The Death of Nostalgia

palm tree in manuel antonioThough I always like visiting new destinations, when I really like a place, I want to go back, and I often revisit places I’ve been. In February, I went back to Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. The last time I was there was in 2003, and I remember Manuel Antonio for its amazing number of monkeys, lush jungles, and wide, white-sand beach. While it was touristy back then, I wouldn’t say it was “overdeveloped.”

When I came back this year, I was shocked to find that the only thing that I could recognize of the Manuel Antonio I used to know was the beach. The road running between Quepos (the closest main town) and Manuel Antonio once boasted a single restaurant, but now it’s lined with hotels, resorts, and overpriced eateries serving Western or Americanized dishes. The beach, which was once so quiet, is now filled with hawkers, food sellers, and beach umbrellas.

One of the things that made Manuel Antonio so special is the park that sits on the town’s edge. To get there in 2003, you had to wade across an estuary and enter through a tiny gate. If you stayed in the park too late, the rising tide meant you had to swim! Now, there’s a new entrance from the road and a park center. What makes it even worse is the huge hotel that has been erected right by the park entrance. Nature’s serenity has been disturbed.

When I was there in 2003, I couldn’t walk five feet without tripping over an animal. Monkeys were everywhere, and I saw deer, land crabs, birds, and animals with names I didn’t know. Now, I could barely hear the sounds of the monkeys in trees, and I didn’t see one land crab in the park that wasn’t dead. The only monkeys I saw were the ones on the beach waiting to be fed by tourists.

taking a photograph of a monkey

I was there with Jess and Dani from Globetrotter Girls. Dani had never been there before but Jess had visited in 2000, and we both commented and lamented on the change. “We might as well be in America,” she said. “This could be Hawaii, California, or Florida”.

Manuel Antonio had me wondering if development could be too much of a bad thing. A while ago, I wrote a post called, How Travel is Bad for the World. In it I said:

“Traveling is not the most eco-friendly of activities. Flying, cruising, eating out, and driving around all have a negative impact on the environment. Most people, when they travel constantly, use towels in hotel rooms, leave the air conditioner going, or forget to turn off the lights. Jet-setting around the world in airplanes or driving around in an RV all contribute to global warming. Between waste, development, and pollution, we’re doing exactly what The Beach said we would do—we’re destroying the very paradise we seek.”

One of my favorite travel books is The Beach. I relate to the theme of the book all too well. The book is about how travelers, especially backpackers, look for paradise that doesn’t exist outside their heads and how even when they find something great, they end up ruining it. On the road, I often encounter travelers who talk about how good a place was 10 years ago, but how “the tourists” have ruined it now. It’s always said with snide superiority, and I hate it. “If you don’t like it, why are you back?” I say to them. Now, having come back to a place I haven’t been to in seven years, I wonder if I’m being like those travelers. Have I become jaded, or am I simply romanticizing the past?

a throng of photographers

Certainly, development has brought many great things to Manuel Antonio. The local economy is booming now that there’s a lot more work for locals. There’s more money for better roads and infrastructure. The water is now clean to drink. There are more accommodation options for visitors. The pollution and environmental destruction you see in so many beach towns isn’t here yet. I can still swim in the water, the park hasn’t been cut down, and the roads aren’t filled with trash.

But what about the heart of a place? Has development destroyed the soul of Manuel Antonio? I noticed that prices are a lot higher, and there are a lot of big hotels that are in no way environmentally friendly. The road from the nearby main town of Quepos is now filled with hotels, and the jungle that was there is gone. Most apparent to me was the lack of animals in the park, which has almost certainly been scared away by the sudden influx of people hunting them down for that trophy travel photograph.

I can’t help thinking that what made me love this place has disappeared. “There are too many people here,” I told Jess. “It’s too touristy now.” And after I said it, I thought back to those travelers I’ve met and thought, “Ohh, no. Have I become that person?” Have I become what I hate? But now, I see the big point those travelers often so ineloquently try to make. It’s not that the place is bad now. What those travelers are really upset about is that the image in their mind is ruined. What they remember…what they came back for…isn’t there anymore.

The romantic picture they painted is gone and with it their innocence.

