Nosara was not always a semi-cosmopolitan paradise filled with surfers, hotels and restaurants. Those who knew it say that, in the early 80s, there was already a small community of foreigners established -from 30 to 60 families depending on the time of year- that had no bars or social places to share.
However, when the American Richard Buferd bought a house in Playa Guiones, in 1984, that lack of options was about to change forever. Two years later, he and his wife, Jan, opened a bar on the ground floor of the house and called it The Gilded Iguana. From day one, the bar was the most popular social place among foreigners.
On the top floor, surrounded by a balcony, lived Richard, who left his native Dallas, in search of a more pleasant climate and the sound of the sea. Under the house there was a kitchen, a bathroom and several tables under fans, surrounded by plants and trees. On one side, on a wall of stones, lived an iguana that always went out to sunbathe and was the center of attention. It was not golden, as the name of the bar affirmed, but many say that when the sun covered it, the iguana looked like gold.
More than three decades have passed since then and the Gilded is one of those buildings that, despite having been remodeled, are still standing and help tell the cosmopolitan story of Nosara.
The Gilded Iguana looks very different today, as it underwent a complete remodeling in 2017. However, it maintains an original structure, says architect Peter Kelly, who has visited the town since 1990. “the new building keeps all the great elements of the old space while updating them for the 21st century, “explains Kelly.
The original Gilded Iguana house dates back to 1974 and is the work of the American Merrit Conway, one of the first builders of Nosara. His trade represented a huge challenge at that time, as the construction materials and machinery that had to reach this community depended on the ferry that left Puntarenas and whether the ocean tides were well behaved and let loading and unloading occur.
For Kelly, the architecture of Conway’s houses had a particular stamp. “His houses, built off the ground, had the traditional guanacaste architecture to avoid the presence of wildlife that crawl on the ground and also the house owners didn’t have to worry about flooding. In addition, the area where the hotel is located was originally marshy so it made sense to build in the air, “says the architect.
“This house also had passing ventilation such as shutter doors and the jalousie windows that let the most air circulate since they let air move through in the most efficient way. No AC meant you needed to depend on passive ventilation,” Kelly continues.
Much more than a bar
Today there is no person who visits or lives in Nosara that has not gone through the famous “Tuesday of music” of the Gilded Iguana. However, the bar and its building have more to offer in its history than a night of live music.
Nosareña Marta Montiel, 47, was one of the first to work in the restaurant when it opened in the late 80s. “I was 15 when I started working for them. I helped in the kitchen and cleaning tables. They were like my family, “says Montiel.
She remembers that at the beginning, the menu was very small, of a few meals and nothing more: tacos, nachos, chilli and a special tuna salad that Richard prepared. But people, more than eating, were there to taste the drink of the house, the “Black Panther”, a margarita made with red oranges and tequila.
The place where it is located was key for that time, right in the center of the neighborhood.
Its open space was ideal for people to meet, to talk or play “bridge”, a type of card game that was the favorite pastime of foreign residents. Sitting at the tables, between columns and under Richard’s house, protected them from the sun as if it were a refuge.
“It has a welcoming space that covers the sun, it is a shelter. You feel more protected when you are under a shelter. You can hear, see and smell the outside, all your senses are open with that kind of building, as if the building “breaths”, explains Kelly.
It was not only a meeting place but also the place to communicate with the outside world. At the end of the 80s there were no telephone lines in the houses, so residents used low frequency radios to communicate. As the years went by and the 1990s loomed, radios were replaced by landline phones.
But since there were few people who could pay the high cost of the telephone, the restaurant offered its customers to use theirs as a rental: the customer had to write the telephone number to which he was going to call, take the time of the call with a Chronometer and pay in colones for the time of the call.
Years later, when a customer who called Germany did not pay his bill, the Gilded suspended the rental service and requested a public telephone from ICE. There, in front of the restaurant, Playa Guiones had it first public telephone.
New owners, same spirit
When Richard Buferd died in the mid-90s, his wife Jan decided she did not want to keep the restaurant alone and put it up for sale.
“Jan came to me and asked if Chiqui and I would like to buy the Iguana because she was ready to retire and put the business on the market. I explained that we couldn’t afford to buy it, but would see if we could find someone to buy it and make me a partner. I found 2 good friends “, says Patty Doe Yaniz, a foreign resident who had lived in Nosara for several years.
In 1997, Patty, her husband Chiqui and two other partners bought the restaurant and an adjacent lot. They remodeled the four rooms that Richard and Jan had in a building next to their house to receive family and friends, and transformed the upper floor of the house, where Jan and Richard lived, to include two rooms.
“We remodeled the original 4 rooms and made the space above the bar & restaurant into 2 rooms. We bought the lot next to the Iguana and added a swimming pool and added 6 new rooms that included air-conditioning.”, says Patty.
For Marta Montiel, who by then had been working at the Gilded for a decade, the change represented a new era. “With Richard, the restaurant was small, it was for the people who lived here and for the visitors. But with Patty we had cabins and so customers stayed for weeks. So they built more cabins and we were busy, young people also arrived “.
In 2014 and after 18 years of managing the now hotel and bar, Patty and her partners decided that it was time to enjoy the peace and tranquility of Nosara and sell the hotel and restaurant.
When in 2017 its new owners decided to remodel the building, many things changed, but not its essence. The original pillars that once held the home of Richard and Jan are no longer there and in their place there are other pillars, perhaps more modern, elegant and bright, but the architectural spirits is still presence .
That gilded iguana who rested on the wall in the sun is no longer there either although he remains in the memory of his admirers.