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Conde Nast Traveler July 1993,
What Price Paradise?
Text by Michael Shnayerson, Photographs by Brigette Lacombe

The sky is blue, the macaws are scarlet, the cottages are washed white. But Michael Shnayerson found that Costa Rica’s most important factors are increasingly green.

On our fourth day in the hottest destination of the moment, at a little after noon, we decided we were, after all, ecotourists. This was because we’d finally managed to lose the binocular-draped hordes of other ecotourists. We were on the Osa Peninsula, riding along a dirt road- a beautiful dirt road. There were no houses, just wide green pastures, white-fenced, with great shady trees. Small, white egrets hovered by the cattle and perched on their backs. It was like a spring day in 1840; no power lines, no telephone poles, no trash at the side of the road. Sterner ecotourists might have felts compelled to point out that precious rain forest had been cleared for all this. That the cattle would soon destroy the grass. And that progress would never stop here. Not us. Not today.

After nearly an hour, we saw the hand-painted sign that announced our day’s destination, BOSQUE DEL CABO. In a broad, green clearing, four thatched-roof cabins overlooked the sea, and from a tall tree trunk, two scarlet macaws wet up a racket of welcome. Scarlet macaws! The ecotourists we’d left trudging the trails of Manuel Antonio Park would have killed for the sight.

The contrast between this sylvan setting and the hotel strip outside Manuel Antonio Park, where we’d just spent two miserable days, could not have been more stark. Yet both waved the green flag of ecotourism. As did, for that matter, the real horror we would soon see up the coast: the brand-new Hotel Playa Tambor, with hundreds of rooms, nightly entertainment by slavish mariachi bands, and wet bars with cut-rate booze amid the palms.

So now we’d answered one question. Good places could be found. The next, in this nexus of biodiversity, was what brand of ecotourism would prevail.

We had come to see what all the fuss was about, why in one year Costa Rica’s tourism revenues jumped thirty-four percent- now up to half a million visitors, almost half a billion dollars- and how the country is coping, with the money and the crowds.

Part of the answer was obvious. Costa Rica has one of the richest biodiversities of any country on the planet- five percent of all the plant and animal species known to exist, in twelve ecological zones that vary from dry tropics to dripping rain forest, from white sand beaches to Atlantic wetlands, with mountains and volcanoes in between. And thanks to farsighted planning, national parks and reserves protect twenty-sever percent of the land.

As important, Costa Rica is safe. The so-called Switzerland of Central America has been an independent democracy since 1848 and actually disbanded its army in 1048. While its neighbors follow the more conventional pattern of bloodshed and repression, Costa Rica has held civil elections, has reached a literacy rate near our own, and offers health care and pensions for all. One after another of its presidents has proudly invoked the country’s natural heritage, looking to the day when tourism overtakes bananas as Costa Rica’s number one business. Sensitive travelers, sensitive hosts, paying homage to nature.

Of course, it isn’t that simple.

Our plan was to stick to the Pacific, where most tourist development is taking place. First stop was Manuel Antonio Park, by virtue of its beaches one of the most popular destinations in the country. From Quepos, a dreary port town that only Queposians could love, a bus took us up a hilly road through lush rain forest. On either side, small inns and restaurants appeared. The bus stopped beside a grander place, El Byblos, run by French expats and generally conceded to be the best place on the road aside from La Mariposa. The rooms, we discovered, were plain, the food mediocre, the owners surly, and the help cavalier. Well, no matter, we’d come for the outside, not the inn.

Next morning, we walked the road its last mile or so to find a squatters’ village of makeshift cafes and fruit-juice vendors, permeated by the unmistakable odor of raw human sewage. The government would soon reclaim the area; meanwhile, the shallow lagoon through which visitors waded to reach the park entrance proper had become polluted.

At the tollbooth, I asked a glum park warden how many visitors had come the day before. He turned the register my way: 879. That was about right; for more than a year now, high-season figures have ranged up to 1,000. Yet the park’s decreed ceiling on daily visitors is 300. The crowds have degraded the trails and brought more hotels to the park’s borders, cutting off migration corridors for the park’s most prized inhabitants, its 350 white-faced monkeys.

After a cursory trail walk- many people, no animals- we hit the beach. Here Manuel Antonio lived up to its billing. The white sand beaches within the park’s borders are clean and inviting, the surf dramatic, and the sun, at nine degrees from the equator, about as quick-tanning as sun can get. Some days later in San Jose, Joseph Tosi, founder and head of Costa Rica’s venerable Tropical Science Center, explained ruefully that when Manuel Antonio was made a park back in 1972, no one imagined it would become more popular for its beaches than for the park itself: “It was difficult to reach by car- no traffic and no hotels- so no one worried about protecting the land around it.”

That, we had come to see, was part of the larger problem. Admirable as Costa Rica’s park system is, land outside the parks is still all but unprotected. Half a century ago, two-thirds of the country was covered by forest; less than twenty percent remains. And only seven percent of the country’s coastline- the choicest real estate for developers- is governed by any sort of regulatory plan.

