As it rapidly descends the Aguacate Mountains in Costa Rica, the Rio Machuga tumbles around massive boulders under towering Guanacaste trees full of birds and buzzing insects. Teeming with the energy of life, these tropical jungles are home to hundreds of medicinal and edible plants and animals of every order. They are also home to two unique intentional communities, known as Tacotal and La Ecovilla, where people from all around the world have come to build their homes and live in closer relationship with the land. Both communities are founded on the principles of permaculture, with food bearing trees line the roads and pathways, water catchment ponds, and natural waste treatment through composting, both high and low tech.
In 2015, my family spent six months living in Tacotal, answering the call of our friend Matthew Human, who needed someone to water his fruit trees and maintain a presence at his recently constructed house there. Human happens to be one of our favorite musicians, and we had just been talking about spending time in Costa Rica, preferably at an intentional community, so it was an obvious move for us, if unexpected. Within a few weeks of learning about the opportunity, we were on a plane bound for San Jose, loaded down with as much baggage as the airlines would allow.
Though Tacotal and La Ecovilla share many ideals and principles, they are very different from each other in many ways, and during the time we spent living amongst them we came to appreciate the character and charm that each community had to offer. We also learned a great deal about community dynamics and challenges that arise when designing new systems.
Our time in Costa Rica was both wonderful and difficult, the best of times and the worst of times, you might say. The experiences and life lessons that living there afforded us were rich and deep, and the story of our time there will be covered at length in future articles. As an introduction to these tropical ecovillage adventures, I will first share this overview, a tale of two villages of new paradigm intent, both of which have become dear to my heart.
Driving to Tacotal, you pass the gates of Ecovilla, labeled with backlit lettering on a stone wall, next to an automatic gate. Past this point, official road maintenance ends, and only high clearance four by fours dare proceed. For nearly a mile you bounce and bump your way up the mountain, until you arrive at the gates of Tacotal, which consists of two cross sections of an enormous tree suspended from opposite posts. The sign for Tacotal is colorful and hand painted.
Tacotal sits on some seventy acres with over half a mile of river frontage. Most of the houses and structures are along the top of the property, as the lower areas closer to the river are not accessible by road. Immediately through the gate is the main community area, which consists of a kitchen, showers and a wash station, and several small living spaces which are available for guests or workers. Everything is open air, with cob walls, un-milled timber framing, and earthen floors. The water system is drawn from the land, by way of well, spring, and uphill creek water. It has been built entirely by the community members, as have all of the houses and structures.
The houses of Tacotal are truly works of art, and great representation of the spirit of Tacotal itself. They each have their own character, and it was quite a joy getting to visit and examine the craftsmanship of each. They demonstrate excellent use of cob, curves, natural timber, building around boulders to give the impression that the house is but an extension of the Earth. Even the more conventionally built homes looked like they belonged perfectly in the deep jungle setting, their dark timber framing attractively contrasting the green of the jungles beyond.
When we walked down to La Ecovilla, it was like stepping into a totally different world. The community area of Ecovilla is like a resort. Overlooking a large saltwater pool is a large open air structure they call the rancho, with a palm thatch roof, a modern kitchen, bathrooms, and a large open floor for gatherings, dances, or meetings. Right next to this building is another large deck with a palm roof, known as the yoga platform. Fruit trees surround these buildings, and are present on every lot.
The lots are smaller than in Tacotal, giving Ecovilla more of a neighborhood feel. The roads are wide and finished, and the houses modern and connected to the grid. There are some very nice houses, including a few that would qualify as natural building, with cob, whole timbers, and curves, though most had the look of glass, concrete and steel. There were quite a few houses, and quite a few more being built. Ecovilla was always teeming with activity, with numerous work crews coming and going every day to work on all the new houses going in. There were some twenty houses already built, during our time there, and another twenty or so more in the process of being built.
Fruit trees are everywhere in Ecovilla, but unlike at Tacotal, the layout is very orderly, with irrigation lines watering the trees that line the roads, clearly delineated lots, and a landscaping and maintenance staff going around cutting the grass, pulling weeds, and keeping things clean. Ecovilla also has a very nice vegetable garden, laid out in a mandala-like circular pattern and decked with beautiful fruits, veggies, and flowers.
