Just 10 years ago, visitors to Costa Rica consisted largely of adventurous shoestring backpackers and wave-hungry surfers who stretched their beer money by holing up in cheap dives. It's not difficult to see what attracted those hardy travelers. Jagged, high-altitude cloud forest inland
gives way to steamy jungles lining the coasts. Visitors can spot wild scarlet macaws in flight and rare sea turtles nesting on isolated beaches. There's no reason to watch National Geographic when you can live it.
Costa Rica is coming of age--and grappling with new challenges to the environment that has fueled its growth. As word about its staggering natural beauty has slipped out, the country has become one of the world's leading eco-destinations, attracting a million visitors a year. With this boom, upscale resorts are establishing beachheads up and down the Pacific Coast, offering championship golf courses, world-class restaurants and plenty of spas. But as hotels and other tourism businesses increasingly set up shop in remote and pristine areas, the government--which lacks the resources for effective enforcement--is facing issues such as deforestation and waste disposal.
Some of the country's leading hoteliers have decided that tourism and conservation don't always have to be at odds. They have begun to work on ways to protect the environment. The newly opened Four Seasons Resort fourseasons.com/costarica on the Papagayo Peninsula sacrifices nothing in the way of luxury. The earth-colored hotel was designed to blend into the tropical dry forest of the northwest Guanacaste region, and its breezy, low-slung buildings overlook tranquil white-sand beaches below. There are tennis courts, pools and a golf course. The hotel has made concessions to the environment too: 70% of its land area will remain in its natural state, and the golf course uses a type of grass that can be irrigated with a 50% ocean-water mix, conserving valuable freshwater.
In a similar nod to the eco-ethic, Hacienda Pinilla haciendapinilla.com) a 4,500-acre resort and residential community on the Nicoya Peninsula, will maintain extensive tracts of its terrain undeveloped. Hidden in the heart of cattle country--Costa Rica's Wild West--this tropical dry forest is inhabited by dense populations of howler monkeys, iguanas and birds. Guests who take advantage of the resort's seaside golf course can expect to encounter plenty of the local wildlife, including a boa that has taken up residence in a heavily wooded patch of trees by the 14th hole. This has come at no sacrifice to amenities. Accommodations and services around the ranch are top-notch.
Smaller boutique hotels, such as El Remanso elremanso.com on the Pacific Coast, have found ways to be environmentally conscious from the ground up. Fallen wood was used to build El Remanso's roomy cabins, so no rare hardwood trees were logged. Each unit is surrounded by a moat of moving water that keeps ants out of the rooms, eliminating the need for pesticides.