Costa Rica I: Paradise on the brink
Along the way, we encountered Howler and Spider monkeys, small wild pigs (peccory), nesting macaw, an andolescent boa constrictor, crocodiles, a tree sloth, a Toucan, a Quaker and tourists, lots of tourists.
I should start with our guide and host Sergio Volio, who worked for years in Costa Rica’s parks and was a walking encyclopedia about native flora and fauna. Traipsing along a forest trail, his powerful telescope over his shoulder, he’d scan the forest canopy for signs of life. Blobs of fur, flashes of plumage, a floral burst. We too craned out necks for discovery, but compared to Sergio, we were blind.
“Look!” he’d say. “A King Vulture! Do you realize how fortunate we are to see that. The King is legendary.” And he would share the legend.
Between hikes, on the long bus rides between destinations, Sergio doled out the history of his country, the struggle to preserve its stunning and fragile ecosystem, and warnings of the ravishes of booming, unmonitored growth that threatens to overwhelm Costa Rica.
We passed garish condominium enclaves for expatriates, mostly Americans. Century 21 Realty signs dot the coastal road skirting the languid Pacific beaches. The rococo gated entry to one sprawling development was festooned with in-your-face American flags.
One of the best sources of information about the country is the English-Language “Tico Times.” It’s first issue of the new year carried a story headlined “’08 will not be a good time for Flora, Fauna” Among the problems: “Tourism development itself is eating up open space and encroaching on the country’s wildlife, and rivers have been converted to open sewers. Laws are lax and enforcement even more so.”
Statements like that didn’t make looking in the hotel mirror each morning any easier. Our little band of visitors was a part of the problem. For two nights in Monteverde, we stayed in a massive hotel complex of 900 rooms. It was built up a hill so steep that you had to take a shuttle bus to get to your room.
Some efforts have been made to slow growth. Monteverde, high in the mountains, straddling the continental divide, is a good example. A settlement of Quakers, conscientious objectors to the Korean War, put down roots in 1951 and soon nurtured a conservation movement (and opened a cheese factory that is still thriving) To slow growth, the Monteverde Quakers persuaded the government to leave the roads to community and its surrounding forests unpaved. The hoteliers liked the idea too because the roads discouraged day tripping. Tourists, arriving after hours of rutted dirt roads, stayed overnight.
But the corrugated roads haven’t stopped the flood. Monteverde has the allure of forbidden fruit. While many, perhaps most, visitors seek out the forests for study, spiritual sanctuary and enlightenment, hordes of thrill seekers come for the adrenaline rush of the zip lines that course above the canopy. The forest silence is punctured by howls and screams of zip liners streaking above the trees and beneath the intrusive cables.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that Costa Rica, with its 500,000 species, nearly 4 percent of the world’s total, is no secret to environmentalists like Sergio, who are fighting to expand its parks and preserves. Today, one-fourth of the country is protected. Indeed the country has a larger percentage of its land set aside for parks and preserves than any other country.
Because it has been so closely studied Costa Rica, is where one of the early warning signs of Global warming’s devastation was discovered. Tree frogs and other amphibians, sensing the change in climate, were forced higher and higher into the mountains until there was no place higher to go. There they face extinction. The tiny, colorful Costa Rican frogs were the canaries in our planetary mine shaft.
But so much more needs to be done, as the Tico Times and Sergio point out. The fragility of life in the face of global climate change is no more apparent than here, in this richly diverse, interdependent community of life.
Those who have visited Costa Rica and have been shown its endangered treasure may leave, but they can never turn their backs on it.