Avid to see untamed animals and untrammeled forest, we headed for the remote Osa Peninsula by the fastest means available- a chartered single-prop four-seater. The half-hour flight was expensive- five hundred dollars- but transcendent, down a glorious stretch of Pacific coastline, uninhabited and inaccessible.

From above, the Osa Peninsula’s canopy of rain forest softens its hills and gives no hint of man. Much of it is the Corcovado National Park, one of Costa Rica’s largest. When we rounded the tip of the peninsula, we saw the single ribbon of road that runs south from Puerto Jimenez. The road went in ten years ago, and with it have come ranchers and loggers, surfers and campers. And ecotourists like us.

From the airstrip we went by jeep taxi into Puerto Jimenez, where the dirt road widens into a dirt Main Street lined with wood-frame cafes. The town, now a depot for buses from points north, was until recently a frontier outpost accessible only by boat, and known as a refuge for strangers in whom the authorities of one country or another took an interest. The only life was the cowboy’s life, and it was a hard one: eight days by boat to get cattle up the coast to the port town of Puntarenas.

An hour’s drive brought us to Bosque del Cabo and its young owners, Philip Spier and Barbara Odio. Philip is a rangy, overgrown kid in his early thirties who gave up his day job in Florida for the surfer’s life in Costa Rica. Three years ago, he and Barbara, a Tica from San Jose, seeded the cow pasture with real grass and tilled it until the lumps and weeds were gone. “After it was landscaped,” Philip told us, “we took a second mortgage on the house I had in the States. Sold everything we owned. I still haven’t been able to replace our car; I’m working with a motorcycle. But we built the cabins and opened.”

Each cabin is simple but well built and spacious: thatched roof, front porch overlooking the water, roomy bedrooms, bathroom with flush toilet, and outdoor, enclosed, cold-water shower. At no extra charge, a scarlet macaw perched on our porch railing, ruffling its bright red and yellow and blue feathers.

It took us a minute to realize that this macaw couldn’t fly. A poacher had clipped its wings, intending to sell it on the international black market. Instead, Philip had bought the bird for seventy-five dollars. In time, it would fly again- making it one of the lucky ones. The Osa is one of the few places scarlet macaws can still be found, and even here their numbers are perilously low: perhaps three hundred. We watched Pepe, for that was his name, jump down to the ground with an awkward flapping of wings and go hopping off across the clearing. It was a sight to break your heart.

After settling in, we took the trail Philip has hacked into the forest. Warning cried arose as soon as we entered- first one, then a chorus- from spider monkeys that glared down at us from the treetops. The monkeys hooted, shook branches, and, when that failed to scare us, made leaping forays above us, from tree to tree. Half a mile farther we reached a small waterfall, where we waded into the cool clear pool and stuck our heads under the cascade.

We were two pleased ecotourists.

That afternoon, we met Manuel Ramirez, a tall, proud conservation in his early thirties who volunteered to show us around. From his base in San Jose, he works as a one-man Costa Rica bureau for Washington, D.C.-based Conservation International. The Osa is his personal retreat, where his father bought a large piece of land, just down the road from Bosque del Cabo. “When we came here in 1978,” he told us, “there was forest everywhere.” Then came the road, and the chain saws. “For a couple of years, everyone was cutting down the forest! But then I saw outsiders buying the land to preserve it.”

Environmentally minded foreigners have bought up tracts of the Osa from farmers, and from the timber companies to whom the farmers sold it. “When we arrived,” Manuel said, “I was the only Costa Rican outsider. The rest were born and raised here. Now I am one of the few Costa Ricans left. Because virtually the whole section is now owned by Americans and Europeans.”

In fact, Manuel’s newest neighbors include actor River Phoenix and Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead. And then there’s Manuel Alonso, a Spanish anthropologist who started the so-called Tuva campaign that brought in the new foreign landowners, to whom Manuel Ramirez introduced us.

When we arrived at Alonso’s solar-powered beachfront place, he was on his way back from a grocery store run in Puerto Jimenez, but due any minute. Alonso’s wife, Martha, knew this because he’d radioed. All communication on the Osa is still by radio. It deepens the sense of community here, as neighbor’s cheery voices squawk over the airwaves, and makes everyone equally dependent on each other: Phil and Barbara and Manuel, and all their friends in town.

Alonso arrived with a sack of grain over his shoulder, a slight, dark-bearded man of about forty who looked eerily like Charles Manson. Over three years, Alonso raised a million dollars for the four-thousand-acre buyout. Now he’s helping the families who live in the area. Tuva is teaching them to build guest cottages for ecotourists en route to Corcovado National Park. Nurseries are another possibility; reforestation programs are a third. Working as waiters or maids in the new resort called Lapa Rios, he said dryly, is not the empowerment he means.