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Field Notes of an Accidental Eco-Tourist: Part Two
Chris Turner, 21 Jan 09

The Moai Of Costa Rica’s Central Pacific

(Image credit: Ashley Bristowe)

Click here to read Part I of this four-part series.

On the northern fringe of the Costa Rican beach town of Jaco, there stands at present a cluster of five half-completed high-rise condo towers. Were Jaco big enough to have a pre-existing skyline – were it not, that is, basically a single tourist-retail strip encrusted with the odd eight-story hotel – you could say these new towers were coming to dominate its skyline. The building closest to completion looks a lot like the kind of slapdash poured-concrete apartment tower that dominates the ‘70s-era suburbs of most North American cities.

The caretaker at my timeshare complex informed me that many of the full-time workers in the area were priced out of Jaco in recent years and now commute from the market town of Orotina 45 minutes inland, so these towers are presumably intended for seasonal tourist residents. But they’re situated several hundred metres back from the waterfront on a traffic-dense, desultory access road, surrounded by nothing but vacant lots and other construction sites. Charmless barely does the place justice. I never did a formal count, but figure twenty storeys each, four to six units per storey – presuming the developer builds the whole thing out, that’s at least 400 new residential units on the market sometime in the next year or so, in a town with a population of about 10,000.

I drove by the towers practically every other day during my three weeks on Costa Rica’s Central Pacific coast, and I came to think of them as symbols of a unique strain of hubris, symptoms of a development boom so big and earthshaking that its aftershocks were felt even in the tourist towns of Central America. I wondered whether these wouldn’t become Jaco’s Moai – empty Easter-Island-head representations of a collapsed way of life that permitted credit-happy G8 residents and Costa Rica’s elite along with them to dream of a tourist economy so robust and affluent that a 1970s-style apartment box on an access road could pass as a delicious slice of holiday paradise. And moreover to actually build the things, to draw up contracts and pour concrete and build show suites.

There was stuff like this all over the Costa Rican countryside. On the roads and rutted paths leading to the condo developments around the Marriott Los Suenos resort, the flatbed trucks full of construction workers outnumbered vehicles driven by actual tourists most mornings. On the road in from the main highway, there was a show suite for a proposed St. Regis resort in Costa Rica, whose online press release, dated May 22, 2006, reads in part: “When it opens, St. Regis Resort, Costa Rica will introduce an unrivaled dimension of luxury and bespoke service to Costa Rica.” (The notion of “bespoke service” makes me imagine a gardener trimming back palm branches in an immaculate chalk-stripe three-piece.) The St. Regis show suite was far and away the swankiest structure on that stretch of road, and if you knew where to look up a side lane next to the Marriott golf course, you came eventually to a gate, a guardhouse (manned by the most awesomely bored security guard in the free world) and a pile of turned earth. We referred to it as “The Boondoggle.”

And so on: A half-hour south of Jaco alongside the main highway, there was a new development called “Del Pacifico,” whose website promises “a village by the sea.” The map in the master plan outlines a beachfront resort and golf course, luxury villas, even an airstrip – a complex even more grandiose than the Marriott resort. At present, though, all I could see was a semicircle of outsized structures squatting half-finished next to the busy highway. They were outfitted with bleached-white columns and two-story archways, like the skeleton of a big-box shopping plaza done in the style of an Arabian palace. This, the master plan boasts, will one day be Del Pacifico’s “town center.”

Further along the highway was a small sign posted to a telephone pole. “,” it read. Another website, another swath of flowery marketing blather. (“In this community your dream of becoming a gentleman farmer in Costa Rica will come true. These 100 small farms are surrounded by pristine nature that gives to each property a unique charm of peace and harmony.”) This one struck me as the sort of apotheosis of the form. Judging by the photos on the website, this was a patch of denuded jungle in the remote interior of central Costa Rica. By what deliriously decadent definition was the short-term winter occupant of such a place a “farmer”? And what might it mean – for Costa Rica, certainly, but also for the whole bubble-buoyed social order that had inflated it with this delusion – that we’d come to think of such places as farms?

