The fishing village of Malpais, on the southwestern tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula, is close enough to the concrete jungle of Jaco that you can almost see it on a clear day. And in the evening, you can definitely see the small cluster of lights representing Playa Montezuma, Malpais’ neighbour and spiritual twin. The psychic distance between these two vacationlands, however, is a wide gulf separated by a generation of tourist development. And it’s on the far side, along the rutted roads of Malpais, that you’ll find eco-tourism’s future – if, that is, it intends to have much of one.
The curious thing about this is that it has less to do with the natural ecosystem than with the human ecology – it’s more about the tourism, if you will, than the eco.
Both the Central Pacific coast around Jaco and the Southern Nicoya coast around Malpais are located on the doorstep of pristine wilderness (Manuel Antonio National Park and Carara Biological Reserve in the case of Jaco, Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve in Malpais). And both owe their preferred positions on the tourist map to the same natural resource: big, abundant waves. Jaco, however, first emerged as a surfing destination in the early 1980s, and (as I noted in Part Two) has bloated into a sort of toucan-inflected, hot-weather extension of exurban America.
But Malpais has seen most of its real tourist-industry expansion in the last five to ten years. It remains separated from the Costa Rican mainland and the package-tourist havens of the northern stretch of the Nicoya Peninsula by lunar-landscaped mudpack sideroads, all of which are safely navigable only by four-wheel-drive vehicle and many of which are entirely impassable in the rainy season. It’s at least twice as far as Jaco is from an international airport.
Malpais and neighboring surf-hotspot Santa Teresa form a kind of dense rural township along a long strip of two-lane dirt road running parallel to the seemingly endless beach. There is only one genuine luxury resort, and it has only ten units; the rest of the accomodations in Malpais and Santa Teresa range from campgrounds to small-scale, rustic guest lodges tucked into the jungle. Many of the restaurants have no walls, and dusty dirt floors are not uncommon. Local transport is primarily by foot, bike or rented ATV. The beach is long and palm-backed and blessedly bereft of giant inflatable beer bottles. Beachside bonfires outnumber night clubs. Malpais is quiet, unhurried and seemingly quite pleased to remain outside the namebrand mainstream of the Costa Rican tourist industry.
If, however, that namebrand mainstream is to survive in this new Anthropocene Epoch – if sustainability can truly be retrofitted into a business prediated on international air travel and concrete midrise package holidays – then the rest of Costa Rica will likely need to learn to be more like Malpais. And it should start, in my estimation, with a small shop in the only modern strip-retail development in town – a place by the rather enigmatic name of Product C.
Product C is a fishmonger. Using all of about 300 square feet of floorspace, it does what not one of the big-boxy supermarkets of Jaco has yet managed: it sources and sells local seafood. Its primary clients at present are a handful of simple but sophisticated local restaurants that have built their menus on local produce – particularly the Pacific Ocean’s remarkable bounty. Product C has helped make Malpais probably the best place to eat in Costa Rica (certainly the best I’ve found), and with any luck its example will transform the very idea of eco-tourism, in a sense switching the focus from what sorts of flora and fauna you see to what sorts you eat.
We discovered Product C on our last day in Malpais. The proprietor was a friendly, youngish Canadian chef named Demian Geneau. We arrived just as he was unloading the day’s catch onto beds of crushed ice in his coolers. He’d gotten to know the local fishermen – prior to the arrival of the surfers, Malpais was a tiny fishing village – and he was now cajoling them into bringing him their catches instead of taking them to the big market 50 kilometres away in Puntarenas. Geneau laid out plump, fist-sized prawns, snapper fillets with the heft and marbled pink texture of ribeye steak, a wide array of smaller whitefish and a batallion of rock lobsters. “Caught free diving, if you can believe that,” he told us, pointing to the spiny shellfish. To which I responded, roughly, Say what?
