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 zipline 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. It was small business. There were few direct flights into the country and little available money to promote Costa Rica as a destination. The few thousand people per year who came were mostly backpackers and hard-core birders who didn’t mind sleeping in simple spaces in order to enjoy the biodiverse rain forests, raftable rapids, and pristine beaches.
Then, in 1987, President Óscar Arias Sánchez, who began serving another (nonconsecutive) term last year, 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. Costa Rica’s tranquillity, natural beauty, and proximity to North America made it stand out like Scarlett Johansson in a bus station. An ecotourism star was born.