PUERTO JIMÉNEZ, Puntarenas — As we walked out onto Crocodile Bay’s 750-foot pier Thursday, a man ran up behind us saying his wife was being taken by ambulance boat to Golfito, and he had belongings to give her.
Cory Williams, whose family owns the Crocodile Bay Resort and plans to build a 115-slip marina, a 74-room hotel and 50 condominiums here despite considerable local opposition, said in good Spanish that he would be happy to help. He accepted a bundle the man brought for his wife, saying if the hospital boat wasn’t here yet, he would give it to the guard.
“And how is your wife?” Cory asked.
“I think they took her out with appendicitis.”
We groaned in sympathy. The man decided to take the bundle back, and with a “Perdón” and a “Voy corriendo,” he took off jogging for the end of the long pier.
“We let the Red Cross and the hospital use our pier facilities because the public pier facilities are in such poor condition that handicapped people, old people and hospital patients can’t be safely boarded there,” Cory said.
When we walked within view of the end, we saw the hospital boat with the man’s wife inside. She would be transported to a hospital in Golfito, presumably to undergo an appendectomy.
“And that’s really another big, important idea up here for the town, is having adequate infrastructure,” said Cory, a consummate pitchman offered a coincidental softball. “And as we all know, the government just doesn’t have the resources or the financial capability to build … anything, really. So they really rely on the private sector.”
Cory Williams, 36, is the tall, lantern-jawed, articulate public face of Crocodile Bay Resort & Marina, which when completed in an estimated four years will be the biggest development the Golfo Dulce has ever seen.
Starting first thing next year, the plan is to build a modern, state-of-the-art marina with slips for 115 boats, with a 74-room, two-story hotel on the water and 50 residences ranging from studios to three-bedrooms at prices between $200,000 and $500,000.
The current Crocodile Bay Resort, built in 1999, has 34 rooms, but those will be closed after the new hotel and residences are complete.
This plan has run into a hurricane of local opposition — most of it, Cory says, from a small group of people that has filed every lawsuit imaginable against the project, though he says the majority of the community supports it and looks forward to the jobs it will bring.
“They’ve never done anything good for the people,” said Diego Chavarría, a boat captain who worked for Crocodile Bay for seven years, giving voice to the sentiment that this business is stingy and doesn’t share anything with anyone else.
It’s a surprisingly common theme, if you go around Puerto Jiménez asking people what they think of the Crocodile Bay project: Sure, it will bring big money here, but all of it will go into Crocodile Bay’s pockets. Any economic benefit to the town is outweighed by the environmental risks, the more vocal opponents say. Puerto Jiménez needs direct economic revitalization, not the trickle-down effect of a few jobs for maids and gardeners.
“A lot of the controversy is really misplaced, or it’s shrouded,” said Cory, who has lived in Puerto Jiménez for 16 years and has a Costa Rican family here. “It’s often discussed as an environmental issue, but it’s not against our project specifically, it’s against development in general, against increased tourism. They just don’t want more people down here in the Osa. And I can respect that opinion, although I don’t share it.”
Cory said people don’t understand that a marina will give the Golfo Dulce a place to safely fuel, dock and repair boats under strict government oversight — it will make the gulf cleaner, not dirtier.
“Here in Costa Rica, because there aren’t many marinas, most people don’t have experience with marinas and really don’t understand what marinas are,” Cory said. “And they think that marinas themselves contaminate. And that’s not the case.
“If you look at the marinas in Costa Rica, they’re beautiful! They’re gorgeous. They’re very well-operated, well-managed, and I assure you that the majority of the people that are against our marina have never been to visit the other marinas.”
Cory mentioned Marina Papagayo, Pez Vela in Quepos and Los Sueños in Herradura, calling them excellent examples of well-run marinas.
“That’s what’s so peculiar,” Cory says. “I could understand if Costa Rica had a lot of irresponsibly run marinas that were creating an environmental disaster. I could understand the concern over having another, but that’s not the case. They’re really exemplary marinas. The water tests done in Los Sueños inside the marina basin show that the water quality inside the marina basin is better than the water quality outside the marina basin.”