Although we were not officially a part of the Ecovilla community, we made many friends there and we became fairly plugged in to the scene when we enrolled our girls in the Ecovilla school. Unlike Tacotal, which had been founded by a group of friends and consisted mostly of people who had known each other for some time, Ecovilla was populated mostly by people who had never met until they bought lots and became neighbors. We bore witness to the challenges and joys that come with this kind of melting pot scenario, and we enjoyed getting to know quite a few really dynamic characters who lived there. The expat residents of Ecovilla represented over fifteen different countries. Some were retirees, some were independently wealthy. Many had incredible stories, and many were doing what I would call important new paradigm work.
We also made good friends up at Tacotal, but unlike Ecovilla, Tacotal did not have large consistent population. Although there were some twenty or thirty people invested there, only a few lived there full time. The time we spent with folks at Tacotal was priceless though. We were fortunate enough to be there when they hosted an Ayahuasca ceremony and sweat lodge, which was a very good bonding experience with our new neighbors. Two Costa Rican families were the primary occupants of the land, along with two American guys who lived in their jungle dwellings more or less half of the year. Some other members came to visit their land during the dry season, and we enjoyed getting to know them all.
I plan to write in far greater detail about Tacotal and Ecovilla, discussing things like business structures, accounting and decision making, land use, common areas, dues, and obligations; all crucial elements of life at an intentional community. In short, though, Ecovilla was more conventional in its business structures, functioning more like a neighborhood association than a community of co-ownership. Tacotal had a wide variety of requirements for development of one’s own lot, (based largely on the design principles of permaculture) but it was, in general, less bureaucratic of a community, by a wide margin. Tacotal was very laid back, with an Earthy, rasta-hippie vibe. For instance, both communities had more than one private swimming hole on the Machuga River, but only at Tacotal could we swim naked without fear of rebuke.
Ecovilla had immaculate, top of the line infrastructure and crews to keep everything working, but they also had high monthly dues, and considerably more drama between residents over matters of policy. At Tacotal, much of the infrastructure wanted maintenance and upkeep, (even demolition in some cases), but the whole scene was totally tranquillo, and the folks seemed to get along and work together with natural ease.
A whole bunch of festivals take place in Costa Rica during the first few months of the calendar year, and a collaboration of Tacotal people brewed hundreds of gallons of ginger beer up at the community kitchen, using ginger harvested from the land of Tacotal caretaker and de facto member, Eduardo, who came and went all throughout our time there. This ginger beer enterprise, which they have been doing for a few years now, is highly profitable, but their arrangements are informal, held together by their friendship and mutual advantage, in the most agoristic fashion.
At Ecovilla they held several large events, such as a yoga teacher training, a community building exercise, and other workshops which were largely prohibitive for us, owing to the cost. Our finances were poorly set forth in our hasty departure, and we found that in spite of our work trade housing, life in Costa Rica was not inexpensive, and our affiliation with the generally affluent community of Ecovilla set standards that were hard to uphold.
The school was a prime example. We put all three girls into the Ecovilla school, which was just commencing its second year. It was a great school and the girls loved it, but after two months of paying their tuition, it rapidly became clear that we couldn’t keep them enrolled for much longer. It was a huge financial relief when we pulled them out, as well as a relief from the twice daily journey down and back up the hill on the horribly rough Tacotal Road, though it was sad that they couldn’t continue benefitting from the relaxed, bilingual environment, and the awesome teachers, whom we all loved.
But we were sure glad to be done with such frequent trips up and down the hill, even after we bought a car. We learned rather quickly learned that life without a car from such a remote home base was exceedingly difficult, so we got an Isuzu Trooper. I had stayed in Costa Rica for over a month four years earlier, getting by just fine without a car, but this was a totally different situation. Just hiking up and down that hill between Ecovilla and Tacotal once or twice a day was exhausting enough, but trying to transport laundry or groceries as well was more than could be asked of any overly privileged first worlders like ourselves.
A car was a must, and though the cost of it severely depleted our already insufficient budget, we couldn’t have done without it.
Having a car allowed us to do some traveling, though we certainly wished we could do more. We did go on several really awesome road trips, which will be described in due time. More importantly, the car allowed us to transport groceries easily up the hill and right to our own front yard. And we went through lots of groceries. We were very fortunate to have access to organic food from different farmers markets, with groups of people from Ecovilla organizing orders and deliveries.
