Sunday, February 28, 2010

Time to Build

Enough dreaming, let's get going.  In spring 2008 we decided it was time to start.

While Ventana is interested in selling property, what they are really interested in is custom home building.  Over the past 15 years they have grown to be the largest home building in the country.  They offer all the necessary design services, permitting etc.  While we could go through design and construction on our own, trying that from 3000 miles away couldn't possibly work.

So, an email down to the Ventana offices (yes they now have direct access to email) connected us to Robert.  Robert is the designer - he has a real feel for the space, the environment, the community.  His note said the following ...

"In order to start with your home project and achieve the perfect design for you, we need you to supply us with basic information regarding your lifestyle and budget. Do you have a big family? Do you like to entertain? How large a house you are contemplating, how many rooms, how many floors? Do you need an office? Are you indoors or outdoors persons? Would you like a pool? Do you like gardening? Will you be there full time or part time and will you be renting out your house? The answer to these questions as well any other comments you may have will be helpful to start this process.

This information will assist in making your vision come alive. I will visit your property, review the lay of the land and determine how to adapt your needs to the site, taking advantage of the best views and prevalent breeze. "

How on earth are we going to tell him everything we have in our minds!!!???  Well let's just answer the questions and see where that takes us ...

Do you have a big family?
Just the 2 of us.  The extended family is not large – an adult son, 2 siblings with 5 children. However, as you can imagine our group of friends is expanding given news of access to paradise.

Do you like to entertain?
Prefer smaller gatherings (up to 10) to large parties, and don’t expect this with be the centre of big social occasions

How large a house you are contemplating? How many rooms, how many floors?
1500 square feet.
2 bedrooms (one acting as study / office / guest room)
2 to 2 ½ bathrooms
Living / dining / kitchen
Outdoor living / dining space
We are leaning to a preference for multiple floors to maximize ventilation and views – but are open to finding the best solution for the site

Do you need an office?
Not likely a dedicated space for office work  Need to discuss internet access and network within the house

Are you indoors or outdoors persons?
Like outdoor living  Require appropriate shelter from sun

Would you like a pool?
Yes – not large – plunge pool is fine  Would like it to feel like part of the living space

Do you like gardening?
Yes – prefer flowering shrubs and trees – not interested in lots of maintenance  Would like to create a relatively natural tropical environment

Will you be there full time or part time and will you be renting out your house?
Expect to be in residence only part time for a number of years.  We are certainly open to renting the house, or offering to friends and relatives, but it is not being built as a revenue property

Would like views to the ocean as well as the valley (distant) and nearby river valley  Orientation of outdoor living space to southern (sun) exposure  Covered parking for one vehicle (car port)  Potential to build a small guest/pool house separate from main house (max 300 sq ft) – living / sleeping / dining / bar fridge / microwave / bar sink / 3 piece bath

Do those few questions really say everything about us - how we live and what we need from a home - I guess we will find out - - off the email went - April 6, 2008.
Three weeks later - Voila!

WOW - this could really work!  Not perfect, a bit 'fussy' from a design perspective, but all the right elements.  A home - in Costa Rica - for real - very neat - very scary!

Saturday, February 27, 2010


About halfway between Dominical and Palmar, and about 15 km south of Uvita, is a little town - Ojochal. The road follows the river inland and is dotted by the homes of Ticos, restaurants, businesses, grocery store, school, soccer field and hotels. The town has been around for a long time, but in the past 15 years has attracted many Canadians (largely from Toronto and Quebec City), Parisians, Germans and the obligatory Americans.

The town is a curious mix of Ticos and expats living quite harmoniously.

We meet travellers in Costa Rica who ask - is there anything to eat besides rice and beans?  You know they are on a guided tour.  As foodies, we couldn't possibly survive without good and interesting food.  While Costa Rica has lots of that generally, Ojochal is a little treasure trove.  Indonesian, Asian Fusion, Argentinean Steak, Indian, Casados, fresh fish, ceviche, Italian, Pizza, European baked goods, fresh goat cheese - all in this little town tucked along the river.

The supermercado - Jucaloa - offers a full range of food, household products, clothes, wine and beer - everything you need.

Along this stretch of the coast, the mountains meet the ocean creating little beaches accessed down winding roads.  Well marked on the highway, these little bits of paradise are welcome surprises.  There are 7 beaches each with a unique character - Tortuga, Ventanas and Pinuellas are our favourites.

You can find out more at

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Paradise Found

So how did you decide to buy land?

That is a really common question.  The answer - we didn't set out to, so the decision really found us.

In 2005, we went rafting on the Pacuare River (action), spent 4 days in the Osa at a tent camp (isolation) and planned a week at the beach in Manuel Antonio (party).

As I noted in the last post, our trip to the Osa made it clear to us that the Southern Zone was really special and we knew this country was a place we would return to often.  Manuel Antonio is a really neat place - lots to do, great restaurants and night life, spectacular beach and the most diverse national park in the country.  It also has a great tourist infrastructure. 

So as we were walking along the road to the beach, we passed the Century 21 Realty Office.   Always curious, Lisle paused to look at the postings in the window.  We actually recognized some of the listings as places we had commented on, and the sticker shock was mind numbing.  So much for that dream of paradise.  Lying on the beach in the shade of the almond trees, Lisle said he found a website before we left home for a company further south that was selling land.  Despite my resistance (I'm on vacation, it's too far, we don't have a car, it's probably a scam) we contacted them and agreed to drive down for a conversation.

The 'contacting them' part was fun because at the time there was no phone service, cell reception was available 7 KM north on the side of the highway and the only internet was the internet cafe in Ojochal.  So there were several emails back and forth over a couple of days.

The land south from Manuel Antonio is relatively flat, as from here to Dominical the mountains start further inland.  The plains are filled with Palm Plantations producing palm oil for cosmetics and food.  The palm fruit is really ugly - looks like giant spikey pigs hanging from the tree.  The drive however is torturous.  75 km of dirt road (nothing but dust in the air during the dry season), covered in potholes, one lane bridges (where they hadn't been washed out and you needed to drive down through the river) and farm machinery and tractor trailer hauling stuff around.  At barely 20 km / hour the drive was over 3 hours.  You want an idea of this - go to

(BTW - as of January 2010 - brand new paved highway - 45 minutes to drive)

From Dominical south, the drive was spectacular - breathtaking view of the coast and the mountains, roadside ceviche stands, little boutique 'hotels' - very little commercial activity - very remote.

The drive along the river into Ojochal was beautiful - discovering this little gem in the jungle.  Then to the 'guest house' - a terrifying climb up the mountain on a dirt road barely wide enough for the 4x4, a sharp U turn and a driveway that looked like it was vertical!

The folks with Ventana Del Pacifico were all very hospitable, providing lunch and a swim in the pool after our long drive, and then showed us the area, driving further up the mountain.  It was unbearably hot, not a cloud in the sky.  The view from the lots was unbelievable.  The people were genuine. The town was unique.  The potential was enormous. 

We looked at lot after lot - none of which clicked with us - too low, too big, no where to build, no air, everyone has to drive past your door - it was getting late (sunsets at 5:30 all year around and it gets dark fast) - one more lot to look at - - no still not right (not that it mattered because we weren't here to buy anything anyways).  From where we were, the main road went left, and Lisle said "what's down there?"  noting the road on the right that was largely grown over.  Smaller lots - probably not what you want - although this one might - - let's look.  

Needless to say, something happened on that little lot at the end of a dead end road.  The right height, the right air, lots of privacy, protected land behind (primary jungle - never cut), a tiny view of the ocean, a great view of the mountain valley.  Somehow I knew we were leaving there with a dream for the future - and a contract!

Now for the drive back along that horrid road - in the dark!!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Southern Zone

On our second trip in February 2005, we decided to venture to the Osa.

The Osa Peninsula makes up the far southern pacific region of Costa Rica.  Almost the entire peninsula is covered by the Corcovado National Park, a vast and largely unexplored tropical rain forest inhabited by toucans, macaws, monkeys, jaguar, wild pigs.  It is largely mountainous.

We flew over in a 4 seater plane on our way to a remote tent camp.  Stay for 4 night in a canvas tent on a wooden platform on a strip of flat land between the beach and the Pacific Ocean, and the jungle covered mountain. Not only one of our best Costa Rican experiences, but we fell in love with this part of the country.

The south has only recently been accessible.  The Costanera Sur Pacifico Highway has slowly been paved over the past 5 years bringing more life to the area, but this is still about little "hotels", secluded beaches, mountains meeting the ocean, and a comfortably paced lifestyle.

The towns along this stretch of the coast include Dominical (well known as a surfer's paradise - complete with the lost in the 60's vibe), Uvita (with one of the largest marine national parks in the world and a sandbar that at low tide is the perfect replica of a whales tale - and over 1km tip to tip), Palmar (where it has just been announced that the third international airport will be constructed over the next 10 years) and Sierpe (a port linking the ocean to the mangroves to the rest of the country).  Dominical to Palmar is about 75 km.

Further south, cutting across the peninsula, you find Golfito, a port on the Golfo Dolce - said to be the world's largest tropical fiord.

There is something very special about the remote beauty of this part of the Costa Rica.

Discovering Costa Rica

Like most wonderful things in life, discovering Costa Rica was a fluke.

In 2003 we cruised from San Diego to New Orleans through the Panama Canal.  While transiting the canal was the highlight to the trip, the day before we stopped in Costa Rica.

Caldera is a non-descript place - a cement pier near the major commercial port of Puntarenas - and we spent the day "white water rafting on the Corobici River" - where no one has ever heard of rapids, but the scenery and wildlife are spectacular - but there was the sense of something very special - engaged and educated people, lush surrounding, interesting and active lives, and a sense of quiet.  Before returning to the ship that day, we knew we needed to see more.

We returned to Costa Rica the following year, travelling the country in a whirlwind tour of two weeks.  No where have we seen the diversity of places and activities, animals and plant, so accessible and in such a small area.  In the 6 years since, we have travelled banana plantations, boated through the mangroves, flown through the rainforest canopy on a zipline, swum under waterfalls, hiked on lava flow, squirmed through caves, been up close with monkeys, rafted the rapids of the Pacuare River, snorkelled, been certified for open water diving, ate well, drank well and snoozed under the almond trees on a desert beach.

Oh ya - and bought a little piece of this paradise to keep!

Monday, February 15, 2010

You're moving to Puerto Rico?

No, Costa Rica!  It's a country in Central America, not an island in the Carribbean.

No it is not part of the U.S. and no it doesn't have a dictator.

An independent democratic republic since 1827, maintaining a stable government without existence of an army since 1949 (a major achievement given the dictatorships, regime changes and civil wars of its neighbours).

Located between Nicaragua and Panama, Costa Rica is about 20,000 sq miles in area, with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Carribbean Sea.  Population is about 2.5 million.

It is a complex country of active volcanoes, lush rainforests, mangroves, mountains and beaches.

At about 9 degrees north of the equator, tropical is the only description - hot days, warm nights, ocean breezes.

The plant and animal life is nothing short of spectacular.  Toucans and Macaws in the trees, Iguanas on the ground, the call of the Howler Monkey in the air.  Hibiscus, Bougainvillea, Ficus, Palms, Orchids are everywhere.

The people are the really amazing attractions.  Ticos (the name for the locals) are very genuine, friendly and open.  They often have very little, but take great pride in themselves, their homes and their lives.  With public education available through university, everyone, even in the most remote of locations, goes to school.

Along with public education, there is public health care, and a great degree of tolerance - and they even elected their first female president just last week.

Sound interesting?  We thought so too.

Beautiful isn't it!!

This is it! Our dream home!

2,400 square feet on a mountainside in Costa Rica.

It has taken us 5 years to get here, and in 12 months it should be very real!

Why Costa Rica?   Was it easy to buy land?  How on earth are you going to build a house from 3,000 miles away?    All this and more our friends and colleagues have asked.  So, thought it might be interesting to document our journey.

Here goes!!