To get the other side of the story I drove to nearby Gringolandia, the humorously named neighborhood that was actually the original location of Puerto Jiménez, which at the time called itself Santo Domingo, before it was flooded and destroyed by a tsunami. Formally known as Pueblo Viejo, at one point it had so many dogs that people called it Perrolandia, but when U.S. expats started moving in, it became affectionately known as Gringolandia.
Just down the main street in this neighborhood is Aventuras Tropicales, a kayaking company that offers tours of the local mangrove swamps. The Costa Rican owners of this enterprise, the family of Alberto Robleto and Marielos Villalobos, have been among the leading voices of opposition to the Crocodile Bay project.
It seems inevitable that three years of construction noise and traffic on a big marina project will adversely affect a business that offers quiet kayak tours along this same coast. But the 52-year-old family matriarch, Marielos, stressed that she is not opposed to the project because the family business will suffer.
“I don’t say Aventuras Tropicales opposes it, I say the community opposes it,” she said.
I asked Marielos why this marina will be bad for the community.
“We haven’t said this is going to be bad for the community,” she said. “We have talked about a negative impact on marine ecosystems. We have talked about processes that we don’t consider to be in order.”
She thinks the municipality has made bad decisions about Crocodile Bay without consulting the community. And she claims that it started building its pier before it had all the necessary permissions — which Crocodile Bay strenuously denies.
“When the people see that this is happening, they ask how a company can come along and do that,” Marielos said. “They showed a permit from the municipality. The executive in Golfito gave them permission, incorrectly or not. These permits do not seem normal to us….
“The problem is, when they started, they didn’t get off to a good start. So the community looks at them, and then they close access to the beach, and the people start getting mad, because they won’t let them pass.”
Crocodile Bay, I said, claims it allows anyone access to the beach or the mangroves next to the beach.
“At this time,” she agreed. “Things have changed. I’m telling you history.”
Marielos said she lacked the scientific credentials to talk about one the biggest questions:
“Given that when the public pier was built, there was change to the entire shoreline, the people ask themselves, ‘What will the change be like doing a pier that’s bigger than the public pier? How will that change the beach?’ That’s a question to ask, if they’ve taken into account, scientifically, the impact it would have in the terrestrial maritime zone, the fact that you do a fill there.”
The travel agent
I drove to Toucan Travel, a tour office just off the main street in Puerto Jiménez, to meet another opponent of the marina. Esther Coronado, 40, a native of Menorca, Spain, spoke first about the 4 acres of fill required to build the marina.
“The fill means the loss of a beach to this town,” she said, “because supposedly, in the project they present, they say the whole beach is part of the concession.” She pointed out the area she was talking about on a big, colorful Toucan Travel map. “They say all that area is part of the project.”
“They are the owners of that area,” I said.
“As a concession. Exactly. But the people can still protest. That’s the only beach the people have in Puerto Jiménez.”
“You think they’re going to cut access to the beach?”
“Generally the big hotels do that.”
Jiménez has a little beach just north of Crocodile Bay, in front of Los Delfines Restaurant, where local families bring their children to play in the water. Few families venture to the beach in front of Crocodile Bay, not because it’s prohibited but because it’s a longer walk and it isn’t a better beach.
What’s worse, at medium and high tide the gulf floods the Crocodile Bay property to the treeline, making access virtually impossible unless you want to swim around the trees or walk through heavy vegetation teeming with snakes.
In addition to her concerns about beach access, Esther said Crocodile Bay has erected barbed wire to close off access to mangroves that should be open to the public.
Cory said Crocodile Bay does not have any barbed-wire fences around its mangroves or anywhere else except around the maintenance yard adjacent to the airport and around the fuel tanks at the foot of the pier. He said anyone who wants to walk through the mangroves near the beach is free to do so.
Hammering the theme of access, Esther said Crocodile Bay does not let local boaters use its pier.
“That pier is public, in reality, what they have now, it’s also a concession, and they don’t let anyone go up there,” she said. “That dock you can’t walk on, you can’t fish from there, because it’s for security, they don’t let anyone come close or tie up. Even when the pier here was in disuse, because it was too deteriorated, they still didn’t let boats tie up there.”
Cory said the current pier is private, but the marina will be public.
