Erica and Matt Hogan imagined an Ewok village and the simple life in the forests of Costa Rica, but their dreams turned out to be a lot bigger than they’d anticipated, as Erica explains to Amy McGoldrick.
“At the end of a steep road in the middle of nowhere, Matt and I macheted a path through the jungle to the edge of a river, and explored about 100 yards into what would become Fina Bellavista. It was my 29th birthday, and it felt so surreal to be there – like being in a private national park. Looking back, there was something magical that spoke to us and drew us in.”
“In many ways, the creation of Finca Bellavista has been purely accidental. Matt went on a surf trip to Costa Rica in 2006 and fell in love with the Southern Zone. He called and asked me to come down from Colorado to explore with him, as we were interested in finding a little getaway in the tropics.
We spent the night of my birthday brainstorming ways we could afford the initial land purchase of 62 acres. We both knew it was bigger than what we wanted or could afford, yet we felt compelled to find a way to save it from deforestation, as it was being marketed as a timber harvest site. It seemed a shame to destroy such a sacred space and gave a sense of urgency to our decision to purchase it.
I pondered out loud about building a treehouse because the trees were so big, and if friends or other people might be interested in going in on the land purchase to make it financially feasible. I envisioned us all building treehouses and connecting them with bridges and ziplines, and mentioned how cool it would be to build an Ewok village like the one in Return of the Jedi. I looked up at Matt and saw a sparkle in his eyes and realized that would be moment in my life when everything changed.
We moved down to Costa Rica within the year, and camped out in the forest to begin building our dream. When we first arrived and explained that we wanted to build treehouses, people looked at us like we were crazy. The first question we got was: “But how are you going to get the concrete up into the trees?” The concept of building with the native hardwoods that were reclaimed on-site or purchased from the sustainable teak plantations nearby seemed one of the wackier things they had heard of – everyone builds with concrete around here, really.
We started out very organically and have fought to keep this a grassroots effort– even though it has grown to the extent that it has far exceeded our personal abilities. If I had to put a cost on the development so far, I would say it would run to several million dollars. It’s not cheap to build a Utopian paradise! The project now encompasses over 600 acres, an entire peninsula of rainforest mountain, frontage on two white-water rivers, and lots of cool critters, plants and trees.
It’s pretty fun to bring people up to show them the treehouses. In general, our employees and the people in the surrounding villages know that the world is watching – Finca Bellavista has become famous all over the globe – and it seems like there is a sense of pride that this is happening here and that they get to be a part of what the area is becoming. The local community have a vested interest in Finca Bellavista too – which is why our visitors and residents are treated with respect. There’s a true sense of community in that you feel that people are not only looking out for one another, but they are looking out for you too.
I have to say, being completely honest, that I do have days where I just wish I had a normal life; being in charge of something this large has a lot of dynamic moving parts anyway, but the nature of our location, managing people’s expectations in a rainforest environment, dealing with the authorities and so on is a lot of work. Some days, I wish I could clock in and out, but that’s not the reality of owning any business.
Matt and I have been trying to keep our heads above water and learn to manage the reality of what Finca Bellavista has become. We had a few harsh reality checks earlier this year in the form of some pretty alarming environmental damage surrounding us. Large clear cuts, transnational power lines being installed in place of native old-growth trees, massive pesticide application with obvious pockets of birth defects, endangered species poaching.
All of these things are preventable, but the reality is that activities like these are driven by demands coming from somewhere, and most of them are related to the need to earn a living. People will always do whatever is necessary to put food on the table – and in our area, that has been defined as clearing the land to make way for industrial agriculture, or providing goods on the black market, such as bush meat and skins.
It’s hard to stay negative for long, though, when you’re surrounded by so much beauty and bounty. We lack for nothing when it comes to food, since our gardens are amazing. On the contrary, whenever we are off-site, we go through salad withdrawals.
We have a revolving door of visiting friends and family, so that helps us when we are homesick. But everyone we come into contact with is a visitor, an owner, a resident, an employee, or a benefactor of our outreach programs. Our support network is growing every day, and we’ve developed some amazing relationships as a result.
I simply can’t imagine what my world would be like without having started this place. I was just thinking about the volunteer program today. We really only started it a year and a half ago, and we’ve had something like 45 volunteers, all here for a couple of months at a time. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, and I truly feel like they are my family. Just thinking of how much they’ve enriched my life brings tears to my eyes.
The most exciting thing for me is that our residents get to create and experience relationships with the forest and its inhabitants on a level like no other lifestyle provides. Waking up to the sounds of birdsong, falling asleep with the smells of night flowers wafting through the house, and seeing monkeys and kinkajous eye-to-eye from the front porch are all novelties that we get to experience daily. I am constantly inspired, and you can’t ask for much more than that.”