Our diet in Costa Rica was very simple, to the point that it drove us all mad, a little. Talk about checking a privilege. We had access to organic, farm fresh food that was grown within 100 miles, delivered right to our neighboring community, and still we felt inclined to complain when the fare became repetitive. We cooked three meals a day from scratch, having no refrigerator and few processed or packaged foods. Beans and rice. Beans and rice. Cabbage and beets. Beet and carrot salads. Cabbage and carrot salads. Our most exciting meals were quesadillas, with tortillas and cheese that came from the Feria Verde, a San Jose organic farmers market. Usually it was beans and rice, with sautéed vegetables and a salad.
It was still really good eating, but as spoiled as we Americans are, it set off all kinds of alarms in our minds about how we really want to live somewhere where we have access to all the wonderful foods we have grown accustomed to while living in Southern Oregon.
As much as our environment suggested a relaxed tropical retreat, we stayed very busy operating Finca Verde, Human’s space at Tacotal. He had cleared areas on both sides of his house and planted a variety of fruit trees, though there was much undergrowth rapidly establishing itself when we arrived. Tacotal, we learned, is translates as young, regrowth forest. In order to establish gardens and a food forest around Human’s house, we had to keep the jungle plants hacked back and get water to the trees through the dry season. This was serious work, requiring boots, gloves, a sharp machete, and a sun hat. Still, we took great delight in caring for that land, and gradually we set to re-clearing the space in front of the house so we could put gardens there.
We thought we would grow most of our own food, with such constant warm weather, but we found growing gardens in the tropics to be very difficult. Our chief rival was the leaf cutter ant, zampopos. These are the ants that clear highways through the jungle over which they transport massive amounts of plant matter back to their immense underground tunnels, where theyferment their harvest to grow a fungus which is their staple food. Columns of these big red ants will descend on any new bed at night and strip every little seedling or start of every green leaf.
So in spite of our best efforts, we could extract but little of our food from the land. Even though a tropical climate eliminates many demands inherent to land with hard winters, there are many challenges to tropical homesteading. We became well acquainted with the reality of off-grid, remote tropical living, which is toilsome and lacking in many comforts and conveniences. For anyone wanting to get back to the land and live more naturally, such experiences are of great value. It’s not as easy as it sounds, and if we want to really transition to more ecologically sound cultural models, we have to set realistic goals about the transitional process and develop appropriate educational systems that will prepare people for a different way of life, closer to nature and with greater ties to community and place.
Living this way afforded us a very good look at our own shadows. In spite of our commitment to this cause, our entitlements cried out to us from their perceived state of lack, like an aching muscle. Feed me processed food and sweets! Give me push button convenience and easy access shopping! Convenience is a dangerous thing to cultivate in our lives because it reprograms our instinctual priorities, in a way that leaves us very vulnerable, both physically and emotionally, to any adverse circumstances.
On top of the difficulty of life (relatively speaking, anyhow) in Costa Rica, our finances ran dry far sooner than I had expected. We far underestimated the cost of living, and definitely didn’t stick to the budget I laid forth. (Why I even make budgets is beyond me, as I face mutiny from my crew of blonde buccaneers if I ever try to actually stick to budget plans drawn up with sensible Scottish frugality.) We did a fair bit of traveling around Costa Rica, and we bought things to make life in the jungle more comfortable. We ate ice cream and bought lots of fruit, which actually got pretty expensive, especially when taking care to buy organic.
At one point we were down to about sixty dollars, not even enough for a usual week’s groceries, with no real sense of where our next money would come from. . Upon learning that Jerry, my good friend and employer for four years in Oregon, had been hospitalized and diagnosed with lymphoma, I knew for certain we had to leave. We put our car on the market, planning to fly back to the States as soon as we found a buyer.
Feeling bad for having to depart before our arranged time, Laura and I spent our final weeks at Tacotal laying out a series of garden beds in the front garden, and planting a bunch of flowers in the central bed. We knew that the jungle would take all our work back in a short time as rainy season continued, but we trusted that another caretaker would find his or her way to that magical spot in the hills of the Agucate.
We are eternally grateful to all our friends in Costa Rica who helped us feel at home during our stay in that beautiful land, and to Human for opening his home to us. There is much more to tell of this tale, so stay tuned for all the drama and adventure in far greater detail. And if you’ve ever had the inclination to just drop all your supposed obligations (not including children) and head out to an ecovillage or community abroad, let me just say that it can be done. If we, a family of five with three daughters aged two to nine, could pull this off, so can you. It might not be easy, but it will be worth it.
Some additional photos (Slide show: Click to image to scroll through):