Sitting on a patch of white sand on a nearly deserted beach, steps away from a dense jungle, we were mesmerized by the thundering waves and transfixed by a family of howler monkeys, leaping from tree to tree. My 3-year-old son, James, ambled by and threatened to drop a pair of heavy coconuts right on our heads. But I was lost in a reverie, listening to the surprisingly deep, guttural calls of the monkeys.
We were in Santa Teresa, a laid-back beach town near the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica. Despite a decade of explosive growth, the region’s natural beauty remains intact, but Santa Teresa is no longer the undiscovered surfer’s paradise it once was.
The town’s unpaved road, which feels very much like a simple path through a jungle, is now lined with eco-friendly lodges, yoga retreats and trendy restaurants serving organic food. Mel Gibson and Gisele Bündchen own homes in the area, which includes the neighboring town of Mal Pais, as well as Playa Carmen and Playa Hermosa, all connected by a dicey dirt road set back from the ocean. Swarms of idealistic young people from around the world who arrived on vacation but never went home have turned the place into a haven for big-city dropouts.
On my first walk back to Florblanca, an intimate beachfront eco-resort — with indoor/outdoor rooms with open-air bathrooms and showers that feel like part of the surrounding jungle, a mile north of town — I could feel the town’s growing pains, as trucks, ATVs and cars zoomed by, leaving me and all the other pedestrians choking in dust. Some of my fellow pedestrians and plenty of cyclists and ATV riders were wearing surgical masks, bandannas or scarves over their noses and mouths to avoid inhaling the dust, and even the products in a nearby grocery store seemed to be coated in it. In the dry season, the dust is unavoidable, and in the rainy season, the road is a muddy soufflé.
After years of unfulfilled promises and delays, the local municipality started preliminary work on paving a three-mile stretch of road through town in June and indicated that another four-mile section would be paved at a later date. But many residents are skeptical that the road will be properly paved.
“We’ll believe it when we see it,” said Jennifer Harter, a Costa Rican photographer who grew up near San José and moved to Santa Teresa in 2002. “They ‘paved’ the road four or five years ago, but they did such a poor job that three months later, big potholes were there, and six months later, it was completely destroyed, so it’s hard to have faith.”
Residents are divided over whether the road leading through town should be paved. A majority of residents I met favor paving the road to combat the dust, which, several of those I talked with said, is the source of severe respiratory issues for a number of people, but others said they believed that paving the road could invite the kind of overdevelopment that has plagued other beach towns, like Jaco and Tamarindo. Tamarindo paved its roads in 2004 and is now derisively referred to as “Tamagringo” by those who avoid big resorts and package-tour vacations.
“Travelers don’t want the places they love to change,” said Daniel Fesenmaier, a professor at Temple University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality Management. “But that’s not realistic. The pioneers who discover a place might go away because they want to find someplace new, but another group will come in behind them, and that’s a huge market.”
The notion that little Santa Teresa, which has no structures over two stories, might turn into a tourist trap seemed far-fetched to me during our long, bumpy journey there in late February from the hyper-developed Manuel Antonio National Park area. A hydrofoil service from Jaco to Montezuma wasn’t running because of high winds, so we took the scenic route: a two-hour drive to Puntarenas, followed by a wait for an hourlong ferry ride to Paquera, and an hour-plus drive to Santa Teresa, with the last seven and a half miles spent on a rutted dirt road. (Travelers coming from San José can take a short flight into Tambor, just a half-hour drive from Santa Teresa, but there is no avoiding the unpaved road into town.)
But if there’s anything I’ve learned in four decades of wandering, it’s that you aren’t going to find the world’s most unspoiled beaches located conveniently off the Interstate. The beaches in and around Santa Teresa are worth the detour, and the town’s isolation and frontier-town vibe are a big part of its appeal.
