The town of Avellanas could be considered a modern Garden of Eden, with its natural beauty and wildlife set down by a universal power beyond understanding.
It was a secluded paradise in the 1980s, when Costa Rican Carlos Carranza and Swiss settler Roger Jaeggli moved to the beach area near San José de Pinilla in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.
When Carranza arrived at the Carranza Farm in 1982 with his wife Hilda, daughters Carla and Cari and son Jean Carlo,“there were locals, big families from San José and only a few North Americans who were into fishing and had boats for that,” he recalls. The family lived for a few years on the finca without electricity and water, surrounded by the town’s bad, muddy roads. Here, Carranza, a newly accredited veterinarian, raised cattle and grew soy gum to feed his family and ranch animals, and also sold it for profit. Mom and the kids made homemade cheese and harvested tomatoes to sell before Dad eventually reforested with teak, melina and pochote trees.
“My father is a civil engineer and had one of the biggest construction companies in Costa Rica,” Carranza, 52, says of his father, Guillermo Carranza, who worked on important 1960s and ’70s San José projects such as Banco Central de Costa Rica, the National Insurance Institute, National Library, judicial complex and Plaza de la Cultura. “In Avellanas, I was always building something. I built my own house – the rancho at the farm.
There were no tourists in Avellanas, so I didn’t build houses to sell. I just built typical houses for a few friends who wanted to come here and surf, to get away from the city.”
The 1990s brought Dutchman Donatus van Akkeren, an acclaimed model whose work for top designers appeared in GQ magazine and Times Square billboards in New York. His preferred attire became the sarong (or the golf clothes required at tee time), which he sported as he and wife Christi Bettinsoli created their stylish, beach front Lola’s Restaurant. They added a giant pig –the restaurant’s namesake – to the family while living in a tent during their home’s construction in the difficult-to-reach area.
In Tamarindo’s Shadow
Today, nearby Tamarindo is packed to the gills with projects, condos and homes, and struggling with infrastructure problems pertaining to security, roads, green zones and water – not to mention the Tamarindo Improvement Association’s tenuous relationship with the Municipality of Santa Cruz. All this angst has sent some developers south to the tranquility of Playa Avellanas, to pay area residents premium rates for their land.
Some of these new pioneers include Felipe Seidner, who plans to develop only luxury homes and a small boutique resort on 30 of his 72 acres, and Donny Lalonde, with his Avellanas Beach Hotel and Villas, Beachwalk Homes, El Bodegón commercial center, Tierra Verde Residential Community, Lagartillo Hills’ 1,200-acre mixed development with golf course, Espíritu de Bali Homes and Viewclub Luxury Homes.
The point, says Jaeggli, 40, now owner of the beachfront, 10-unit Cabinas Las Olas, is that there are positive aspects of development. Sustainable tourism is good for Avellanas, he asserts.
“Avellanas is still in a good moment,” he explains, sweeping his arm toward a small break in the lush, dry forest where his guests park their cars. Just behind him is the mangrove tree reserve (the salt-tolerant trees’ roots burrow into the ocean sand, creating a breeding area for marine life) and the beginning of an elevated, wooden path he built so that people wouldn’t disturb the environment on their trek to the beach. “We are still in time to make the conscientiousness that we original people started here go on.”
To this end, Jaeggli in 2001 became president of the Association of Playa Avellanas (APA), a group of community members consisting of older neighbors and new transplants, including legal representatives and developers (www.avellanas.org).
Jaeggli has lived in Costa Rica most of his life, since his family moved from Switzerland to the western San José suburb of Escazú when he has 2. He moved to Avellanas in the 1980s, purchased the land for his hotel in 1990 and opened it in 1995, raising his own family in Avellanas.
“The residents of Avellanas are an interesting collection of Ticos and extranjeros,” Jaeggli notes. “It’s an eclectic group that seems to share a pioneering spirit and the desire to do things better or more wisely, with an openness to adopting alternative technologies. This is especially evident in their attention to protecting the area’s natural resources and pristine beauty.”
In Need of a Plan
The APA’s immediate goals are to protect the mangrove swamp and save as much of the natural flora and fauna as possible, including biological corridors for monkeys, while addressing security, bridge construction, road repair, water issues, telephone, cable and high-speed Internet service, a plan regulador (zoning plan) and the promotion of sustainable tourism. The association is acting swiftly to raise community awareness and plan preventive measures to avoid situations that plague other towns, such as construction disasters, lagging infrastructure, waste disposal problems, zoning issues and environmental and health threats.
“One of our objectives is to not become another Tamarindo,” Jaeggli says. “Avellanas looks to be the mecca for new builders. We can make a difference working together, but work is needed, and the people know it.” Perhaps one of the association’s noblest efforts is its work on the area’s plan regulador.