“The concession we have is for a private pier,” he said. “It’s exclusively for the operation of sportfishing boats. It’s not a public facility, not a public pier, and boats don’t have public access.”
But the day the marina opens, he says, it will be open to all by law.
The fishing captains
A friend of Esther’s, boat captain Diego Chavarría, who worked for Crocodile Bay for seven years, also complained that it doesn’t allow local fishermen to use its pier — or if they really need it to board old or disabled people, they may have to pay 700 or 1,000 colones — $1.50 or $2.
“I have no interest in charging $1.50 a person,” Cory said. “That’s not the business we’re in. We’re trying to have an adequate pier so that Crocodile Bay customers can sportfish.”
Those who complain that the pier isn’t public, Cory said, are the same people who oppose the marina, which will be public and open to all.
Oscar Villalobos, 34, another fishing boat captain in Jiménez, said Crocodile Bay let him use its pier recently while the public pier was being repaired, and he wasn’t charged anything.
“I think the marina will be excellent for the community,” he said. “It will bring a lot of jobs, which is what we really need. … Puerto Jiménez and the Osa Peninsula have only one period of tourism, the high season. The rest of the year, there’s nothing, there’s no work. At a marina where yachts are permanently moored, all year long, there’s year-round employment.”
Oscar cited one study by the University of Costa Rica that found that each fishing yacht creates 12 jobs. “There’s a lot of people who speak out of ignorance,” he said.
Will he moor his boat at the marina when it opens?
“Yes, of course I’ll put my boat there, for the services they can provide.” He said it will be much easier for him to dock, fuel, maintain and clean his boat, not to mention board passengers.
On Friday I drove back to Aventuras Tropicales to talk to Laura Robleto, 30, a student of environmental engineering at the Instituto Tecnológico de Costa Rica in Cartago. She wanted to talk about the environmental impact of this project.
“There are always impacts,” she said. “If you want to do this development, which has large impacts, in a place of high biological intensity, high biological fragility, those impacts are magnified.”
Laura objects to the size of the project, which she says isn’t appropriate for a small town like Puerto Jiménez.
“The marina project is not just a parking lot for boats,” she said. “The project is very big. They’re planning to build a lot of real estate….
“It doesn’t fit with the development model we have in Puerto Jiménez. It’s huge. That’s what we mean. We are just saying this is not the project for this environment, for our development model.
“We need development for the people. This is not development for the community. This is just development for someone, and it’s different. When you want to develop a community, you need to benefit directly, not indirectly.”
I asked if Laura didn’t think the customers of the marina would eat at restaurants in town, spend money at the grocery store, use the gas station.
Laura asked why this town should get the “leak,” the leftovers, the crumbs from someone else’s table. She dismissed the jobs the project will create as menial.
“When a person gets a job making beds, they’re going to stay in that job like forever,” she said. “And their life is not going to change. That’s not development, that’s settlement. They will settle.”
She reiterated that this project opens the doors to a development model inappropriate to this place:
“We don’t want to be turned into inhabitants of Cancún.”
The great debate
The arguments that have been mounted against this marina could fill an encyclopedia. Opponents say the Crocodile Bay Marina will drive away dolphins, whales and turtles. It will disrupt if not pollute the beaches and mangrove swamps on the coastline south of town. It will dump sediment in the gulf and negatively impact the terrestrial maritime zone it occupies.
It will impede access to public beaches and mangroves. It will require big trucks to drive through town showering local businesses with dust. It will provide some jobs, but not good jobs. Nobody will be hired who can’t speak English. It will attract a clientele looking for prostitutes and drugs.
None of this is true, Cory Williams insists. Crocodile Bay built its pier 17 years ago, it currently operates 42 fishing boats, and it has never harmed the large dolphin population in this gulf. In fact, the dolphins love to swim with the boats.
Cory cited a University of Costa Rica professor who said sportfishing boats cause a great danger to the whales and run the risk of scaring them away, which would be a big hit to local whale-watching tours.
“So boats that are going out to go sportfishing, in a straight line, somehow cause more distraction and discomfort to the whales than the boats that follow the whales, that actually provide the whale watch tours? My boat, Point A to Point B, is the problem, not the boat following the whales, taking pictures?”