Still, it’s not surprising that Costa Rica’s developers (often partnered with deep-pocketed Canadians or Americans) have invested so much money into these dodgy schemes. After all, Costa Rica has always looked north for its development cues, and its history is one of the steady, linear progression from pre- to post-industrial, from rough-and-tumble subsistence through plantation farming (first coffee, then bananas and other tropical fruit) to a quarter-century service-sector boom driven by tourism, which now employs about 14 percent of working Costa Ricans.

Tourism has long been the way forward, the path to First World affluence and liberation from a cheap-labor, resource-exploitation economy. Much like subprime-mortgaged, property-flipping American homeowners, the people of Costa Rica assumed that the only directions for this new economy were up and out. More developments, bigger and fancier, slimly profit-margined plantations cut up into lots and sold off at unprecedented prices, truckloads of young men gainfully employed pouring concrete and greeting visitors at the gate with their best professional smiles.

No one has yet suggested that the current downturn might not be a trough in a repeating cycle but the beginning of a drop off a precipice from which there might be no return – or at least no return in a form that would justify all those grandiose vacation-property master plans. There might, however, be at least one kind of silver lining, one funny little irony about the kind of infrastructure we North Americans build to vacation in that we’ve stopped building on the fringes of our own cities: density.

Case in point: those putative Moai on Jaco’s fringe, the five concrete towers waiting for residents. They were built for the sun-worshipping hordes, but functionally speaking they’re just what Jaco will need if it is to transition from single-industry tourist town to something more sustainable. It will need density, permanent local residents and non-tourist service. Charmless, outscaled high-rises are far from ideal, but at least Jaco’s towers could be reconfigured to work within a dense, multi-use community with much less effort than your average McMansioned exurb.

Even the townhouse enclaves around Los Suenos, though currently bereft of basic services, were built to a significantly greater density than most North American suburbs. Were the tourist economy to vanish entirely tomorrow, they could be outfitted with a tidy little strip of shops and services at the back of the beach where the outsized pools and lawns currently are, the hillsides perhaps put into useful cultivation instead of pretty landscaping. Maybe even a fish market. The retrofit, in any case, wouldn’t be too difficult. And certainly they could really use a fish market somewhere in the Jaco area.

Because here’s a curious thing about the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica: though its waters teem with so many fish the pelicans put on feeding displays that could humble your average all-you-can-eat-shrimp buffet; though fishing boats of various sizes trawl up and down the coast relentlessly; though every restaurant for miles specializes in fresh seafood; and even though Playa Herradura (the village adjacent to the Marriott resort) boasts a harbour deep enough to welcome sixty-foot yachts; despite all of this, there is not a single wharf for at least a hundred-mile stretch along this coast where fresh seafood is brought ashore.

It’s as tidy an analogy as you’ll find for the folly of this unsustainable landscape we’ve wrought: in the midst of impossible aquatic abundance, every piece of fish in all the local supermarkets and all but the most discerning local restaurants has been trucked several hours down the highway from the industrial-sized container port near Puntarenas (or further afield). In the rocky shoals to the north and south of Jaco, the lobster are so abundant you can still free dive for them. In Jaco itself, however – a community more or less purpose-built to celebrate the sea’s magnificence – there’s essentially no local seafood.

Perhaps it’ll take a new strain of eco-tourism – one that values the nation’s beaches and rainforests, to be sure, but also its seafood and fresh produce – to point the way, finally, to a truly sustainable Costa Rica.

Part Three of “Field Notes Of An Accidental Eco-Tourist” examines the embryonic sustainable tourist economy in the Costa Rican surfing enclave of Malpais.

Chris Turner is the author of The Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, a global tour of the state of the art in sustainable living. He lives in Calgary. He keeps a poorly maintained blog and can be reached by email at cturner [at] globeandmail [dot] com.

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Thanks Chris.
I have been planning to visit Costa Rica for several years now hoping to experience some of the countries eco- friendly aspects of this popular travel destination. I do still plan to go but after reading your reports I do believe more research on just where to go is needed on my part. Thanks again and I look forward to reading the next parts.

Posted by: Daniel Christianson on 24 Jan 09

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