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The New Costa Rica

Launch Slideshow
Photo: Amanda Pratt

Kaye had just flown in to Tortuguero from his base in San José in order to help launch a program to protect the local beach, which is the most important nesting ground in the Western Hemisphere for the endangered Atlantic green sea turtle. He was also here to meet an expert about new ideas for minimizing the environmental impact of the lodge’s waste-management system. I was even more impressed by this when Kaye admitted to me, as the night wore on, "Most of my clients don’t really care about environmentalism." To please them, he had added a beautiful swimming pool to the lodge. But he had also opposed a recent proposal to build a road connecting Tortuguero to the rest of the country, despite the fact that such access would have drawn more visitors.

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.)

It was almost midnight when we returned to town, and I promptly ditched my compliance officer and sneaked off to the local bar, La Culebra (The Snake), basically a large shack teetering on the riverbank. I’d only been in town two days, but more than half of La Culebra’s patrons and I recognized each other, which wasn’t surprising, given the town has 1,200 inhabitants and 80 percent of them work in the travel industry.

Ticos—as Costa Ricans call themselves—have the easygoing disposition of Caribbean islanders, and although I had entered the pub hoping for a barfight or at least some kind of trouble, I found myself toasting the night away with bottles of Costa Rica’s popular pilsner, Imperial. "Thank you for visiting us," one young Tico told me in perfect English. "Fifteen years ago we were fishing and hunting for our food. Now we have our own high school." Later, my new friends made sure I found a water taxi to take me home—an easy task, since the owner of one was sitting next to me at the bar.

The following day, I left by boat for a port near Limon, 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. I did get some good news, however: a fax arrived confirming my interview with Alan Kelso, Peninsula Papagayo CEO and developer extraordinaire.


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