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A Sustainable Treehouse Community in Costa Rica

1/23/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: Costa Rica, Finca Bella Vista, treehouse, zip lines, community, travel

bella vista mestate house 

At Finca Bella Vista, we slept atop a 90-foot mastate tree with the toucans and the monkeys. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

Midway through our two-week trip through Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula and southern zone, the traveling got harder. Photographer Barbara Bourne and I have been working non-stop, starting every day with the sun. Last night Barb shot deep into the Full Moon Party at Finca Exotica, capturing some of the most stunning photos of our trip so far. But we were bug-bitten and exhausted when we arrived at Finca Bella Vista, a sustainable treehouse community in the Punte Renas, Costa Rica’s southern zone. Erica and Matt Hogan, the community’s cofounders, showed us to our screened-in castle atop a 90-foot mastate tree. We slept high up in the canopy to the sound of rain pouring on our treehouse’s roof and woke at sunrise to laughing falcons screeching their good mornings. The rainforest had begun its renewal.

We spent the day ziplining through the rain-fresh jungle, past strangler vines shimmering aquavescent green with last night’s downpour, to see and shoot three of the early treehouses in this unusual planned community. I’ve been dying to see this Ewok Village come to life. At Bella Vista, pod-like houses are built around massive pilon and mastate trunks, connected to each other and a well-appointed, solar-powered base camp by a network of walking trails, zip lines and suspension bridges.

Sitting on the deck of Casa Mariposa, a 1,300-square-foot treehouse that was ziplined, piece by piece, through the canopy, I talked with Erica and Matt about how this 300-acre planned community came to be. They bought the first piece of it, a 62-acre abandoned cattle ranch being advertised as a property to be clear cut, in 2006. It was more land than they wanted, but they’d fallen in love with the one-of-a-kind location, on the confluence of the Rio Bella Vista and the Rio Piedras Blancas, which flows into Piedras Blancas National Park. They got here, started taking machetes to the overgrown and damaged secondary rainforest, and learned some disturbing things about where they’d landed. The eight farms surrounding theirs were all for sale, marketed as theirs was—for clearcutting. They cashed in their life savings and bought the entire 300-acre mountain.

It was a crazy thing to do. Matt and Erica spent the first eight months here living in tents, without electricity or running water, building trails and rehabbing the damaged land. They didn’t speak Spanish. They had no experience with planning and building communities or alternative energy systems, and they bought the Ferrari of hydropower systems. They will install it, with an innovative distribution system that requires homeowners to buy batteries for as much storage as they’ll need, once they’ve sold a dozen more houses to fund that infrastructure. The recession has taken its toll, although we all agreed that 2011 is the year that this will change.

During our talk, Erica found two new moths that she hadn’t seen before, lacy specimens that looked to my suburban eye like leaves. It was one of seven new moths that she spotted that day. As I listened to Matt and Erica’s tales and selfishly basked in the sanctuary that they’ve created, I realized that I want to be a part of this place. I want to live deep in the jungle’s belly, fly like Tarzan from place to place and be a part of the interesting and friendly community that gathers for potlucks and swaps stories of wildlife sitings at the base camp lodge. I want to go to sleep to the cicadas and wake up to the toucans. I love this crazy peace.

Two-acre parcels go for around $60,000 (until the hydropower is in, and then the price will double). Building a treehouse is a serious adventure, requiring a local tree shaman, botanists, treetop building specialists and engineers. Compared to what Matt and Erica have taken on, though, it seems like nothing. The jungle has a way of messing with your perspective.

bella vista barb 

Barbara Bourne hung over a deep river gorge with Matt Hogan to capture shots of Finca Bella Vista's stunning waterfalls.  

bella vista waterfall 

Barbara's shot of one of Finca Bella Vista's many waterfalls was worth the effort. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

bella vista erica matt 

Erica and Matt Hogan talk about Finca Bella Vista's creation and its future. Photo by Barbara Bourne 

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