Finca Bellavista: Ewoks in treehouses, with happy hour
FINCA BELLAVISTA, Puntarenas — After touring 62 acres of lush, mountainous rain forest for sale in southwest Costa Rica in 2006, Erica Hogan said to her husband:
“Wouldn’t it be cool to build a treehouse, and maybe some of our friends could go in on the property with us? A treehouse village, that would be so cool and magical.”
Erica’s husband, Matt, liked the idea immediately.
“I just remember seeing the look on Matt’s face and being like, this is going to be the moment in my life where everything changed,” she said. “It was like I wanted to build an Ewok village, like ‘Return of the Jedi.’”
The Force was strong with them. Because they went out and did that very thing.
Finca Bellavista today, like the forested moon of Endor, is an enchanted place full of friendly beings who live in the trees — hard workers and probably good fighters, but they prefer a good party.
What they have built here is astonishing — a community of public and private spaces with homes attached to or suspended from trees, some of them also on stilts, some of them reachable only by hanging bridge. All of them are interesting, and many are spectacular.
The more Erica and Matt investigated, the more convinced they became that what they envisioned had never been done before.
“I mean, there’s lots of treehouse resorts,” Erica said, “but there’s no communities where you can buy land or develop a community or a village.”
Finca Bellavista’s location is something of a secret — it’s not posted on the website, and directions are emailed to customers only after a room is booked.
Why the secrecy? Erica said she used to post directions on the website, and the finca was flooded with visitors who just wanted to look at the treehouses and snap pictures.
Erica said she doesn’t have the staff to offer tours to the public, and she can’t have unknown people wandering all over her property, wanting to go up and peer inside a treehouse that happens to be somebody’s home.
I can tell you that Finca Bellavista is located about 3 kilometers off the highway between Palmar Norte and Río Claro, in Costa Rica’s wild and untrampled Southern Zone. But I have to warn you about that 3-kilometer road.
I drove here Thursday from Playas del Coco and found the turnoff around 4 o’clock, following Erica’s e-mailed directions. And then, following her instructions, I engaged the 4-wheel drive in my 1998 Suzuki Grand Vitara, aka the Blue Demon.
I got a quarter of the way up the road when my tires started spinning on loose rocks on a very steep hill. The car stopped climbing, and then the tires started smoking, and then I started sliding sideways toward the ditch.
Considering my options, I backed downhill at a snail’s pace, careful to angle my tires away from the ditch and into the middle of the road.
Two men who were walking downhill much faster than I was driving up stopped and sympathized with me. I was sweating like a racehorse, my T-shirt completely wet, and they looked cool as cucumbers in button-up shirts.
They suggested I back down until I found a flat place, then try it again as fast as possible.
So I did, but it didn’t work — my tires spun out again in the same spot. I looked out the window and saw that the rear tires were spinning and the front tires weren’t. Apparently my 4-wheel drive wasn’t engaging, though I had engaged and reengaged it a dozen times.
I limped down the hill, defeated. It was the Blue Demon’s first badge of shame.
Miraculously my phone rang (a call from “NO CALLER ID”) and it was Erica, the one person I most needed to talk to right now.
She told me to drive down the hill and stop at a bamboo house where a Tico named Chico lived. If he couldn’t give me a ride up the hill, she would send a guy named Christian in her truck to pick me up.
Chico and his truck were gone, but his U.S. wife and three daughters, including a babe in arms, kept me company until Christian showed up.
We charged up the hill just before dark, and at the top I was greeted by Erica, 38, the attractive, fit and genial co-founder and co-owner of Finca Bellavista who is also the manager of daily operations, not to mention something of a den mother to the staff and volunteers here.
Erica asked Christian to check me in and set me up with the treehouse known as Torre Luna, and she said she would see me at happy hour.
Christian, a charming and bilingual young native of the area, briefed me on everything there was to know about Finca Bellavista — a presentation that went on for perhaps 20 minutes, including a warning about stepping on venomous snakes, and an offer of rubber boots to prevent snakebite.
Christian escorted me to Torre Luna (“Moon Tower”), a beautiful but rustic structure supported by stilts — with a tree trunk that comes through the shower floor and out the wall.
In the main room was a big bed adorned with the prettiest “Tico swans” I’ve ever seen — white towels twisted into valentine-shaped swans, decorated with fresh yellow and purple flowers.
