Finca Exotica is one garden paradise that lives up to the promise of its name. At the very end of the bumpy road from Puerto Jiménez to Carate on southwestern Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula, this combination organic farm, botanical garden and eco-lodge is notable not only for its focus on sustainable living, but also for the delightful contrast between its remote setting and its sophisticated hospitality.
The finca, on about 90 hectares, is the creation of Markus Wehrmeister, a German architect turned caterer turned organic gardener, who had a quasi-Utopian vision seven years ago of transforming a worn-out subsistence farm into a model of organic farming, sustainable living and hospitality and natural beauty. Wehrmeister sums up the guiding principle behind his vision with this aphorism:
“In China, they say, ‘If you want to be happy for a day, kill a pig and share it with friends. If you want to be happy for a year, get married. If you want to be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.’”
And plant a garden he did. Over the last seven years, aided by employees and volunteers, Wehrmeister has planted more than 125 species of tropical fruits, a thousand trees, including more than a dozen different species of palms, 15 species of bananas and plantains, seven species of bamboo and countless flowering ornamentals and edible plants.
But Wehrmeister didn’t stop at plants. With the goal of being as self-sufficient as possible, he also built a duck house, a henhouse and a pig enclosure. An architect, Wehrmeister couldn’t help but infuse even these farmyard structures with elegant design elements. The realities of jungle farming made some adjustments necessary, however. During a heavy rain period last year, a hungry ocelot broke into the poultry houses, ate the ducks and killed most of the chicks and hens. The pig survived with just a chicharrón bitten off one flank. Now each of the livestock enclosures is totally enclosed and, Wehrmeister hopes, ocelot-proof.
A tour of the organic farm and gorgeous garden includes tastes of edible plants along the way. Wehrmeister introduced me to katuk, a spicy salad green reminiscent of spinach. Just rip the dark green leaves off the stem and pop them into your mouth.
Another tasty leaf comes from the limón criollo tree – a handful will wake up your taste buds in the morning. Along with the garden tour, the main activities here are boogie boarding and beachcombing on Playa Carate and hiking into CorcovadoNational Park, just a 45-minute beach walk away.
The lodging here is as exotic as the garden and just as carefully designed. Five quintessentially tropical cabins are built of bamboo, thatch and unobtrusive screening, affording privacy while remaining as open to the garden as possible. The feeling is more tiki than tico: Each cabin looks as though it belongs on a South Seas island, a feeling reinforced by the steady sound of the surf, just steps away. Bathrooms have elegant ceramic sinks, flush toilets and an open window to the garden. Showers are in separate bamboo and cane enclosures in private gardens.
Stunning flower arrangements, beautiful batik fabrics and woven-palm hangings add a touch of sophistication. They’re the handiwork of Costa Rican artist, potter and teacher Gabriela Madriz, who makes her home here with Wehrmeister.
For the more adventurous – and budget-minded – six platform tents are scattered around two garden areas, sharing open-tothe- sky showers and bathrooms. These are not your standard camping tents. Wehrmeister’s innovative design uses translucent nylon that lets in lots of light, with interestingly shaped, zippered windows screened with aphid-proof netting to allow for maximum air flow and privacy.
With his eye for aesthetics, Wehrmeister set his tents on light, portable bamboo frames, topped with thatch roofs. Bamboo decks and entries pebbled with washed-up beach stones complete the idyllic, castaway-island look. Inside, though, these thatched huts have comfortable queen-size or single mattresses, draped in fresh linens.
Staying true to his Chinese aphorism, Wehrmeister also practices what he preaches when it comes to food. The first time I dropped by, a visiting chef from the U.S. state of Wisconsin had just butchered and cooked up the farm pig. I joined other guests in the garden to feast on tender, barbecued pork ribs.
My next, longer visit was a culinary extravaganza. The first night, guests gathered in Wehrmeister and Madriz’s handsome house, perched high atop what Wehrmeister calls “Edible Hill,” with 360-degree views of ocean and coastline. Designed and built by Wehrmeister, the wooden house is built on horizontal planes reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with built-in cabinetry and cushioned seating.
Wehrmeister and Madriz worked in the open kitchen to produce a truly exotic meal, starting with appetizers of fresh tuna sashimi and seared tuna chunks, followed by red snapper cooked in a spicy Indian paste, accompanied by a medley of spinach and kale braised in a sake, sesame oil and mirin sauce, atop jasmine rice. Dessert was a spicy fruit compote of banana, pineapple and caramelized carambola (star fruit). All the raw ingredients were grown on the finca, except for the fish, courtesy of a local fisherman.
The next night’s dinner was down in the garden, a cooperative effort by Madriz, Wehrmeister and his brother Wieland, a chef visiting from Germany, as well as U.S. volunteer Amory Tarr, an experienced organic farmer. The meal was proof that organic doesn’t mean boring.
We started with a hot and sour Mexican soup, a favorite of Wehrmeister, who was born in Mexico and lived on a farm there until he was 11. Next came a savory coconut curry chicken padang, flavored with lemongrass, turmeric and ginger, topped with tender curry-plant leaves. Every dinner features a truly tropical salad concocted by Madriz and served on a huge wooden platter decorated with flowers. This night, the salad included colorful chunks of watermelon, avocado, tomato and carrot atop a bed of cabbage and crispy katuk leaves, dressed in a balsamic and honey vinaigrette. Dessert was caramelized carambola and bananas in red wine and coconut milk.
Breakfasts here include excellent coffee, fresh farm eggs, home-baked raisin bread, pancakes, gallo pinto, yogurt-and fruit smoothies and, of course, fresh fruit.
Even the picnic lunch we took on a day hike into Corcovado was out of the ordinary, with chunks of spicy tuna and sautéed onions wedged between grilled slices of dense homemade bread.
Wehrmeister’s ultimate dream for Finca Exotica is to create not only a model of sustainable living, but also an educational environment for both locals and visitors, offering seminars on bridge building and organic farming, for example, as well as English lessons. The finca’s reception area has a wide-ranging Spanish-language library and a huge pool table, which has been a real draw for locals, helping to turn Finca Exotica into Carate’s de facto community center.
Location, Rates, InfoThe key concept, Wehrmeister says, is to provide a place where people can expand their horizons. For tourists, that can be as simple as taking time to listen to the surf, soak up the natural beauty, sleep well and eat exotically.
Location, Rates, Info
Finca Exotica is 100 meters east of the Carate airfield on the OsaPeninsula. There’s accommodation for every budget, from $30 per person in a Tikitent to $55 per person in a cabin with private bath, breakfast included. Add $40 per person for inclusive meal package. For more information on Finca Exotica’s philosophy, seminars and sustainability projects, call 2735-5531 or visit www.fincaexotica.com.