Yes, there’s more of everything in Manuel Antonio. It’s far more developed, but that doesn’t make it bad. It doesn’t mean that it’s “ruined.” I still recommend Manuel Antonio to travelers, and I’ll probably go back there again. What really upset me is not the development in Manuel Antonio but my own loss of innocence. It was the realization that the romantic image in my head isn’t reality now. Places change. They don’t stay the same. As much as we want for that place to always be how we left it, that can never happen. We can never simply insert ourselves back into the past and into our memory. Life is linear. It changes.

In the end, Manuel Antonio was never ruined. My false image of reality was, but in the long run, it’s simply better to enjoy places as they are and not lament how they used to be.

For more on going back to places you love, read these articles:

The Tragic Death of Phnom Penh’s Lake
Chasing Ghosts on Ios
Ko Lanta: The Thai Island That Remains Paradise
My Beach Paradise
Coming Back to Amsterdam

  1. The Beach is one of my favorite travel books as well. When I was travelling in Thailand a couple of months ago I found myself very overwhelmed by the amount of people and development on some of the beaches. Although it was my first time I could still tell that this was not the way these places used to be and it made me sad that I missed seeing them then. Like you i don’t like to whine about “what could have been,” but it does make me wonder about the long term effects of tourism.

    • NomadicMatt

      As much as I love Thailand, they do development all wrong. It’s build build build build without any thought for the future. After the tsunami, many people thought ok, here’s a chance to do it but they simply went back to their old ways. Now islands like Ko Phi Phi are even more developed. It does make me sad to see that happen.

  2. mcn3ill

    So sad to hear about Manual Antonio. I spent the summer in Costa Rica in 2000 and had a great weekend in Quepos and Manual Antonio. Would love to go back, but have always been afraid of encountering what you have described, and it somehow tainting my memories. Or perhaps I am just thinking about it too much.

  3. Not all tourism is bad…
    “In the end, Manuel Antonio was never ruined it was my false reality”.

    If things go according to plan (which they rarely do), I’ll be going to Costa Rica on a turtle conservation project next spring. I’ve never been before, but I must say that I don’t agree with that (^^) statement. From the way you described it, Manuel Antonio IS being ruined…by bad/wrong tourism. The great thing about developing countries is that they have the chance to do things right on their first try…In these changing times, it’s so important to protect the environment, and it’s so important for tourists to be aware of the impact they have on in the countries they visit/ on the damage their 5* hotel has done by being placed so conveniantely by the beach, with its beautiful view out every window.

    It’s great that the industry is blooming, it’s fantastic that the local economy is flowing…but it’s always important to make sure that the products and services tourists are purshasing ARE local (while I was searching a good dive shop in Honduras, i was reminded that most known dive shops don’t even employ locals…), and that the changes are positive (on the long run). ANYWAY, I’ve digressed–I guess my point is, change is good…only if it’s a good change? and this:

    “Now, I could barely hear the sounds of the monkeys in trees and I didn’t see one land crab in the park that wasn’t dead. The only monkeys I saw were the ones on the beach waiting to be feed by tourists.”

    is definately not good.

  4. I read The Beach when I was really young-maybe 13- and while I didn’t fully understand it then, I do credit it with fueling my desire to travel.

    This post also reminds me of a quote from The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

    “…the longing to seek out a place a second time, to find deliberately what we stumbled on once before, to recapture the feeling of discovery. Sometimes we search out again even a place that was not remarkable in itself–we look for it simply because we remember it. If we do find it, of course, everything is different. The rough-hewn door is still there, but it’s much smaller; the day is cloudy instead of brilliant; it’s spring instead of autumn; we’re alone instead of with three friends. Or, worse, with three friends instead of alone.”

    I feel like this happens a lot when returning to a place you’ve held especially dear for one reason or another.

  5. Very sad to hear this news of Manuel Antonio. My wife and I spent 3 weeks in a cabana outside of the park in 2005 and it was incredible. The wildlife, the serenity… the waves perfect for body surfing. There were some hawkers and a few restaurants but not nearly to the degree that you are describing….

    makes me want to pour out a 40oz in memory of M.A.

  6. agreed, everything changes. and there’s (almost) always something good along with the bad in changes. who knows, the people of Manuel Antonio may have a better life now that tourism is developed?
    and I guess we as travelers have to be more considerate, be as eco-friendly as we can in our travels..

  7. It is not very often that i will return to a place and love it just as much as I did the first time. I am beginning to think that some places are better as memories and nothing else.

