When Markus Wehrmeister was 9 years old, his father walked him to the top of a hill overlooking the family farm near El Tajin, Mexico, to show him the land that would someday be his. Young Markus sneered; farming was the last thing he wanted to do when he grew up. Two years later, the Wehrmeister family sold the farm in Mexico and moved to Germany, and it seemed Markus might avoid a farming future. He finished school and became a DJ, then an architect, then a caterer. But something was missing. He felt the pull of his childhood connection with the land. “It was time to go back to the country,” Markus says. “I wanted to make some sense and grow some roots.”
Nine years ago, Markus took over an abandoned cattle ranch next door to Corcovado National Park at the tip of Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula. He wanted to restore the site’s erosion-ravaged soil to its natural abundance and build an organic farm and sustainable resort. The result is Finca Exotica (which he runs with his partner, Gabriela Naranjo), a grand experiment in self-sufficient hospitality, where guests sleep in open-air cabinas and feast on mangoes grown along jungly trails. Along with his own home, Markus has designed and built five bamboo bungalows, seven tiki tents, a yoga platform, and a lounge for meals and parties. He’s installed a hydro system and solar panels to supply the resort’s power. He’s most satisfied, though, with his successes in rehabilitating the soil and growing food for his guests.
Markus describes the land he purchased nine years ago as “horrible shrubs and cow pasture.” About 40 acres had been cleared for cattle ranching 30 years earlier, then left to erode or overgrow. (Markus registered the rest–about 200 acres of primary rainforest–as protected land.) Markus and three workers turned the wrecked earth with shovels, laid mulch and planted slow-to-mature specimen trees such as mangoes, mangosteens and jackfruit. They filled gaps with fast-growing bamboo, bananas, papayas, citruses and plantains–more than 1,200 trees, all recommended by a local botanist. For erosion control, they planted vetiver grass, which has huge root balls and can be distilled into fragrant oil.
“We follow the principles of permaculture, as far as we know them,” Markus says. “We learn more and more every day.”
During farm tours, Finca guests see 120 tropical fruits, trees and herbs, which Markus urges them to taste and smell, either right then or later during dinner. Markus might point out that the black bamboo growing just off the trail works well as a roofing material or tell you how to make a light out of thin Sacred Temple bamboo. He might take a bite of the noni fruit, which smells like cheese. “It’s like Gruyère cheese and a glass of champagne together–delicate, spicy and very healthy,” he says. His enthusiasm for what this land offers is contagious.
If You Build It…
While Markus waited for permits to build Finca Exotica, he had ample opportunity to listen to his neighbors. As he spent more time on the Osa Peninsula, the urban imperatives he’d brought as a linear, modernist architect from Berlin faded away and his dreams of building a grand resort–“something impressive” –changed. He began to appreciate the simpler, more organic approach of the buildings around him. “I learned to keep it small,” Markus says. “The designs were shrinking every year we had to wait for permits. On the Osa, the culture encourages the smallest footprint.”
As Markus began to understand how to work with the natural environment, his original plans were replaced with a desire to build small and sustainably. He also hoped to grow some of his own building materials. Markus’ carefully designed cabinas and tiki tents, scattered throughout the shady inner farm, are built from bamboo and wood scraps, following his self-generated principles of sustainable building: Keep the footprint small; use very little concrete and wood; and build with as much of his own bamboo as possible.
While he experiments with building using the farm’s black bamboo, Markus also uses Colombian Guadua bamboo and Costa Rican Phyllostachys for his buildings. Having never worked with bamboo when he started building Finca Exotica, Markus researched traditions from all over the world, especially Asia, to learn the best techniques. Through building with the materials from his own farm, Markus learned to connect with the natural cycles that surround him. For example, his hearty bamboo–as strong as hardwood but much lighter–must be harvested when it’s empty of sap: ideally at the dry season’s end, five days after the full moon, at low tide, at night.
Finca Exotica’s garden struts its stuff in the kitchen. “I really like to cook,” Gabriela says. “And now, for me, it’s easy. I just see what we have, then go make something.” Morning juice is made from fresh lemongrass, turmeric, sugar cane and ginger. For dinner, Gabriela takes her pick from the garden off the kitchen. She uses curry leaves to flavor fish and vegetables, nutty katuk leaves to liven up salads, and turmeric root to color rice. Banana leaves wrap tamales, massive bijagua leaves serve as platters and red gardenias top off scorpion bowl cocktails. Nothing in this farm-to-table enterprise goes to waste.
Dinner might be mahi-mahi, caught off the peninsula’s shores, marinated with just-harvested turmeric, garlic, fresh chiles, lemongrass and ginger, served with smashed yucca. Bottles of sauce made from homegrown chiles grace the tables, and fresh starfruit juice is always available for thirsty guests. “We try to use as many of our farm ingredients as we can,” Markus says. Fortunately, he has farming in his blood.
Taking Their Pick from Paradise
Finca Exotica is home to 120 plants, herbs and trees. Markus and Gabriela share a few of their favorites.
Turmeric: This easy-to-grow member of the ginger family has a saffron color that makes curries yellow. Gabriela blends it with starfruit juice for a morning detox and uses it in marinades.
Ginger: Markus and Gabriela grind up this pungent root and boil it in water for a detoxifying tea.
Gotu kola: This tasty herb oxygenates blood. Markus tells of a man in India who ate three gotu kola leaves a day, lived 129 years and had 58 children with 37 women–a story that exaggerates a little to convey a lot.
Jackfruit: The largest of all fruits grows on a sturdy, prolific tree that tolerates tropical climates and salt spray. It’s often served with cinnamon as dessert at Finca Exotica.
Katuk: This sweet, nutty, protein-rich leaf is a Finca Exotica favorite and can be found on a dinner or lunch plate at least once a day.
Lovi lovi: This cranberry-like berry makes excellent jam that is served with roasted meats, including the gigantic, Flintstones-like ribs Finca produces from its own organic pork, raised on plantains, green leaves and kitchen waste.
Mangosteen: These high-fiber fruits are Markus’ favorite, but they can take up to 15 years to bear fruit. “They are testing my patience,” Markus says.
We’ve all heard the phrase “save the rainforest,” which became a rallying cry for conservationists in the 1980s and ’90s. But saving the rainforest is much more than a catch phrase–it may well be an imperative. Rainforests are some of the world’s most ancient and complex ecosystems. Though they cover just 2 percent of the earth’s surface, more than half of all animal and plant species in the world live there. In fact, more than 50 percent of all the biodiversity in the world exists in the belt 8 degrees above and below the equator, and Costa Rica falls within that belt. Though work is being done across the world to protect and preserve rainforests, the logging industry’s ability to financially support impoverished peoples and make large profits for corporations means it continues, both legally and illegally. The White Hawk Project is attempting to save just one valley next door to Finca Exotica by purchasing 12 farms for sale for a combined $1.6 million. To learn more or contribute to the cause, e-mail email@example.com. Read more: White Hawk Project: Saving Virgin Costa Rican Rainforest.
Natural Home & Garden editor-at-large Robyn Griggs Lawrence is yet another American who wants to live in Costa Rica.