Exhaust fumes belched from cars around me as I careened through the traffic-choked streets of Costa Rica’s capital, San José. I was on my way to Costa Rica’s version of the White House: a nondescript office building. “Rápido, por favor,” I said to my cabbie, even though I was not late nor am I anyone important. I had spent the last two weeks tumbling through this lush country as a so-called ecotourist. I had hiked through misty cloud forests, hovered over a VW-sized green sea turtle as it laid eggs on a Caribbean beach, and shot through the rain-forest canopy on a zip line that crossed gorges 1,000 feet deep. I had also been peed on by a howler monkey and, finally, spoiled so rotten at a seaside resort that I was irritated at how long it had been since anyone had taken my drink order. Forgive me for becoming unhinged. It was my last day in a country virtually synonymous with “ecotourism,” and yet I was less sure than when I’d arrived what exactly that term meant. Surely the president, I reasoned, could set me straight.
Bound to the north by Nicaragua and to the south by Panama, Costa Rica is the science geek of Central America. It has the highest literacy rate and standard of living in the region. While its neighbors were fighting civil wars, Costa Rica—the first country ever to constitutionally abolish its army, in 1949 – was studying moss and saving sea turtles. It could be Al Gore’s poster child. Costa Rica’s green era began in 1970, when, following nearly 50 years of unrestricted logging, lawmakers founded what would become a heralded national park system. The country’s political serenity attracted a group of mostly American entrepreneurs, who by the end of the decade had set up the first lodges and adventure outfitters.
Then, in 1987, President Óscar Arias Sánchez, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for brokering an agreement among troubled Central American countries to promote democracy and end civil strife. Tiny Costa Rica—smaller than West Virginia and with a population of about four million—was thrust onto the world stage for the first time. “When Óscar won the Peace Prize, we knew everything was going to change,” Alvaro Ugalde, cofounder of the national park system, told me.
Visitors began pouring into the country, and soon, tourism leapfrogged bananas and coffee to become the country’s top revenue-producing industry—it now brings in nearly $1.6 billion a year. But the boom also created a classic tug-of-war between developers and environmentalists.
In 1993, while Costa Rica was promoting itself as an eco-friendly destination, a well-regarded German environmental organization awarded the country’s tourism minister its infamous Green Devil for gross mistreatment of the environment related to the construction of a multimillion-dollar seaside resort called Playa Tambor. And although an impressive 25 percent of the country’s land was protected, ineffective waste management left the rivers so polluted that some raft guides now warn clients not to swallow the water. “People think Costa Rica is some paradise—they think we’re angels,” said Ugalde, who today spends his time lobbying the government to make the environment a priority. “But no, we’re a devil like everyone else.”
Over the past few years, Costa Rica’s biggest industry has entered yet another phase: luxury development. Spearheaded by the commercial opening of the controversial Peninsula Papagayo—a sloping seven-mile finger of land that droops into the Pacific Ocean from Guanacaste, the country’s north westernmost province—billions of investment dollars have flooded in from hotel companies, including Four Seasons, as well as the likes of Steve Case and Ross Perot Jr. As one might imagine, not everyone is in agreement about what this means for the future of the nation’s ecotourism.
The day that I was peed on by a howler monkey was my first as an ecotourist and, though I’ll never know the primate’s true disposition toward me, the incident prepared me for something I’d have to reckon with for the rest of my trip. That morning I had taken a 30-minute flight from San José to Tortuguero, an old fishing village pressed between the Caribbean Sea and the Tortuguero River. We landed in a downpour so heavy my clothes were soaked through in the 10-second dash from the tarmac to the one-room air terminal and baggage claim.
Within an hour, however, the clouds had cleared and the sun was gorging itself on a clear blue sky. Cheerfully, I boarded a motorboat with a small group of tourists, a scientist, and a local driver called Cola. We set off down the river; gazing at its lush overgrown banks, I saw why Costa Rica is reputed to have the highest density of species in the world. There were crocs sunning themselves, iguanas clinging to hibiscus bushes, and so many kinds of birds (toucans, pelicans, herons, etc.) that I and the other non-birders on board took solemn stock of our plight.
We continued, against the tide, into a smaller canal where the forest overgrowth blocked the sky, turning the river passage into a watery tunnel. It was pleasant there in the shade and from somewhere in the almond and strangler fig trees came the guttural cry of the howler monkey, a noise that may as well be Costa Rica’s national anthem, so ubiquitous are these creatures.
We craned our necks toward the shaking branches and soon spotted them just overhead—an entire troop, some hauling babies on their backs, crossing the river. My boatmates began ooh-ing and zooming the lenses of their digital cameras. I, at that very moment, had gone with an ahh. There are times in one’s life when something happens for a reason, and as I swallowed that howler monkey’s pee, I could only hope this wasn’t one of them. I said nothing, but as I sat there I sank into existential despair about my journey. How was I supposed to enjoy myself when I was both hyperconscious of trying to protect the environment and at every turn reminded that my very existence was disrupting it? I hadn’t even hit the luxury sites yet, and already, for me, being an ecotourist was like living out an oxymoron.
