TORTUGUERO IS A DOZY VILLAGE OF ABOUT 800 PEOPLE on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast. Much of its population looks West Indian and speaks Jamaican-accented English. Old logging machinery sits rusting in the middle of town, a memento of one of its two former livelihoods. The other, as the name suggests, is turtles.
Tortuguero's beach is the most important nesting place for green turtles in the Western Hemisphere. For decades, residents depended on the huge animals for meat, eggs, and money: the shells were sold, as was a substance found under the belly plate that can be used to make glue. Nowadays, the town is even more dependent on turtles—but in a different way.
"We learned that there's more money to be made from a live turtle than from a dead one," a guide named Fernando Estrada told me as we stood beside the lagoon that serves as Tortuguero's main thoroughfare (one of the town's charms is the absence of roads). Another guide, Luis Torres, who sports an earful of raffish gold earrings, noted that he grew up here hunting and logging. He might have been speaking for the whole town when he said, smiling, "My life changed after I started working in the travel industry."
By 1975 Tortuguero's turtle population was declining drastically. Then, under pressure from scientists, the government established a national park in the area. Both catching turtles and logging were now prohibited: people either had to poach or find another way to make a living. Fortunately, the ecotourism industry was just getting going. Travelers were lured to Tortuguero by the opportunity to see turtles nesting in the wild; as word spread, the trickle of visitors became a flood. In the late seventies there were 10 basic hotel rooms in Tortuguero. The town now has more than 500. Some 55,000 visitors come every year, and the resident population has doubled. Locals like Luis have switched from hunting to guiding. "It's business," one guide said. "If the money from the living turtles weren't enough, the dead turtles would continue." This money has helped bring Tortuguero electricity, running water, and a waste-treatment facility; the turtle population is no longer falling.
There's not much in Tortuguero to interest a conventional tourist: the sand on the beaches is gray; the sea is too rough and shark-infested for swimming; it rains here even in Costa Rica's dry months. But for an ecotourist, it's heaven. The inland lagoon is lined with pretty lodges whose designs harmonize with the forest. I slept under a whirling fan in a simple wooden room at Tortuga Lodge, took solar-heated showers, and ate yellowfin tuna that had been enjoying a full oceangoing lifestyle three hours earlier.
FROM THE DOCK ON THE LAGOON, I SET OFF BY BOAT to observe the wildlife. In nesting seasons you can watch green turtles and huge leatherbacks lumber up the beach to deposit their eggs. Natural canals lead deep into a rain forest that is home to jaguars and an astounding variety of birds. What's more striking, but harder to express, is simply the presence of the rain forest that surrounds you. Green and brooding, navigable only by water, it is like something out of Joseph Conrad. We wound through it in our little boat, killing the engine to drift up on collared aracaries, spider monkeys, and semi-submerged caimans.
All the attention Tortuguero now gets from the outside world has produced some paradoxical results. Its precious natural endowment must be protected from the hordes of visitors who come every year. Even in the off-season, my heart-of-darkness fantasies were occasionally shattered by encounters with boatloads of tourists. At other times of year, the pressure is worse. Local authorities have had to restrict the number of observers allowed onto the beach during turtle nesting, and nighttime jungle tours have been banned because the guides' high-powered flashlights were disturbing the wildlife. No one has yet figured out how to cope with the sewage produced by the numerous ecolodges.
What's more, the new ecotourists are more demanding than the pioneers, who wanted not much more than clean water and a space to lay their bedrolls. At Tortuga Lodge, owner Michael Kaye has reluctantly installed a swimming pool, recognizing what others have called "the softening of ecotourism."
"Seven or eight years ago, people started to complain," said Tamara Budowski, president of Horizontes, one of Costa Rica's leading ecotour operators. "They didn't want to get up so early; they needed ice; they asked for their own bathrooms, hot water, better food, air-conditioning." These second-generation ecotourists, she noted, even had shorter attention spans—they requested briefer explanations from the naturalist guides.