Nestled in a cloud forest, a livable tree house stands 100 feet in the air. Eric Allen, a climber and bouldering enthusiast from the Canadian Yukon, built this home in a little town called Providencia, in the Los Santos region south of San José.
Providencia is difficult to reach. The dirt road is a 11-kilometer stretch from the
along a narrow cliff line that plunges into the cloud forest. The town is a community of 350 people, almost all farmers. Industrious and beautiful, Providencia is home to the friendliest Ticos around. Everyone greets each other on the street, and visitors are welcomed and often housed by local families. Laughter on these dusty streets is palpable.
“Would you like to see the school?” asks Eric’s wife, Ying. Their daughter Sierra leads the way down the dusty hill to El Gimnasio de la Mente (Gymnasium of the Mind), “donde usted es su propio maestro” (where you are your own teacher).
El Gimnasio is already buzzing by the time we arrive. Three children stand beside a climbing wall, and one is in mid-climb.
“They are helping David find a new route up,” Sierra explains.
While El Gimnasio concentrates on academics, there is a serious play component.
“Rock climbing is a complementary part of the curriculum because we want to teach the students to support each other,” Ying says. “This is something that is lacking in the community.”
Rock climbing is a passion for most of the children at the school.
“They live for bouldering,” says Sierra, who at 16 is the two-time national women’s sport climbing champion of Costa Rica.
Sierra developed the climbing team logo, which aptly calls the children “desafiantes de la gravedad” (defiers of gravity). A school that nourishes body, mind and spirit, El Gimnasio accepts students of all ages. It costs $200 a year per student and is cooperatively owned and operated by the parents. Ying maintains that a cooperative is a proven way to be successful in Costa Rica.
“If there is ownership within the community, then there is success,” she says.
Eric arrives six hours later and talks excitedly about that day’s clients.
“They said it was the highlight of their entire time in Costa Rica,” he says.
His customers have just participated in the La Cabaña tour, a series of tree climbs, two cable systems and a giant swing 30 meters above the ground.
The tree climb is an exercise in faith, working on an umbilical system that puts the climber in full responsibility of his or her climb.
“With the umbilical system you can move freely, both horizontally and vertically, in an elevated world,” Eric explains.
When asked about the risk, Eric matter of factly points out, “You can’t have adventure without drawing on your own ability to overcome a challenge.”
Eric wants to develop “learning tourism,” not the “thrill-seeking tourism” he says is common in Costa Rica.His tour doesn’t propel clients through cloud forests; instead, his customers learn skills and enjoy the environment by climbing trees and walking on cables between them.
“I have tried to create something that transcends the ‘been there, done that’ mentality of tourism,” he says. “People need to connect with the landscape in a personal way. If they can do that, then you have an excellent product.”
Eric laments the term “ecotourism.”
“Unfortunately, ecotourism is not really what it’s cracked up to be, and I’m concerned about its impact on locals,” he says. “What we need is good education more than tourism, so that local people won’t get squeezed out.”
Providencia, according to Eric, is a very vulnerable community.
“They will do anything for money and tragically do not appreciate what they have,” he says.
He, Ying and Sierra make it their job to instill in the children just how good they have it here.
“We’re teaching them to love the land and see its potential, and hopefully they won’t sell out when outside interests offer to buy up their farms,” he says.
In the Tree House
If La Cabaña is the brother and sister of the cloud forest, where interaction and play is encouraged, then La Esperanza, the tree house, is the watchful parent that offers refuge once the adventure is over.
La Esperanza (Hope) stands 100 feet in the air and celebrates one man’s dream to build a home in a tree. It has a toilet, queen size bed, shower and sink. It also has running water, because Eric hooked up a gravity-feed water system that brings water down the mountain and back up to the tree house.
Of course, getting to and from La Esperanza is not entirely simple.
It’s a 20-minute hike from La Cabaña to the platform that connects the mountainside to the tree house via a cart on a cable. Going down from the platform to La Esperanza is fairly easy, but going back requires momentum and strength; one has to get as far as possible on momentum and then proceed to pull the cart uphill to reach the mountainside.
Eric, 52, started building La Esperanza in 2002 with the help of some people from the community.
“When you see a place that is special and imagine building there, well, that is the beginning of a dream, isn’t it?” he muses.
“I’m thoroughly in love with this place and I need an excuse to be here.”
Though the tree house is not a practical place to live with his family, Eric wants to offer it as alternative housing for people visiting Providencia, “for people who love the outdoors, maybe climbers, bird photographers or mountain bikers… The idea of people coming here to appreciate everything I love about the place is really why I am opening it up to the public.”
Projects keep the Allens busy, but they are never too occupied to invite guests into their home for a glass of fresco de mora (blackberry juice) or to show them La Cabaña and La Esperanza.
They believe that a shift has to happen in Costa Rica for it to develop in a truly sustainable way. Their projects and businesses are a testament to this shift.
“The Stone Age didn’t end because they ran out of stones; it ended because they had a better idea,” Eric says. “We need a better idea in Costa Rica.”
Getting There, Rates, Info
Heading south from San José on the
, turn off near the summit at Ojo de Agua, at the entrance to LosQuetzalesNational Park. From there, it’s 11 km to Providencia and another 2 km to the Allens’ home. La Esperanza is another 6 km.
The Allen family is in Costa Rica from October to April, and provides the following services:
–Guesthouse including fresh, homemade breakfast for $50 for two people
–The La Cabaña tour, tree walks, tree climbs and cloud forest hikes for $35 per person
–Rustic cabin/bunkhouse including breakfast for $15 per night, per person
–Two-night minimum stay at La Esperanza for $250 per night
–All the climbing you can imagine
–Additional meals provided on request
For more information or to arrange a visit, contact Eric and Ying Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-0597.
The Allens have announced that Providencia will be hosting a Bouldering Festival Jan. 20, starting at 10 a.m., featuring bouldering circuits, slacklining, juggling and more. Admission will cost $2. For more information, call 893-3744 or 352-0597.