The following night I had a chance to further ponder this delicate balance as I marched under the moonlight in a line more than 100 people long, each of us desperate to see a sea turtle. As trained spotters radioed in to the lodge guides, we moved single-file along a forested path next to the beach. At last we were ordered into position, where we took turns standing, in monitored 10-second intervals, over a gigantic turtle as, trancelike, it laid about a hundred large white eggs in a hole in the sand. It was an unforgettable sight, but equally impressive was the military-style effort that made seeing it possible. Over a two-hour period I was cited, and nearly expelled from the group, for breaking every rule at least once. (No talking, no shining a light, no walking ahead, no going off the path, no wading in the ocean.)
The following day, I left by boat for a port near Limón, where I transferred to a van that would carry my group to Arenal, the site of an active volcano and surrounding cloud forest. As we got closer, we saw signs along the lush roadside advertising lots and houses for sale—mostly in English: lake view, virgin forest. New hotels and spas were under construction. “All of this used to be watermelon farms and things like that,” our driver said, somewhat wistfully.
We spent the next day hiking through the mountains, crossing hanging bridges as high as 500 feet in the air. Later, I soaked in a series of hot springs. The lava from Arenal’s crater is usually visible at night, but that evening the clouds were too low; we ended up taking shelter from another downpour. The three days spent at the Four Seasons, were so idyllic – I could have been convinced Dick Cheney had brokered a world peace accord. I slept on the beach and kayaked in the ocean. One day, I hired a local boat captain to take me to some nearby islands for snorkeling; he dived in with me and placed a live spiderfish in my hand. At night, I had my choice of dining at any of the site’s five restaurant. The entire experience was almost dreamlike – I actually became suspicious that the monkeys singing outside my villa’s windows were on the payroll.
I left this paradise in a Hola! Rent-a-Car with a trunk that didn’t open, setting off south for the beach town of Nosara. When I arrived in front of my new hotel that night, I was greeted by Luis, the same man who had set me up with the one-way rental in the morning; he was there to retrieve it. This was indeed convenient, but having torn myself from the lap of luxury, I couldn’t imagine anything could console me. I was pleasantly surprised, however, as soon as I was ushered into the aptly named Harmony Hotel.
Three years ago, the land on which the Harmony sits was about to be turned into a condominium complex when American entrepreneur and environmentalist John Johnson bought it in order to save it. Having never been involved in the hotel business before, he hired a team of eco-consultants who designed a 24-room beach side property—including a yoga studio, a juice bar, and a pool—that not only aspires to be environmentally sound but also employs an on-site sustainability coordinator to make sure that it is.
Harmony provided an alternative to traditional bare-bones ecotourism, one that took into account the growing market for upscale travel to Costa Rica: it was a vision of what might please both environmentalists and developers. I spent a blissful day exploring the sandy beach and walking the forested dirt roads that pass through two-shack roadside towns where locals gather for barbecues. At night, I ate locally caught red snapper in Harmony’s restaurant. (I could have lingered much longer but one last appointment remained in San José: my meeting with ex-president Oscar Arias.
Costa Rica’s tourism industry today attracts 1.7 million visitors to the country every year. As my cab approached the office building where I am to meet Mr. Arias, I had narrowed it down to this or unendurable boredom as the only possible explanations why Mr. Arias had agreed to meet with me. I was ushered inside and after I’d waited a short while on a yellow leather couch, Arias appeared, wearing a gray suit and sporting a silver mane. His diminutive stature and drooping eyes gave him the appearance of a man ready for a nap. He led me into a wood-paneled chamber, where we sat down. Soon we were engaged in a discussion about his plans for Costa Rica, which include attempting to make it the world’s first carbon-neutral nation by 2021. That ambitious goal will be part of his Peace with Nature initiative, a regulatory conservation agreement like the Kyoto treaty for which he plans to seek international standards and signatories. “In a year or two, I want to launch it in New York, at the UN,” he said.
Arias is also unapologetically pro–big business. He has staked his legacy on his controversial support of cafta, the Central American Free Trade Agreement. But while some activists feel otherwise, Arias does not see this policy as being at odds with environmentalism or promotion of ecotourism. “These are challenges,” he told me, raising a finger in the air. “Ecotourism is a balance between cement, bricks, iron, and ecology.” Maybe it really is that simple, I thought, as we stood and shook hands. Then again, maybe he has never been peed on by a howler monkey.
Images by Jose Pablo Orozco & Arturo Sotillo + the Costa Rica Tourism Board.