    • NomadicMatt

      I agree. I won’t ever return to the island of Ko Lipe, as much as I would want to simply because the island I would go back to only exists in my head and I don’t want the perfect memory spoiled. That time and place existed for just a moment and now it’s gone and I simply won’t….can’t…chase its ghost.

  8. I experienced a similar thing when I visited Burma for the first time in 2005. Everything was a bit under-developed and there weren’t too many tourists. When I went back in 2010, hotels, high-end boutiques and tour groups were running rampant all over the country. This is Burma, we’re talking about! It was an absolute shock.

    When tourism develops, it brings much needed revenue and jobs to certain parts of the world but it also takes away much in terms of the actual landscape. Unfortunately, this is a continuing trend as more and more people want to visit these famous and sought after places and the locals are going to want to earn their living from it.

  9. I struggle with the balance between global development and natural preservation. As a committed traveler, I love the diversity of the world and hate to see it homogenized. I long for the wild and unspoiled beauty of lesser developed areas and I especially mourn the loss of animal habitats. But I also feel deeply for the world’s poor. The development of these previously “unspoiled” lands reflects nothing more than it’s inhabitants attempt to achieve for themselves some of the same comforts we in the developed west take for granted. In weighing these competing interests I always find myself coming down on the side of development that helps alleviate human suffering. Ideally we’d find a way to encourage responsible and ‘sustainable’ development, but even in its absence, I have to side with the people trying to feed and clothes themselves over and above the preservation of a favored leisure destination.

    • NomadicMatt

      I don’t think there is anything wrong with development and I am not one of those people who thinks you should tell other cultures what is or isn’t right for them. Tourism is a way for many places to make money and develop. However, there’s no reason that needs to be unchecked. I think a lot of sustainability is not focused on because of the need for money now. It’s easier to put up a few giant hotels right away then plan sustainably. I think that will change as local environments get more degraded and locals realized there’s a better way that still brings them money. But that’s my hope. I try not to be wasteful overseas.

  10. I live on an island whose name is synonymous with the “wrong” sort of tourism to most Europeans. In the 20+ years that I’ve lived here I’ve seen friendly villages become concrete jungles, and when I look up from the coast to the foothills and mountains above, I’m saddened by hillsides which were once natural landscapes and are now dotted with dwellings all over the place. Yet I have to remind myself of two things one is that these families who were here before me, whose ancestors came with the Conquistadors, have as much right to make a decent living as anyone has, and without tourism this would be a pleasant island, but third-world. It is tourism which drives the economy. I also have to remember that the tourists who crowd the local festivals and turn up on hikes also have every bit as much right to be there as I do. I would love that it was different, but such is life.

  11. Sometimes I wonder when the time will come when all places in the world have been exhausted by tourism. It’s only a matter of time until the next ‘paradise’ becomes more ‘public’ and known. What matters most though is that despite the exhaustion of these places, we travelers make an effort to preserve them :)

  12. Great post, I think it’s increasingly more important to travel in a sustainable manner and I hope more and more people who travel that see these changes in growing destinations realize the importance of preserving the areas.

    • NomadicMatt

      It often makes me sick to see the unchecked growth in many parts of the world. They are sacrificing long term tourism for short term profit.

  13. regina

    Yes, change is natural, but that doesn’t mean that a large influx of tourists into a small place, won’t have unfortunate effects, and I don’t mean for the disillusioned traveller, but for the people who actually live there. Sure living conditions may improve, but they come at a price. I asked a guy I know well about this a coupla days ago in Luang Prabang, which has been inunated with visitors since less than a decade ago. He said 50- 50. 50% positive 50% negative.

    • NomadicMatt

      Yeah, the original title for this was “Development’s Double Edge.” There’s definitely good aspects but there are certainly bad aspects for both travelers and locals.

  14. Hey Matt – I’m glad to see this story from you since we definitely talked about this a lot during the trip. You’re right – do we just try to re-visit a memory? Would we have been less disappointed if all those tourists were at Disneyland, or would that just have been because we expected it? I think when we travel, we just don’t expect there to be as many tourists as there really are. So many towns we have visited over these last months have been inundated by non-locals. But, if we are there, why should we think no one else will be?

    Great references to The Beach – the more we travel, the more we feel that same way, especially as travel bloggers who then let the secret slip on our blog so others go there too…Your pics are great, though, and show what it was “really” like at Manuel Antonio, something we don’t see often in travel photography! Great post!