Geneau explained: his lobsters were hand-caught by local divers who fished without boats and traps, without bait, without even a scuba tank – they simply dove in and resurfaced with the lobster. This would’ve seemed amazing in any event, but after two weeks in the fishmongerless wastes of Jaco, it was flat-out miraculous. It was a similar story with the rest of his wares: line-caught on small boats by locals who’d probably been ready to abandon their crafts to the homogenizing big-business fates until Geneau came along. This had to be about the most sustainably caught seafood I’d ever encountered. Heck, it had a bit of that ole William McDonough restorative-enterprise sheen to it – this was gastronomic tourism that was rebuilding an all-but-lost cottage industry.
This was, moreover, what travel is for: an unforgettable and totally distinctive experience and a singular memory of a place. The lobsters, prawns and whitefish I grilled that night, following Geneau's careful instructions, were sublime.
People don’t come to Costa Rica, in other words, to take a zipline tour – they take zipline tours because they are so readily available and well-marketed in Costa Rica. Beyond the desire of affluent residents of cold-weather climes to be warm in winter, feel sand between their toes and drink fruity cocktails, package-style tourism (eco or otherwise, in the tropics and beyond) is to a large extent a learned behaviour.
Costa Rica’s tourism industry is already at least superficially aware of the value of careful ecological stewardship; I’m guessing it wouldn’t be too hard to tweak its focus toward the broader sustainability agenda. So then: what if the arriving tourist found brochures by the baggage carousel highlighting all the low-impact, even restorative things that could be done even from the comfort of a resort? What if caring for the rainforest and caring about the toucans was equated, from the moment you hit the seat of your hotel shuttle, with sustainable seafood and a smaller carbon footprint? What if tax credits were awarded to the tourist industry for investing in local fisheries, building regional transit infrastructure, developing walking and biking paths through the nearby rainforest instead of wider roads to the nearest reserve? What if there were incentives for serving local produce, renting out snorkeling gear and kayaks instead of jetskis, bringing in the abundant local surfing talent to provide lessons and/or entertainment?
What if – to come back to my case in point – part of the typical eco-tourist’s holiday included the chance to watch free-diving for lobsters up close, maybe even learn to do it oneself, and in any event to feast on the catch afterward at a beachfront bonfire?
In short, what if the eco-tourism industry realized its future depended as much on the provenance of its seafood as it does on the lushness of its jungles and the speed of its ziplines? The answer would point in the direction of real sustainability, I think. And it definitely points toward the kind of place I’d go out of my way to visit again.
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.
What if people bought a good pair of walking shoes and a map and used their vacation time to explore and *really* get to know the area they live in, rather than flying all the way to Costa Rica?
Nice Article. Reminds me of my trip to Costa Rica. We came close enough to Malpais Peninsula to see it, but never made it there.
In general, this is another example of the problem of individual action. Until we have a global system of habitat conservation/greenhouse gas regulation/toxic reduction then we will only see these small attempts at sustainability because there is no incentive for the hotel to talk sustainability when they could sell zip line tours... unless people like Chris move to Costa Rica and just do it themselves.
curious, "And in the evening, you can definitely see the small cluster of lights representing Playa Montezuma, Malpais’ neighbour and spiritual twin." Where in Malpais would you be able to see Montezuma, especially its playa? Its on the other side of the peninsula and totally impossible to see from Malpais.
also...Malpais is nothing like Montezuma, especially spiritually.