Flowers, in fact, were strategically placed on every towel, large and small, and even on the toilet paper, the top of which was crimped into a fan shape — prettiest toilet paper I’ve ever seen! It was evidence of the minute attention to detail that told me this was no ordinary cabina.
Christian gave me a battery-powered lantern, like an old Coleman lantern, only lighter. It would be my only light source in Moon Tower, as there was no electricity in this unit.
There was hot water in the shower, but if I wanted to plug in my phone or laptop to recharge them, that wasn’t going to happen because there were no outlets.
Christian led me off to happy hour, where I socialized under the big rancho sipping a cubalibre. Then we heard the dinner conch, and we went down to the Community Center to sample the mouth-watering spaghetti dinner whipped up for us by the resident chef, Rob.
Back in my room after dinner, I felt like I was in Moby Dick times, hoisting a lantern in front of me every time I wanted to move from place to place.
There was no Internet, of course, though you can sign on in the central office for $5 an hour during the day. There was no cell service, no TV and no radio.
On the yellow brick road of 21st-century communication, I had found a rare dead zone.
I read a book in bed until sometime between 9 and 10, when I flicked off the lantern and watched total darkness envelop me. Then I lay on my back listening to nature’s noise.
The Bellavista River, perhaps 100 meters below me, was fast and loud — so much so that I had the repeated impression throughout the night that there was a loud fan blowing to my left that I should get up and turn off.
Insects provided a cacophonous symphony of their own. One of them sounded like it had a half-inch comb made of steel, plus a sharp piece of metal that it dragged back and forth across the teeth of the comb for hours. If that was a cricket, it was the loudest I’d ever heard.
Eventually I fell asleep, but around midnight I heard a loud “POW!” and shot up in bed and said, “Yes?!” I thought someone was knocking on my door.
Then I realized that nobody knocks on your door just once. And I remembered that Erica had warned me that there’s a big mamón chino (lychee) tree above my house where the kinkajous and squirrels like to go in the middle of the night to eat the fruit and throw the rinds on the roof.
Apparently I had just been kinkajoued.
After breakfast I asked Erica to tell me the origin story of this place. She and Matt, 28 and 30, had renovated homes in Maryland and Colorado and sold one of them, and they were “sitting on a little bit of equity, not a lot,” she said.
Matt’s background was in construction, while Erica was working as a reporter for the Crested Butte News in Gunnison Valley, Colorado, where they lived at a ski lodge.
Matt took some time off to visit a friend in Costa Rica, and he liked it. A lot.
“He was like, ‘I really like this area of Costa Rica,’” she recalled. “‘I think you’d like it. You should come down here and we should look at investing our equity somewhere and getting like a little fixer-upper surf shack.’”
I laughed to hear that, considering the treetop wonderland they would build.
“The original property here was 62 acres, and it was on the other side of the river,” she said. “There was no access. … The road ended right there, and we basically had to machete a path down to the river, get to a log, sit on the log and scoot across it to get to the other side of the river.”
Today, she said, recalling old pictures of the rain-swollen river they crossed repeatedly on a log, “we would never, ever get into the river when it looks like that.”
Flash floods are an occasional hazard here — a wall of water that comes down the river like a runaway train, sweeping away everything in its path.
The Hogans first toured the property on Erica’s 29th birthday, in May 2006.
“We got in the river, and I went downstream. I got 100 yards and he was like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing, this is super-cool.’”
That night they had cocktails and talked about the properties they’d toured, and she “blurted out” her remark about building an Ewok village in the trees.
“We just felt really drawn to this, and enchanted with it,” she said.
Soon all the neighbors knew that a U.S. couple was serious about buying a finca in these hills. Then “everybody crawled out of the woodwork: finca for sale, finca for sale,” Erica said.
Many of these properties were touted as places where an owner could harvest timber — suggesting that any plot they didn’t buy could be clear-cut by whoever did.
The original purchase grew from 62 acres to 140 acres — more than the Hogans could afford, but they had friends who wanted in.
Today the finca is 600 acres, with the original 140 acres subdivided into residential parcels. The rest, some of it primary rain forest and some of it secondary or old pasture, is set aside for conservation.
I asked Erica to explain how this place is organized, with private residences alongside treetop suites rented by the night. She explained that Finca Bellavista is a property management company that has created a subdivision that happens to be arboreal.
