What is it about Costa Rica’s Zona Sur that inspires expats to go arboreal? Within an 80-kilomter (50-mile) radius of the heart of the Osa Peninsula, there are at least three examples of foreign residents who’ve made treehouses central to their lives. These folks definitely get the prize for adapting to their environment, even if it’s 20 meters (70 feet) up and peopled by monkeys and macaws.
Every Surface a Canvas
Humbert deSilva from France and Lisa Brouillard from Quebec have lived in Costa Rica for about 25 years. They run a small bed-and-breakfast, Casa Arbol, not far from Chacarita, where you turn off the coast highway to go to the Osa Peninsula. Their entire house is a work of art–Humberto made the intricately carved cupboards and bed stands, and bathhouse that evokes ancient Rome. He also created a small treehouse–like something out of an eco-friendly fairytale–that guests can stay in if they like. He never knows how a project will turn out when he begins. He kept showing me carvings and rooms and tilework and saying, in a Spanish heavy with French, “When I finished, I finally saw what it was.” Perhaps a swan, a frog, a mandela, or a meditation on humanity.
A Treehouse Community in the Jungle
In 2005, Erica and Matt Hogan were camped in the mud by the Bella Vista River, on a spread of lovely but undeveloped land that they’d just sunk their life savings into. They weren’t sure what was going to get them out of the mud, but dreamed of building a kind of Ewok village, where they’d live in the trees and get to their neighbors’ houses via zip line.
Most people would have let that rather whimsical dream sputter and die, but Erica, originally from Oklahoma, and Matt, formerly of Maryland and DC, nailed it down and created Finca Bella Vista, a sustainable treehouse community with lots available for people who want to live off the grid and in the trees and opportunities to stay and study there. There are dozens of zip lines strung on the property, both for squeal-inducing high-wire fun, and for the transport of people and tools–workmen whiz above the trees laden with chainsaws and building materials.
Their idea of a treehouse (there are many schools of thought) stipulates almost no contact with the ground. So they brought in experts from Pete Nelson’s Treehouse Workshop in Washington State to rig their structures, using a special drilled-in support called the Garnier limb, after treehouse expert Michael Garnier, who has a treehouse bed-and-breakfast in southern Oregon. (Michael’s son Travis is also building a treehouse community on the Nicoya Peninsula.)
From the first treehouse Matt and Erica built, 15 meters (50 feet) up and cradled by three strong trees, you can hear the roar of a nearby waterfall, visible from the top floor, and take an outdoor shower while birds chatter, wondering what you’re doing in their territory.
At Home in the Trees
Michael Cranford of Colorado and Rebecca Amelia (aka Blondie) of Massachusetts were drinking margaritas in Boquete, Panama, talking about how as kids they’d retreat to the trees when they needed to get away. A few hours and numerous drinks later, they were sketching designs for a treehouse on napkins.
A few years later, the scrawled blueprints became reality when they hauled a few platforms built on the ground up into an enormous Guanacaste tree on their land on the Osa Peninsula. “We listened to what the tree was telling us,” says Michael. They didn’t want to drill into the tree, so they used four wooden supports that go from the ground to the platforms that make up their home. Michael and Rebecca now live full-time in the trees, with Siete, a miniature husky, and Reina, an aging brindle boxer.
The treehouse is a true home, with a spacious, fully equipped kitchen, guest bedrooms, an office for each of them, and a master bedroom. Eighty percent of the wood used for the treehouse is downed hardwood from the jungle that is their backyard. They have Internet and cable, flush toilets, and plenty of hot water in the shower. They’ve seen a sloth right outside the kitchen, monkeys come through regularly, and scarlet macaws hang out in nearby branches.
Michael, who’s also a painter, an organizer of local music festivals, and a “jungle architect,” says, “I learned more about myself working with this tree than I have through any other life experience.”