  15. Great, thought provoking post. I’ve thought a lot about this as well and here’s how I look at it.

    The memories of every place we’ve ever been is unspoiled in our minds. All the sights, sounds and smells are captured in that moment, crystallized. The people you were with, the stuff you did, the things you saw. And all of these added together made the experience.

    Going back, there’s no way to recreate that exact same experience. You might see the place over-developed, the waters polluted, or lament your old traveling buddies. I think for me, if I ever went back to a place that I absolutely loved, I’d look back longingly at the good times I had.

    Then again, you could have an amazing second time. But rapidly developing third world countries, that’s damn near impossible if you valued the “off the beaten path” feeling.

  16. Your final paragraph says it all. Less is indeed more. More is the problem. There are more people, more money but less “class.” I visited pristine Quepos in 1976, the way it was created. Now, they paved paradise and put up a parking lot. There is not much innocence to lose any more in this world. No one seems to notice or REALLY care. That is the problem.

    This is not meant to be negative. One can only fix a problem after first identifying and articulating the problem. You and I could both do something if we cared enough. Save the tiger, mister?

  17. There’s such a strong economic incentive for them to develop, especially in the poorer countries that I don’t think it will end anytime soon. The world’s a big place though, so it’s fun to look for the next lesser-known paradise.

  18. that quote from the historian says it all. and you know, whenever we go back somewhere, it’s ALL changed, even if development hasn’t changed it – because WE have changed.

  19. I felt the same, but with cities like Buenos Aires or Madrid. I grew up in Buenos Aires, so going back there and seeing it so.. different (for better or for worse), is still a strange and melancholic feeling. With Madrid, I lived there for about two years, from 2007 to 2009, and although I go back often, I still get a funny feeling seeing how much it has changed. Both cities are definitely not the city I lived in any longer, or at least the image of them that I kept in my head.

    Yet, when confronting the development of a place that used to be a small paradise, and has become a “cool” tourist destination, I think the shock can be stronger.

    I agree that it also has to do with us, as travelers: we have changed, so we don’t see the city the same way anymore.

    And personally, I’ve grown to realize that the people that shared my life with me in one place MADE what the city was to me. So perhaps that’s why I find it so hard to go back to a place like Madrid: all my closest friends that lived there with me were expats, and are long gone. My life there was great, thanks to them.

    But, that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it?

  20. The first paradox of travel writing… attracting lots of people to a place can ruin it. I think there are SOME places where tourism has not hurt (or even helped) a location – I am gonna have to do a post on this. Thanks for the thoughtful article!

  21. Jose

    Congrats for the article. I used to live in Manuel Antonio when I was a child. If you think Manuel Antonio changed since 2003 or so.. well, i cannot describe what I feel every time i return to Manuel Antonio. It used to be a wild paradise… the only hotels I remember then was Mariposa up on the hill and Mar y Sombra just in front of the beach. That was it. No asphalt streets, no rush, no buildings. Only a wild, green rainforest, the majestic views and virgin beaches. My father fought for the national park establishment in the late 70’s, when it was still a farm. I cannot say that everything is wrong now, or everything was right back then… but I do think it could have been developed with more care, caution and the vision of what Manuel Antonio real treasure was. Nevertheless, its still a wonderful place and the third beach is still for me the most beautiful beach in Costa Rica. Everything change in this world, “cambia todo cambia” like the song… thanks again for your article.

  22. I learnt only recently the true value of “living in the moment”. Its important to be present whereever you are, with traveling you usually are due to the awe of being somewhere for the first time and your awareness you’re there for only a short time.

    Then complacency sets in, cameras get taken out and we’re out of the moment agin. But really its always been that way. Our value systems, our upbringing and expectations colored our perception of the moment and place in the first instance.

    With technology and industry we’ve been losing our innocence for a long time. Then people find new ground, other people start paving it and the rest get to see it for themselves. Ideally everyone involved should operate in good conscience.

  23. Angela

    Thanks for the tip. for me it will be returning home after 6 years, to a city thats undergone flooding and consequent rebuilding. its now better than ever, so im told. but ive been romanticising “home” this long while, being where i am has been hard at best, so im thinking im going to have to prepare for a big shock, and loss of innocence!

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