After 30 years, I found Guanacaste, Costa Rica still a delightful place with wonderful, friendly people. Still, I came away concerned about the future of this tropical paradise struggling to retain its culture, natural beauty and soul while being turned into a “Polo Turistico” (Tourist Hub). Some of the long time local residents we came in contact with offered their insights:
“Andrew Agassi owns that hilltop,” the captain of our rented sailboat told us, pointing to an as yet undeveloped 100 acre parcel of jungle, offering a breathtaking view of the Pacific. “Over there, on the other side of the bay, Madonna and Michael Jordan have built mansions. Mel Gibson has bought land here, somewhere. Down south, in Tamarindo, they have kicked all of the Ticos (Costa Ricans) out. Foreigners own the whole place now.”
Many of the other hilltops had already been clear cut, but when the crash up North hit, and the financing dried up, the machinery withdrew and the construction halted, leaving just a big scar on the jungle.
There was also another kind of commerce thriving in the area.
“On that beach, the smugglers would bury whole sacks of $100 bills, right along next to their stashes of cocaine. Other times, they would float a buoy in the water with a package of drugs tied to an anchor. I remember a local fisherman buying gasoline from me with a $100 bill and telling me ‘Keep the change’.”
One of our guides was waging a one man war to preserve the environment.
“See that hotel over there? I was taking some people fishing over there and smelled this horrible stench. They were dumping raw sewage, right into the bay. I followed a stream up to the source: a pipe from the hotel. I took pictures. The government closed them down for five months. The owner told his employees that I was responsible for them all losing their jobs. They came over and stoned my house.”
“I am not against development,” he told us. “But there has to be a balance.”
You never know, of course, whether some of the stories are told just to gain your sympathy, and, hopefully, a nice tip. The eco champion also told us of rescuing sea turtles, dragging them up on land and removing barnacles from their eyes — a kind of self-appointed marine optometrist.
I will go back to Costa Rica, sooner than 30 years from now, I hope. And I hope the Ticos can find the right balance between development and preserving their paradise. Because once it’s gone, it can never be recovered.