Photo: PAUL ATKINSON/Shutterstock

Finca Bellavista: The World's First Treehouse Subdivision

Costa Rica Sustainability Activism
by Noah Hussin Feb 5, 2009
A look at Finca Bellavista, a development overlooking Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, where the guiding principle is sustainability.

IT’S ALL RENDERED a green blur as I fly down a zipline 150 feet above the ground. Just ahead hangs a two-story house in the trees where I’ll spend the next two days.

Walking into the tree house, I finger the smooth walls, made with local and sustainably-harvested teak. After washing my hands with piped in rainwater and organic soap, the waste water is flushed into a biodigestor, where it’s converted into fertilizer and given back to the cycle.

Bellavista founders Matt and Erica Hogan are setting new precedents for sustainable living as they forge a community here. “If you had told me this is what I’d be doing three years ago, I would have laughed,” Erica says, tiny dimples accentuating her smile.

Photo by Tim Hussin

The former newspaper editor and her husband came to Costa Rica in 2006 in search of a small piece of land for a surf shack or bungalow, but fell in love with 62 acres overlooking the Osa Peninsula, which has since spread to 350.

After spending just a short amount of time in the property’s almost eerie majesty, I find it hard to believe it was on the market as a timber harvest site.

Below the primary rainforest that stretches high into misty mountains, secondary growth now flourishes. Over 1,000 native trees have been planted by the community to help heal past wounds inflicted by industry. “Fifty years ago, this whole area was clear cut,” Matt says.

After writing up the concept for the Bellavista community, Matt showed it to his brothers, who work as conventional developers. “They said we were eco-Nazis and that it would never work, but that’s exactly what I expected to hear. Nobody’s ever done something like this before.”

Building regulations are demanding. All structures must be either arboreal or stilt built. All electricity currently used is harnessed from the sun, while a hydroelectric turbine will be installed alongside one of the two whitewater rivers flowing through the farm.

Photo by Tim Hussin

Rather than tearing through trees to construct roads, the lots are connected by footpaths and a sophisticated network of zip lines, dubbed the SkyTrail network. “I can’t complain about my commute to work anymore,” Matt says.

The response to Bellavista has been overwhelming. While their business plan estimated three to five years to sell out phase one, all 30 parcels were spoken for within eight months, and phase two is moving quickly.

People from all walks of life are moving to Bellavista, and everybody involved seems to have a role in the emerging society. In the future, a vegan chef will film a cooking show from his tree house as a retired couple lives out their golden years and young parents raise babies.

Living off the grid in the jungle is no easy feat, though, particularly while preserving creature comforts like Wi-Fi, electricity, and international cuisine. The tree house currently uses propane for cooking while the hydro grid awaits installation, and gasoline fuels vehicles when residents venture out for supplies.

“Nothing is insurmountable, but we have to be realistic,” admits Erica. “People expect everything on site, but it takes years to develop.

“We use organic soaps, but is shipping down soap from North America sustainable? I don’t think so, and we’re exploring local alternatives. Within five years, we hope to grow all of our food here, and when technology allows for it, we want to have a few communal electric cars that we charge with our hydro grid.”

Although each lot has plenty of privacy, a sense of community is central to the Bellavista philosophy. There’s already a communal kitchen and lounge; soon, a health and wellness center will float high in the canopy for yoga sessions and massage therapy.

The couple is also working with their alma mater, Western State College of Colorado, to establish on-site higher learning facilities where students will have hands-on experience in subjects ranging from canopy construction to biology to Spanish.

Even with the ambitious plans already in motion, the untapped potential of Bellavista seems limitless. Matt envisions a bungee cord playground à la “Tomb Raider,” white water kayaking, rock climbing… the list goes on. “We have so many ideas,” Erica says. “We have no idea what this place is capable of.”

As the sunset reflects off the clouds we all feast on Erica’s savory veggie and chicken dish doused in a soy peanut sauce. I listen to giddy future residents gush over plans for their parcel until Matt invites me to the hammock lounge up the hill for an after-dinner drink, where we watch insects and discuss everything under the sun.

Finally, we take to the SkyTrail and zip to the tree house, Matt howling into the stars like Tarzan. I drift into sleep with the chorus of insects and surging water below.

Community Connection:

Have you ever visited a sustainable community, or attempted to develop one at home? Tell us your story in the comments!

Discover Matador