TORTUGUERO, COSTA RICA—On my first Costa Rica morning, I was dreaming that President George W. Bush was scolding me for my lousy Spanish, when a scabrous pack of roosters woke me well before dawn. Pretty soon my fellow travelers, Christian and John, were banging on the door to my room asking, um, Natalie, do you need help in there, i.e., what the hell is taking you so long? And then I barely managed to stuff everything into my suitcase and had to pull it all apart a few minutes later, because the little plane we were taking couldn't handle the weight, and I was marinating in my favorite spice, chronic gloom, and I had scant hope for this trip—hasn't Costa Rica been done, done, done, and everybody I knew had already been there anyway, and I want my mommy!
Little did I suspect that Costa Rica is a great place to go when you are a big overripe sullen child, because Costa Rica is like FAO Schwarz without the Chapter 11 filing, Candyland without the dentist. The birds and flowers and butterflies are so saturated with colors, they look like somebody cheated and slipped in food dye, and the monkeys are cute and foppish and scary when they shake a rain of nuts in your direction, and an anteater crawling along a branch, slipping and bumbling and whoopsy-doing all the way, looks like evolution doing vaudeville. Little did I suspect that an hour after waking up in my personal cloud bank, we would be flying through skies so clear that our energetic, knowledgeable, and abundantly braided tour guide, Karla Taylor, repeatedly expressed her amazement. As we flew from San Jose and then to Tortuguero, located on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, and she gazed out over the thick green chenille of the Carillo national forest, she said that in all the times she'd made the trip, she had only seen the high-elevation cloud forest this clearly maybe four or five times. Normally, she said, all you can see over it are … clouds.
Our good fortune would hold for the rest of the day, which meant I had what was for me the most unusual thing of all: a wonderful time. I'd come to Costa Rica to do a story on the state of eco-tourism. Costa Rica is the crown empress of eco-tourism. You can hardly think of one without the other anymore, and such glib associations make a journalist leery (admittedly a journalist's default posture). I came to learn about why Costa Rica is such a popular destination for tourists—1 million a year, descending on a country smaller than the state of West Virginia and with a population of only 4 million. I planned to ask questions like, "What does eco-tourism mean, anyway?" Maybe it's like the label "organic," something that everybody wants to slap on their product to jack up the price and prestige, without necessarily forgoing the crop dusters, the bovine growth hormone, or the late-night release of eco-turista sewage into the nearest stream. I wanted to see who benefited from eco-tourism and who was left out: Do the locals see any of the goodies from rich Yanqui tourists, or are the beneficiaries other rich Yanquis who figured out how to capitalize on their compatriots' yen for nature? Is wilderness to be nothing but one big toll-boothed playground for people like me, soft-core biophiliacs who can't even pack a suitcase properly?
And though I intend to address these issues in the next several dispatches, let me tell you for now that some things cannot be oversold or overhyped or overpraised, and a day like the day I just spent is one of them. The nature that I saw in the national forest of Tortuguero was so beautiful, so outrageously, restlessly, profligately inventive that I would say, absolutely, if you can do it, come here tomorrow. See the things that we saw in just three hours' time, as we took a boat ride in a low-key motorboat with a four-stroke engine—as environmentally palatable as a boat engine can be. See thick, black-bodied howler monkeys that croak and roar and twitter, grabbing leaves and crashing through the trees and chomping away on their cellulose snacks like cows, which is about how clever they are, given the nutrient-deprived quality of their diet. See spider monkeys, creeping through the upper canopy of the trees with their five filamentous limbs—four legs and one very enviable prehensile tail. Whip your binoculars here; no, over there; oh yes, there they are! A keel-billed toucan and a chestnut-mandibled toucan, with clacking bright Mardi Gras schnozzes that surely must be attached in the back by elastic strings. See a slaty-tailed trogon, a close relative of the resplendent quetzal; and if the quetzal is a feathered divinity, a godlike figure to the ancient Mayans—and now the name of Guatemala's currency—the slaty-tailed trogon, with its ruby belly and beak and its emerald nape, is a natty high priest. Gawk at green iguanas above and spectacled caimans below. We saw many caimans, which are small members of the alligator family. My favorite was sitting on the bank of the river, stone-still, mouth agape in a little "O" like the spout on a fountain figurine, the better to keep its body temperature regulated. But the caiman didn't spout, didn't blink, didn't do anything except look the way reptiles do—mean and vain and permanently offended.
To see any of this, you have to have great luck and even greater guides, as we did, Karla and Franklin, who can tell when a leaf is fluttering from the wind or from the first sign of an approaching northern tamandua anteater, which looks like it's wearing a brown sweater vest over its toasty caramel underclothing, and which has the elongated, hairless, and toothless snout that bespeaks the ant-eating trade—something good for sticking into anthills and termite mounds and able to direct its long gluey tongue for quick ant-ivorous licks. Karla hadn't seen a tamandua in Tortuguero for the last couple of years. "That's a five-star find!" she said to Franklin. They agreed that they rarely saw so many beasts in one brief jaunt through the reserve. Our host, Michael Kaye, president of Costa Rica Expeditions, who has been in the eco-tourism business for almost 25 years, told me something I know to be false: If nature is being so good to you, he said, you must have done something to deserve it.
Natalie Angier is a science writer for the New York Times and the author of Woman: An Intimate Geography.