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The New Costa Rica

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Photo: Amanda Pratt

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 two 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 northwesternmost 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. The airline industry is also betting big on the country’s northern Pacific Coast: already 45 nonstop flights from North America per week land at the one-strip Liberia international airport in high season, and more are scheduled for 2008. As one might imagine, not everyone is in agreement about what this means for the future of the nation’s ecotourism.

"We are facing the impact of having attracted so many people and investors to develop their ideas in a safe, quiet, beautiful country, but are they respecting the way we decided to develop?" asks Ana Báez, president of Tourism & Conservation Consultants. "It’s hard to tell where it’s going."

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.

About an hour later, we returned to the dock at our hotel, as if everything were just super. I was billeted at Tortuga Lodge, the first eco-lodge in Tortuguero, opened in 1986. In need of a spritzer, I went straight to the open-air bar, where I found the owner, Michael Kaye, seated with a Save-the-Turtles crowd. "Enjoy the boat ride?" he asked, peering down at me through his inch-thick glasses. Kaye is one of Costa Rica’s ecotourism pioneers, and somehow the fact that he’d once lived on a commune outside San Francisco with Wavy Gravy made his presence reassuring. I took a seat next to him.

After surviving an earthquake in Guatemala, in 1977, Kaye, now 65, had drifted down to El Salvador, where he met his future wife on a beach. Fleeing political instability, they headed south to Costa Rica and never left. Kaye opened the country’s first rafting outfitter, Costa Rica Expeditions, in 1978. Now the company is the largest tour operator here, a multimillion-dollar concern offering all manner of excursions.

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