“Just like a traditional subdivision, whether it’s in suburban Oklahoma City or New Jersey or whatever, it’s like you’re buying a piece of land in a subdivision,” she said. “So the developer is responsible for providing the access to the amenities, like you build your house, you connect to the utilities, you pour your driveway and it connects to the road.”
Everything at Base Camp is owned by the company — community center, rancho, office, bunkhouse for volunteers and treehouses leased by the night like hotel rooms.
Most everything else is privately owned, including the fancy treehouses up the hill with kitchens and electricity. But when the owners aren’t here, most of those treehouses are available for rent. Erica’s company handles this rental business, keeping 30 percent of the proceeds and giving 70 percent to the owner.
Erica and I put on snake-proof rubber boots and she gave me a tour of the property, showing me that the river just below Torre Luna boasted a great swimming hole. She pointed out a wedding garden where nuptials have been held, and we crossed a cool hanging bridge. Then we toured a vegetable garden bursting with fresh produce.
She showed me a beautiful treehouse owned by someone who played basketball in the NBA in the 1970s (explaining the tall doorways). And we tromped on toward the finca’s crown jewel, El Castillo Mastate, a two-level octagonal structure 90 feet in the air, supported entirely by the giant mastate tree to which it’s bolted.
Closer to solid ground, there is one house with a kitchen, dining room and bathroom (where three women were cleaning and decorating in preparation for a Canadian couple’s arrival tonight).
To get to the main structure, we crossed a hanging bridge— and stepped into a house of dreams. The interior was stunning — everything made of rich, golden-brown wood, with a conch shell for a bathroom faucet, and the whole room exquisitely decorated by the “Tico swan” ladies and all their flowers.
We climbed some steps, half staircase and half ladder, and emerged on the deck with lounge chairs, where we sat down to take in the view of the jungle canopy around us.
How can so much weight be safely suspended from a tree? Erica had shown me places where bolts had been driven into trees. She said the tree “grows around it and then knots around that wound and turns it into its own limb.” The growth of the tree around the bolt makes it stronger. The house does no harm to the tree, and the tree does no harm to the house.
Erica said when owners identify a tree where they’d like to build, arborists or botanists first have to climb it to assess its suitability.
“And then we might get up there,” she said, “and if there’s a limb through where you wanted your bathroom, we’re not going to cut the limb, so you want the limb to go through your bathroom or you want to build around it?”
So how do you climb a tree with lower branches that might be 100 feet in the air?
You use a crossbow to shoot fishing line across the strongest branch you can reach, that’s how. The fishing line is tied to progressively larger ropes that are pulled over the branch. Then you use mountaineering ascenders to climb the rope.
This might sound blasphemous, but I started to wonder if people ever got bored in their treetop castles.
“What do people here do for entertainment?” I asked Erica.
“People stay very entertained,” she said. “If you’re here for three nights, it’s totally full. … We usually don’t do meal service at lunchtime anymore, it’s usually to-go lunches only because people want to get out there and do stuff, take a picnic. We’ve got hiking trails out to the point, the waterfalls, the swimming holes, the e-bike tours, the ziplines, the garden tour.” (And the night hikes.)
“People come down for happy hour, they start talking with other visitors, they become buddies, they do dinner parties,” she said. “It’s like summer camp for adults.”
As upbeat as she is, Erica sometimes gets annoyed with the perceptions of people in other places about her supposed life in paradise. Few understand how much work it is.
People say to her, “You don’t understand, you don’t have kids.”
“If somebody says that to me one more freaking time —I know we don’t have children, but none of you have done this either, and have this to take care of and to manage,” she said.
“I mean, I have a 600-acre anchor that has a lot of people and their families and their kids connected to it, and volunteers are coming of age on their own, and learning a lot of things….
“It’s like my big, mutant finca baby.”
IF YOU GO
Getting there: Finca Bellavista is located off the highway between Palmar Norte and Río Claro, not far from the Golfito airport. Precise directions are provided after rooms are booked.
Rates: Treehouses range from $75 to $250 per night for two people, with a two-night minimum.
Schedule: The finca closes every year from roughly late September through early November, subject to change.
For more info: http://www.fincabellavista.com
Contact Karl Kahler at [email protected].
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