BY: Elim Almedom
On a dirt road, after driving for under an hour, our bus rolls into Santa Elena, a small town in the Monteverde forest of Costa Rica. Here is what I find: A pizzeria, an enormous souvenir shop, and a multitude of signs offering tours of “authentic” nature in Costa Rica. I also find that I can get free Wi-Fi. Duly noted. Ecotourism is defined as “a form of tourism involving visiting fragile, pristine, and relatively undisturbed natural areas, intended as a low-impact and often small scale alternative to standard commercial (mass) tourism”. Being an eco-tourist is surprisingly easy here, almost as if the town was made to cater to us. Which of course it is. Santa Elena is in the middle of a huge nature reserve that draws in thousands of visitors every year. What I am drawn to however is the underlying question—what does it really mean to be an eco-tourist? People, myself included, come to these places, these enclaves of the natural world, with the hope of finding unity with nature, of helping to preserve one of the last pristine places on Earth. Pristine. That’s an interesting word. What does it mean? Certainly, it must have something to do with being untainted by the material world. But are they? I spent all day with a camera glued to my face hoping to take in all that I could and maybe bring a few souvenirs home to mom. Wasn’t I just consuming nature? And what’s the problem with that? I’m not a corporation, storming in, guns blazing with plans to bulldoze Santa Elena and the surrounding Monteverde region in order to build a few shiny, new skyscrapers and maybe a twenty-story apartment complex to match. But it’s still worrying. While my impact may not be as damaging to Santa Elena as that, it is still palpable. The young children I encounter serve as a barometer of this confusion. Their parents know exactly what we’re here for, but the children looked at me in puzzlement. I sense mistrust in their eyes. To them I must have looked foolish, walking around, mouth agape, taking pictures of everything I could, from shrubs to signs to something as simple as a door to the market. Because to me it isn’t just a market, it’s an authentic, Costa Rican market with none of the trapping of the huge corporate chains in America. And then it becomes obvious to me what’s wrong with this whole set up. The markets in Santa Elena and the ones I see every day in the states have one major thing in common: commodification. Materialism did not disappear when we arrived in this nature outpost in Costa Rica. Rather we brought it with us, turning nature into a product to be bought, sold, and consumed. Am I a tacit participant in the very process I came here to avoid? Does the arrival of ecotourists in these places do more harm than help? After all, who needs Wi-Fi, “authentic” pizzerias, and souvenir tourist traps in a town whose simplicity is its main draw? Apparently we do. And as long as tourism is the main source of income for these small towns, they will deliver, cementing them as a part of the contradiction that is at the heart of their survival. As our bus rolls out of Santa Elena, I wonder if I will return—and if I do, will I be able to enjoy it, knowing that I too am part of the contradiction.