Given his way, Jaeggli would set it forth as a “moral and ethical plan rather than dealing with the government,” since he says some of his neighbors and developers, including Lalonde and Carranza, are implementing these ideals in their work simply because they feel they make sense.
“I’m going to do what’s right to keep Avellanas as beautiful, lush and healthy as I have come to know it, while at the same time providing homes and services for people looking for this kind of peaceful, natural atmosphere,” Lalonde says. “However, we need a plan regulador, one that is registered with the municipality and enforced by law, because not everyone who comes here will have that same goal in mind.”
One way Lalonde has accomplished this mission is his partnership with builder Carranza and his daughter, award-winning architect Carla Carranza, on a number of projects. As Ticos, the Carranzas have an abiding love for their country, and as longtime residents and property owners in the area, the last thing father and daughter want is to see their precious land destroyed.
“All my childhood was spent in Avellanas, and the child in me will always remain there,” Carla Carranza asserts. “I am dedicated to keeping the connection in Avellanas between the past, present and future. I’m trying to keep it as it was, naturally beautiful; what it is now environmentally and what it can be potentially.”
So far, the Municipality of Santa Cruz, both the previous regime and the newly elected one under Mayor Jorge Chavarría, has been quick to act on the needs of the communities of Avellanas and San José de Pinilla. In less than a year, the association has not only negotiated for the municipality to pay for and complete the construction of two bridge bottoms over low-lying roads, but also collected the needed funds from area residents to pay for the completion of the tops that will allow vehicles to cross them year-round.
It’s this combination of governmental negotiation, district fundraising and personal interest that is easing Avellanas through its changes. In December, members of the association met with the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (ICE) and secured more than the public service’s planned 200 new phone lines – as well as DSL lines – for the area.
Doing It for Themselves
Jaeggli points out that Avellanas residents are eager to contribute financially to their safety. For example, $2,000 was gathered for private security during the 2006 Semana Santa (Easter Holy Week) holiday rush. The APA has also met with Willie Byfield, security, safety and emergency response team manager at nearby Hacienda Pinilla Beach Resort and Residential Community, who has guided locals through courses to identify and handle crime and initiated a phone tree to call around if a suspicious car or person is spotted in the area. Private alarm and security company ADT has met with home and business owners, and Jaeggli says the association is pressuring the government for a police station in the zone.
Van Akkeren and Bettinsoli joined the APA at its inception, and have been supporting the emerging community in any way possible.
“The families that have moved here came for the same reasons we did,” Bettinsoli says. “The privacy, of course, is appealing, but it’s the pristine beauty and tranquility that make the perfect combination.We have always felt this was the perfect location to live and raise a family, and have struggled to see the day when we could have a profitable business here as well.
“There is always the fear that developers and transient buyers may not have that same frame of mind. However, we are fortunate to have some like-minded developers as well. The truth is yet to be seen, but we are hopeful and supportive of these projects.”
Without public service companies for garbage collection and beach cleanup, Bettinsoli says the townsfolk take care of both tasks themselves. They’ve trained a close eye on preventing the new construction from disturbing the delicate ocean and shore biodiversity.
“We are constantly cleaning the beach,” she says. “It’s a daily activity, and a few times a year we do a massive beach cleaning with the whole community. It’s amazing how much trash comes down the estuary after the first big storms of the season, as well as how much plastic washes up on the beach. Fortunately, the natural lay of the land, with the estuary running close to the coast for most of the beach, prevents construction directly in front of the beach. Most developments are located well off of Playa Avellanas, and having a natural land barrier is key to keeping Playa Avellanas and the ocean clean.”
The association is also making progress on bringing in fresh water; the board has successfully negotiated with the National Water and Sewer Institute (AyA) in San José de Pinilla to use its aqueduct to accommodate the calculated water needed to serve all development, current and projected.
Though Jaeggli acknowledges a collective desire for some kind of water treatment system, he says that at present “this is a matter that everybody wants to handle by themselves, privately, personally.” Lalonde adds that the association is looking for land on which to place a community operation, but so far some developers, himself included, are installing their own sewage and blackwater treatment systems at their projects.
Lalonde has enlisted Jim Ryan and his company Agua Solutions International to put a rainwater harvesting system into his new homes and condominiums. Other sustainable alternatives offered by Ryan include graywater recovery and constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment, as well as a variety of conservation measures that serve to lessen the demand on the area’s well water and power down the strain on the Pinilla aqueduct.
“Some of our coastal towns are environmental and public-health time bombs, largely because of poorly designed and constructed septic systems, which then contaminate both the soil and the water,” Ryan says.
“Avellanas as a community, from the individual homeowners I’ve met to the various developers, seems to be taking seriously the lessons to be learned.”
It remains to be seen whether or not all homeowners and developers in Avellanas will be as environmentally sensitive as Jaeggli and the association are hoping, to keep this paradise thriving.