the Cambroneras’ pioneer spirit.”
Beyond providing a convenient stop steeped in history, Iguana Tranquila is also a main destination for people in search of original artwork. Refuting the misconception that Costa Rica lacks the wealth of arts and crafts found elsewhere, Styles insists, “We feel that, like everywhere else, Costa Rica has fine artists who convey a rich culture.”
The interior of the house supports this belief. Uncluttered rustic display stands showcase an eclectic variety of pieces ranging from indigenous Boruca masks, quilted goods, jewelry, wood, glass and ceramic creations, one-off paintings and naive pictures and pottery from Nicaragua. A few token mainstream airport handicrafts have their inevitable presence, but the rest is refreshingly different.
“We are committed to our inventory of local crafts and the artisans who make them,” Styles says.
He shows off delicate watercolors by architect and artist Juan Carlos Camacho, carved wooden picture-plaques by Eladio Alpízar, hand-rolled cigars from San Ramón and an unusual spin on the painted feather by Edgar Calvo. Staff will arrange shipment abroad of purchased goods via UPS.
Recycling bins outside hint at the Styles’ community spirit. The couple has helped start a recycling initiative at a local school, donated bingo prizes for a nearby village fundraiser, planted native tree species and are planning a drive to clear the road of trash.
Next time you are stressing out on Highway 1, stop in at Iguana Tranquila and absorb some creative calm. The store is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For info, call 2664-6967 or see www.iguanatranquila.com.