Santa Teresa has never been an easy place to get to. The Guanacaste region was briefly part of newly independent Nicaragua until locals voted to secede and join Costa Rica in 1824. The Mal Pais-Santa Teresa area was essentially one large cattle farm until after World War II. Surfers began to trickle in during the 1970s and ’80s, electricity and telephone service came to parts of the area in the mid ’90s, and growth accelerated in the last decade.
As I sipped a freshly blended mango smoothie one morning at Florblanca, my server, a Vancouver native who now lives in Santa Teresa, told me that she slept in a yurt on the beach when she first visited the town, 13 years ago. She recalled that there were just a handful of intrepid backpackers and no electricity in the north end of town. When I asked her how she felt about paving the road, her response was an unequivocal “no.”
“We want to keep this place as it is,” she said.
The issue is a complex one for Cody Dillon, a Missouri native who moved to Santa Teresa eight years ago and now manages Florblanca. A paved road would be good for business and even better for her boyfriend, whom she said has suffered lung infections from the dust, but she would rather see the municipality follow through on a proposal raised at a recent community meeting to put melted sugar cane, or some type of emulsion, on the road to control the dust.
A beach in the Santa Teresa area. Credit Dave Seminara for The New York Times
“Once you pave the road, you lose that off-the-beaten-track charm,” she said.
Stephane Geneau, 28, a Vancouver native who runs Product C, a family-owned seafood market and restaurant, wants to see the road paved.
“We can pave the road but keep this place green and savage,” he said. “You put in speed bumps and enforce the zoning law, which says that you can’t build within 50 meters of the high-tide line. You won’t see high-rise buildings because you can’t build above the tree line.”
I spent most of my time in Santa Teresa on the beach, avoiding the dusty road, but on my last full day in town, I went on a hike at the nearby Curu Wildlife Refuge with a local guide named Pabrö Sanchez, who runs an adventure tour company called Sapoa Adventures. His enthusiasm for the park’s exotic birds and wildlife — “Look, there’s a Hoffman’s woodpecker!” “Over there, check it out, a coati!” — was contagious. But on the way back to town, he shared his concern that the area’s rapid development might spoil its wild flavor. Mr. Sanchez wants to see the road paved, but insists the government first establish a plan to develop the area responsibly.
“Realistically, this kind of plan will never happen,” he said. “If the paved road comes in this context with no order, development will accelerate and ruin this place.”
Ms. Harter, the photographer, said that when she first moved to the area to surf in 2002, she opposed paving the road, because she wanted the place to stay raw and untouched, but now she believes the road should be paved.
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Santa Teresa, Costa Rica SEPT. 4, 2013
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“Ten years ago, there weren’t that many people living here, the tree canopy was over the road so the monkeys could cross, but that’s already been lost when the road was widened years ago,” she said. “Now I think we need the road paved because of the health and safety issue, especially for the school kids.”
It’s easy to see why the possible development of the area inspires such deep passions. Aside from the consistent waves, the idyllic beach, the nearby Cabo Blanco Nature Reserve and the array of fine restaurants, there’s an addictive, intangible quality to the place that isn’t easily defined. Many of those who have moved to the town from Israel, North and South America and Europe are idealists; people disenchanted with the career-climbing lifestyle or shut out of opportunities at home by the global recession. In Santa Teresa, they convene to live a simpler life, closer to nature.
Like just about everyone who visits Santa Teresa, I fantasized about dropping out and joining the crowd of expats in search of Costa Rica’s legendary pura vida, the good life. If I had discovered the place when I was younger and without a family or responsibilities, perhaps I would have stayed. When it came time to face up to our inevitable departure, I still didn’t know whether Santa Teresa could pave its road and somehow retain its appeal, but a conversation I had with Mr. Geneau, after leaving town, has me convinced that Santa Teresa will be just fine.
“There are a lot of expats trying to hang onto the dream, you know, like Robinson Crusoe castaways,” he said, referring to those who oppose paving the road. “That’s what a lot of us moved down here for. But that dream isn’t going to be ruined if we get a paved road.”