Great article! I have lived off and on in Costa Rica for years and have always extolled it's virtues and perils... In the case of the fishermen of the country, export from big supplier-conglomerates to major market consumers is what makes it nearly impossible to find decent fish in a country rife with them. It is also what makes Costa Rica the place where sharks go to die. In talking with second and third generation fishermen in my area and others, I heard the same story every time. Suppliers will give fishermen gas for their boats and basic supplies and in exchange, the fishermen must sell their catches and a deeply discounted price to the supplier, who then ships it off to other countries to rapidly dwindle in quality as it's price bloats. Most working man Ticos don't have the personal resources to wait it out as, for instance, a Product C comes around. They usually cannot even afford the gas they need. I had one such experience with a neighbor Francesco inviting me to go fishing, but having no gas for the trip. Expecting that his friend, but Gringo, would have the money to pay for it. I saw it another way... Having an abundance of coconuts on my land, I waited for the truck of Jose and his two nimble sons to show up, shimmy up the 20 meter trees and lower the 60 kilo bunches to the ground, after which, paying me the whopping sum of 12 colones per coconut. But, selling over 150 coconuts, does add up to enough to buy "gasolina!" that both Francesco and I were happy to shout out at our payday. We took our money and bought the few gallons we could get and I worried we could not get bait for our trip. Francesco calmed my fears and said to be ready and 4:30 in the morning. And ready I was after eating a hearty breakfast of Gallo Pinto , plantains and coffee I made for us both and hi brother-in-law, Jorge. We navigated the dark growths behind his house to the estuary to find his very modest boat. And while it was still dark, paddled out into the croaking, chirping, cawing tree-draped waters. He produced a net that he deftly tossed over his shoulder into the blackness that surrounds us. What he dredged up made me realize how lucky we were to be here; Langostinos! Big beautiful Langostinos- probably the escaped cousins of the those farm-raised in the nearby pads of the estuary. I worked to fill the bottom of the boat with water as he filled it with the bait good enough to eat. And as the first light appeared to the east, we set out to drive the length of the river to where it's muddy rage clashes the teaming brackish waters of the Pacific. We held the boat near steady with his makeshift anchor of a heavy section of an engine block tied to a knotted rope. I sensed his trepidation on tossing it's heft off the boat and asked, to which he replied, it had been many a times the rope would snap and he would have to dive in, to the bottom, to get his "anchor". Next, Francesco produced three worn chunks of wood that had line wrapped on their ends and rusty hooks. We all reached around our feet and produced a writhing, flipping Langostino that became the end to our bolo-whipped hooks we tossed out into the now blazing morning sun. Not long after the bait hit the water did Jorge tell me that he is cursed. So cursed, he cannot catch a fish to save his life, but came along for the company. I laughed thinking he was joking, but low and behold, he never caught a thing while Francesco and I proceeded to pull up beautiful fish after fish. It took some getting used to fishing with the rudimentary tools, but the reward was truly satisfying. With our catch, what remained of the bait, and the sun emblazoned on our backs, we headed home the salt spray on our faces. Upon arriving at their house, we are greeted by the children of the extended family and several dogs and lots of smiling faces. The kids jump up and down at the sight of the fish and try to lay their hands on their glistening bodies, jumping and laughing when the fish flips from side to side. Jorges' wife, whom he affectionately calls Riena or Queen, takes the fish as if her part is already studied in this elaborate orchestration. I watched as she quickly scaled, gutted and cleaned the fish. She whacked the top off several of the pipas (coconuts) I brought them and drained their sweet, mildly grassy tasting water into a pot. We trade several of the fish with a family nearby for fruit and vegetables. She also chopped up yucca, onions, and plantains. We drink Chicha de Nance, a very powerful alcohol made from fermenting a yellow vegetable/fruit called a Nance in the ground for a year and wash it down with agua de pipa. We eat bananas, mangos, and papaya and look for patience in the moment. The pot is boiling and we are too as she drops the fish into the pot and walks to the scruffy greens that rim the house and rips a handful out of the ground and tosses it into the brewing stew along with the remainder of our bait. We all laugh at Jorge's curse that was so bad as to not only forbid him a catch, but to have lost his grip on the line as we watched it glide through the air, in it's entirety, to a "plunk" in the water. We all find patience to wait in the Chicha and are then surprised to find hot, spicy stew handed to us in coconut shells by smiling kids and watching dogs. I sank deep into the joy of that food, marveling at our journey from my request to Francesco to buy or trade for some fish, his situation with the supplier prohibiting it, the lack of gasoline, Jose's family harvesting and buying the coconuts, our colones the gasoline, the early morning netting of the "bait", the fishing, the trading of the fish for ingredients, the coconuts coming full circle and the way it was all done by trade and friendship. That is one meal I will never forget.