Cory says the footprint of this marina, the 4 acres of fill needed to built it, is much smaller than those of the marinas in Papagayo, Herradura and Quepos. Building marinas does not cause environmental devastation, he says — in fact, it provides a modern, clean place where boats can dock, fuel and be serviced, with a single owner that the government can easily monitor to make sure it’s complying with all rules and regulations.
So what about the argument that Crocodile Bay will not hire local people, but will bring in its own people in from somewhere else?
“There’s nothing more offensive to the local community than that argument,” Cory said. “So the argument is that local people are not smart enough or skilled enough to be able to provide the jobs for a residential hotel and marina development. And the reality is that today Crocodile Bay is one of the most successful sportfishing resorts in the world, primarily because of the wonderful staff that we have that are from the town of Puerto Jiménez.
He cited some major kudos on TripAdvisor, like “Best hotel in Central America” and “Best hotel in Costa Rica.”
“And the No. 1 reason for that is not because our rooms are the prettiest, it’s because our staff is the best,” he said. “The people here are absolutely first-class, and for 15 years have been doing exactly the same jobs that this marina is going to require.”
Cory said a group of 10 individuals had filed “every possible lawsuit against us you can imagine,” including three cases in the Supreme Court.
“They’ve never won,” he said. “The project has won every single lawsuit every single time, without exception, without an asterisk, without an issue, because everything that we’ve done has been in perfect accord with the law.”
In search of barbed wire and armed guards, I took a walk Sunday morning at low tide along the beach from the Los Delfines Restaurant to the Crocodile Bay pier and beyond, into the mangroves on the other side.
I saw no barbed wire anywhere except at the top of a tall fence surrounding what Cory later told me were fuel tanks. There were no guards and no signs marking anything private.
The beach is big at low tide, but it’s not a beautiful beach — it’s swampy, in places mucky, and full of sticks and stones. Anyone looking for a great beach can drive to Playa Platanares/Preciosa, just a few minutes away, or the stunning surfing beaches of Matapalo on the southern tip of the peninsula.
The forests and mangroves here abound in wildlife, but they are so dense and snaky that no ordinary person would want to go on a nature hike here. For all the questions raised about access to the beach and mangroves, I couldn’t spot a single person seeking access to either on a beautiful Sunday morning.
I walked onto the Crocodile Bay property from the pier, unsure whether I might be trespassing once I crossed the 50-meter line. I crossed a couple of sketchy little bridges across swampy rivers and emerged into a boat maintenance yard.
Now I was pretty sure I was trespassing in what was not a public area. When I reached the guard shack along the road next to the airport, the guard confirmed gently that I was not supposed to be here without permission. There is a barbed wire fence between the airport road and the maintenance yard, with a sign saying this is a maintenance entrance on private property and the hotel entrance is 150 meters away.
I walked down the airport road to Corcovado Beach Lodge, an assortment of pretty bungalows right next door to Crocodile Bay, and met Tomas McGuinness, 46, the new part owner and caretaker of this property, formerly known as Parrot Bay. I asked him what he thought of the proposed marina.
“If there is a marina coming over here, if they have oversight for the natural resources and all that, I don’t see a problem with that,” he said. “This place certainly needs jobs. I get people looking for a job over here on a daily basis. There is definitely a lack of jobs.”
McGuinness, who formerly worked in tourism on the Caribbean side of the country, said fisherman put illegal gill nets in lots of the rivers around here, but not in the Platanares River, because they know Crocodile Bay has a watchman there to stop them. He said it’s an example of how responsible development can actually protect the environment.
“If you ask me for my opinion, I’m all for that,” he said. “I know what development can bring for a place. And I also know from working out of Tortuguero that it is possible to create jobs and develop the place without destroying the environment.”
For more info
Crocodile Bay website: http://www.crocodilebay.com
Facebook page “No a La Marina Privado de Puerto Jimenez – Si Marina Publica”: https://www.facebook.com/groups/12829640983/
Facebook page “Sí a La Marina Puerto Jimenez”: https://www.facebook.com/sialamarina.puertojimenez?fref=ts
Contact Karl Kahler at email@example.com.