The price of paradise in Costa Rica

Tamarindo, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast, struggles to balance mass tourism with its fragile environment.

I was on my back in the sand staring at the sky, listening to the waves collapse lazily onto the Pacific shore of Costa Rica. I’d been waiting for turtles for three hours.

The half moon edged the passing clouds with silver filigree.

Our guide kept looking at his watch. For him, this was work. He’d spent more than 100 nights in a row waiting for leatherback turtles at the Baulas National Park ranger station.

It was mid-February and this was the second-to-last turtle tour of the season.

“I think we’re going to call it, guys,” he said at about 11 p.m. to the group of 30 sleepy tourists. “No turtles tonight.”

So, we began the hourlong walk back to the condos, hotels and vacation homes that make up the jumble of civilization known as Tamarindo.

After about 10 minutes, the guide’s radio squawked with a message from the rangers: A turtle had come ashore 3 miles up the coast.

“We go back, guys,” the guide said. So we turned heel and with renewed vigor headed north in the soft sand.

The leatherback turtle, which can weigh 2,000 pounds and be up to 9 feet long, had come from as far as 6,000 miles away to lay her eggs — swimming perhaps all the way from the Galapagos.

The leatherback is part of a turtle family that survived the extinction of the dinosaurs. They’ve been around for 100 million years, and there are only a few thousand left in the world.

To forgo a little sleep, to walk a few hours in the sand — small sacrifices to make to meet such a traveler.

I did not go to Tamarindo because of the leatherbacks; when I’d made my plans, I had no idea they laid eggs on the beach just north of town.

I went to Tamarindo for the simple reason that it’s the nearest resort town to the international airport at Liberia, where, until last year, Northwest Airlines had sent a planeload of tourists on a direct flight every Saturday during the winter vacation season.