You don't have to be a Star Wars fan to dream of living in harmony with nature, like an Ewok on the moon of Endor. It's a vision shared by architects, doctors, business executives - nature lovers, birdwatchers and urban escapers - and a couple of former ski bums who turned the dream into reality with a tree-house community built deep in the jungles of southern Costa Rica.
One thing for sure, I would prefer a spaceship to the rickety red rental car that is coming apart at the seams as I make my way off the Pan American Highway and onto a winding, rocky jungle track. I'm on my way to Finca Bellavista, hoping to arrive before the heavens open and dump sheets of torrential rain.
I arrive just in time, and Bellavista co-founder Erica Hogan - devotee of sustainable living and fan of the Star Wars series - greets me in safari shorts and rugged leather boots that could stomp over every shoe store in Manhattan. While building the tree houses, she lived in a tent for six months, worked alone among a crew of 30 men in a world of mud, sweat and killer snakes. She's tough, resolute and stunning.
Matt Hogan, her 36-year-old ponytailed, goateed and much-tattooed husband, hobbles over in gumboots. His alternative appearance belies the fact that he once worked in a suit for the Maryland government, developing businesses with his tattoos hidden under long shirts. He had surgery on his foot the day before, but there's too much to do to sit back and recuperate. His hands are leathered and callused from countless hours of hard work in this jungle paradise.
Matt and Erica, who met and fell in love in the ski resort town of Crested Butte, Colo., first ventured to Costa Rica in search of a surf-shack getaway. Instead, they found this jungle lot with the most beautiful waterfall either had ever seen. Erica had visions of Ewoks, and suggested that they develop a tree-house community. Calls were made, savings accounts emptied, and shortly afterward the duo headed south to start their new life on 121-hectares in the jungle, with no electricity, plumbing or shelter.
While they've become skilled at many things - building, managing, clearing, communicating, dealing with bugs - they are experts at perseverance. Slowly, guests and buyers began to arrive from all over the world, smitten with the idea of living among the foliage, in pristine nature. And Bellavista recently attracted the attention of American Eagle Outfitters, which filmed an advertisement in the Finca that ran on the jumbotron in New York's Times Square. The ad shows beautiful couples having a blast in the jungle, which, for once, is pretty much accurate.
Today, Finca Bellavista has five luxury tree houses and four cabinas for guests, a base camp, office, organic vegetable garden, workshop, kitchen and community centre - powered by a hydroelectric system and tuned into a cellphone and wireless network. Also, 23 ziplines have been set high in the jungle canopy for adventurous guests. And new tree houses are being built as privately owned getaways.
It's dark at night here, and without my flashlight I would surely get lost on the steep hike from base camp to my quarters. The loud gush of the waterfall beneath my 1,200-square-foot multilevel tree house is pleasing to the ear. As I stand on the teak platform, washing up with natural soap, I can't stop wondering how they managed to build this tree house 27 metres off the ground in a mastate tree, much less figure out a sustainable plumbing system. I later learn that spring water and bio-digesters service all the tree houses, and that every care has been taken to ensure that the environment is protected.
Matt takes me to a new tree house being built for private ownership. It's as big as a house and features a modern kitchen run on propane and solar power, connected to a 3G cellphone and wireless network. The dirt track to get here practically ensures that nobody - other than exotic birds and blue-jeans dart frogs - will stumble upon it. "As you can see, this is not a room service and spa kind of deal," Erica says. Guests and owners can expect to hike to their tree houses, laze in hammocks, zipline the canopy and swim in surrounding waterfalls.
Below my tree house, I can see how the main waterfall inspired this tree house dream. It's just a short hike and scramble over some rocks to the natural rock pool, fed by a tributary of cool spring water. After some fun jumping from rocks into a deep pool, I rest below the falls, a hard stream massaging my shoulders. From my perch, I can see my tree house perfectly integrated in its surroundings.
After five years, Erica's dream of an Ewok village has come true, save for the furry creatures themselves. Guests emerge from their tree houses for healthy and delicious organic meals in the dining hall, where an iPod plays music as travellers share their stories into the night, pausing to scratch Kimbo, the resident bulldog, behind the ears. A fire crackles. The stars sparkle. If there is a dark side to the force, tonight in Costa Rica
it's nowhere to be found.
Robin Esrock is the host of the OLN/CITY-TV series Word Travels. His website is robinesrock.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail