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Letters from Costa Rica – Part I

by Juliana Birnbaum Fox, fellow collaborator with Craig Mackintosh on the Sustainable (R)evolution Book Project.

The family in front of our
jungle kitchen

Up until now, we’ve collected stories from around the world on this Culture of Permaculture blog – reports back from inspiring sites that we feel are in some way demonstrating solutions to the serious social and environmental crises our generation faces.  The posts have included profiles of places that my family and like-minded collaborators have visited and conversations we’ve had on topics such as community, ecological design, and living in balance with natural systems. 

Our goal is to publish a tabletop-style book (read more about the Sustainable   [R]evolution book project here) that showcases these design solutions in practice around the world, from urban community gardens to indigenous villages to permaculture centers.  As an anthropologist, I’ve been writing and editing the manuscript from an ethnographic perspective, looking at these places as evidence of an emerging, international culture of sustainable living. 

This entry marks the beginning of a new era of this research.  Instead of simply visiting these sites, we have the incredible opportunity to create one.   About two years ago, my family decided to join a group of people who formed a collective to buy 55 acres of land in Costa Rica.  Many of the members of the group knew each other from an annual Burning Man camp they were part of; some, like us, were connected through Stephen Brooks.  Stephen is the ever-optimistic and energetic creative force behind Punta Mona, a permaculture center on the Carribean side of Costa Rica, and Kopali Organics, a natural and fair trade food company.  His unmatched networking abilities and experience living and working in Costa Rica made it possible for 33 people – American, Costa Rican and Mexican – to come together and ante up to be part of the community we named Tacotal. 

Most contributed money ($12,500 per ¼ “pod”, with 8 pods total); a few contributed sweat equity with jobs ranging from accounting to construction and engineering.  We use the pod system to organize ourselves and make decisions, and together the 8 pods form a legal corporation which officially owns the land.  Since it has not been subdivided as of now, none of us actually own our individual home sites.  We’re all in this together, for better or worse.  This is part of what allowed the price tag to be so low – many of the costs associated with buying land here come from the expenses of subdividing.  It creates a different sort of community too, one based much more on trust and long-term involvement, as selling shares is somewhat complicated in this setup.

The first banana harvest since our arrival

Tacotal is the local name for the incredibly resilient, fast-growing vegetation that comes up after land has been cleared.  As one of our community members pointed out yesterday at a meeting, Tacotal is the start of the forest that perpetually regenerates: pure potential.

It feels like this year, we’re starting to gain some momentum and make bigger strides toward the realization of that potential.  When the opportunity to purchase the land came up two years back, we needed to move quickly.  At that time, the majority of the community members were not ready to make the move to the land permanently.   So Tacotal has faced the complexity of being a largely virtual community, except the month or so around our annual meeting, which has drawn about half to three-quarters of the members to the land.  Much of what has been built and planted was done by a handful of members who could devote more time and energy.  This includes several Ticos (Costa Ricans) who live in the capital, San Jose, and came on weekends, sometimes organizing permaculture workshops or other courses that brought helping hands to the land.

That brings me to our location—we’re on the Rio Machuca (one of the best features of the land is it allows us to go for a swim in various pools and little waterfalls) about an hour from San Jose and 30 minutes to the Central Pacific Coast and the Jaco area.  It feels tropical and jungle-forested but drier than a rainforest.  The town of Atenas isn’t far, and its climate has been called the best in the world by NASA and National Geographic.  The nearest town to us is San Mateo de Orotina, only a couple of miles away, but as of now our road is in a state that requires at least 15 minutes to navigate those few bumpy miles.

Arriving at San Jose airport – it’s hard to travel
light with two kids!

Because of this, ironically, our first step in establishing our eco-life here was buying an SUV!  This was hard to bring ourselves to do as people who have rallied against the awful American propensity for huge gas guzzlers that are only used to drive on nice smooth roads.  Anyway you can’t access our land here without a serious 4 x 4.  At least we got a diesel and have plans to convert it to veggie oil….  after much research we ended up going for a Nissan Terrano, bought through a website called and with the help of our Tico friends.  It’s been handling the road really well so far.

 A crazy synchronicity with the Nissan – not sure what this is evidence of besides globalization and some kind of law of attraction.  The car appears to have been made for sale in Japan – it has Japanese writing on it in several places.  In 1998, I lived in Japan in a small city called Asahikawa, in the northernmost island of Hokkaido, working as an English teacher.  When I looked carefully at the writing on the car, I saw the kanji for Asahikawa – I think it came from a dealer there, of all places!

So our first week here was tied up with finding and buying the car, and trying to figure out the intricacies of getting cell phone/internet service – this has been complex and is still pending.   We also managed to set up a mailbox, get mattresses, and learn a little bit about the layout of San Jose.  It’s a major challenge getting around there as there are no real addresses – no house/building numbers and just a handful of named or numbered streets (and you’re super lucky if they are marked even if they do have a name!)  Directions are something like this:  “Go past the church, make a left, you’ll see a panaderia on the right, go 200 meters past that to the sleeping dog and make a U turn – don’t go the wrong way down the unmarked one way street…”.

Lila juicing oranges

We finally made it to the farm about 10 days ago and this is the first time I’ve had a minute at an Internet café to post.  Tacotal is dripping with oranges at the moment and we’re making a ton of juice and have made a few attempts at marmalade.  There are also a ton of bananas in four different varieties and lots and lots of limes – I made a tasty banana ceviche last week which we learned about at a San Jose restaurant. They call it Guinean Ceviche.

 Since we were here last the place has obtained a dog and we hear there have been no snake sightings in a while which makes us all breathe a sigh of relief.  We’ve been staying in one of the star plate domes which went up since we last visited, and working on building the cabin that we will stay in for these months while we are building our “real” house.  Our daughter Lîla, who will be three in a couple of days, is having a great time taking care of the chickens, looking for lizards and butterflies, and swinging on the rope swing.…

I will sign off for now and next time write more about the permaculture systems at Tacotal and the challenges of parenting in the jungle.


  1. Hi! I am so excited you are doing what you are doing! My boyfriend and I are hopefully coming to Costa Rica in the next year to do a permaculture apprenticeship for about six months. We are looking for as much hands-on experience as we can get. Who knows, maybe we could lend a hand at your place while we are over there?? You are starting something that is also our life dream! Let me know if you would like to keep in touch…
    Thank you!

  2. Hello Alex, Pura Vida! Contact me at [email protected] directly and we can discuss more on Tacotal permaculture volunteering/courses. Punta Mona has more formal monthlong permaculture internships as well. Thanks for writing!

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