Building Bamboo in Costa Rica

March, 2006

It was a scenario fraught with improbability. When Darrel Deboer first mentioned the possibility to me, I figured, yeah, sure. A free trip to Costa Rica, build an all bamboo hooch, hang out with the monkeys. You talked me into it. Then, at the National ABS meeting, Darrel mentioned it again- with details. I thought, whoa, this might really happen…and it did. We just got back.

Before all this happened, though, perhaps I should provide some background. Back in January, I decided I was in need of some total immersion CAD tutoring. My 2D renditions with pencil and graph paper of various versions of my hooch were just not up to industry standards (you know, the hooch industry). I needed to gain some computer design expertise, if only for myself (the hooch industry). An inquiry to Darrel proved fruitful- he invited me down to Alameda to learn- from him, and his draftsman. It was during my two week stay that I banged out a 3D, all bamboo hooch-ostensibly to be built in Costa Rica- though I still did not believe it would really be built.

The details kept coming. A bunch of bamboo builders, alternative builders, architects, bamboo craftsmen, and other assorted miscreants would descend on some unsuspecting hosts. We would teach bamboo craft, bamboo building, and otherwise totally saturate the airwaves with bamboo. Darrel had all the details worked out- or so I thought. I’d just go for it.

Rancho Mastatal

A collection of exotic bamboo tools, fasteners, and possibly useful gear was assembled. The collection of possibly useful people was also assembled, and we all managed to arrive, and rendezvous at the same time. This, I thought, was an amazing feat, and my incredulity began to fade.
The precise scheduling continued the next day, as we visited Martin Coto’s place. He’s the celebrated master bamboo craftsman that has demonstrated the art of bamboo to so many at his seminars as a guest of the ABS. His new home, a hybrid bamboo/adobe design, was taking shape. Already in place was his huge bamboo workshop- first things first.

Still on schedule, we all piled into a tour bus, and headed to Rancho Mastatal- our first destination. Started less than five years ago by a pair of ex-Peace Corps volunteers, the sprawling acreage of mountainous tropical forest was truly a first rate experience. Rancho Mastatal hosts various seminars throughout the year- of all genre’. This week it was to be bamboo. The total resident population, from backpackers, to seminar seekers, to all of us bamboo people, approached 50- the all-time record. Always fluid, new arrivals and departures were a daily occurrence. It was a very socially stimulating. Every meal, and we had three squares a day, coincided with considerable discourse, as we all explained our reason for being there. Evenings provided an even longer social happening, accompanied by extended sessions on the bamboo ping pong table- which was great sport. I managed to take on the locals, and was beaten soundly, though they were gracious in complimenting my abilities. Some consolation.
The plan was to teach bamboo- building, arts, crafts, and to actually put together a community bamboo shelter adjacent to the local soccer field.

And that is exactly what we did. However, with up to 14 dedicated bambuseros, most of us not knowing anyone else in the group, we had our share of detours along the path. Organizing and assigning tasks was an evolutionary process. None of us had a handle on how we would each contribute, but it did actually work out with surprising efficiency.

My predilection for doing my own thing was tolerated. I set out to build small, singular objects- with bamboo collected locally. I made lamps, plant hangers, mosquito net spreaders, and managed to get a couple college kids into building a bamboo porch swing. It turned out great, by the way, with built in bamboo drink holders!

I did have one small brush with mortality. During a harvest of local bamboo poles, my particular pole fell upon some overhead power lines- something I totally did not check for- being in the middle of some faraway rainforest. The fact that everyone had electricity just did not register. Needless to say, it was a jolt. Also needless to say, I’m here to tell you about it. And one more needless to say- I‘ll look more carefully next time.
I also managed to make a bamboo chandelier for the local cantina. The bare light bulb glare in my face as I repeatedly hoisted my bottle of Pilsen lager was the inspiration. I surreptitiously installed it in the morning while everyone else was sleeping it off. It was a hit.
I think everyone who has the opportunity to have the Mastatal experience is better for it. It is a very cool thing they are doing- and a very bright spot in this world.


The second leg on our whirlwind bamboo tour was in the small surfing town of Dominical on the Pacific coast. With a contract to build a bamboo classroom and a bamboo hooch, we were the guests of the Firestone Center for Restorative Ecology. The center was donated by Diane Firestone to Pitzer College – to be used for their studies abroad program. The land had been sculpted for water retention, and planted with vast groves of Dendrocalamus asper and Guadua angustifolia – two giant, timber bamboo species that had matured over the past seven years. In anticipation of our imminent arrival, a huge inventory of bamboo poles were harvested and treated with borax. Yet another example of this well planned mission.
We came, we saw, and we built. Darrel, with most of the bamboo worker bees, commenced building a beautiful structure destined to be the bamboo classroom. Based on an ancient Chinese design, and seized upon by Leonardo Da Vinci as a quick and easy bridge design, the interwoven bamboo poles would be hoisted up en masse- at least that was the plan. And the plan did work, with the inevitable hassles of real life impinging on this technique. The building rose up to the sky with a beauty and majesty of a bamboo church. It was a sight to behold- and our hosts were pleased.

Meanwhile, myself and my worthy apprentices, applied our skill to the building of what would be the tallest hooch in existence- and the only one constructed completely of bamboo (except for the metal roof). We selected a site just below the ridge, amongst the towering bamboos. We would have a commanding view of the mountains, and a through the forest view of the Pacific Ocean.

Outwardly, the construction was efficient. It was built in seven days- the same time frame as the classroom church. Which was fortunate, as our schedule dictated a departure on the eighth day. I can say though, that the process was not without daily head scratching. Previous hooches utilize a system of precise bamboo-plywood joinery with a pre-fab strategy. This was not that. No plywood, no fine joinery. Slap the bamboo poles together, and through bolt them. The modified gable roof required me to screw the roofing on, piece by piece. This was no fun, 30’ in the air. Again, I’m still here to tell the story.

The process was not without incident- thankfully not building related. One afternoon, a timely visit by a troupe of monkeys terminated our efforts for the day. We watched them, organ grinder monkeys, as they silently swung through the trees, and climbed to perches to get a look at us- and our hooch. It was a clear case of mutual curiosity and respect - between not so distant relatives.
The hooch met with approval from the resident faculty. They were already planning a sleep-out – for research purposes only, of course.

Our time off from building, consisted of communal meals out, accompanied by massive quantities of beverages of choice. The meal that stands out, in my mind, was “Taco Tuesday” – the specialty of the evening at one of the “fine” establishments of Dominical. Tacos and margaritas- cheap, no problem. We partook, oblivious to the requirement that the combo was not chosen randomly. Indeed, the anti-septic quality of the Margaritas was indeed necessary. Those who chose not to wash down the questionable taco with the chosen strong drink paid dearly- in various degrees I won’t go into. I must say that was the only case of digestive distress. We ate very well- in all other instances.

Those of us who were fortunate enough to fall into this Costa Rican bamboo building safari shall remember it forever. The escape from our individual life situations, and the leap into a totally unpredictable adventure, challenged our abilities, our resolve, our cooperation. Of all the unusual circumstances I’ve found myself in, and I’ve been in a few, this is right up there. New friends, new places, new buildings, and a new found appreciation of what our mutual obsession with bamboo can do.

Note: to those of us who experienced this – yes, I glossed over the incredibly rough roads, the poisonous snakes, our stern innkeeper, the blood and the sweat. I failed to mention the waterfalls, the swimming holes, the ultimate Frisbee, or any of the sparkling personalities that contributed to the overall success of this experience. A description of these would hardly do justice, so I will not


Pics from the adventure can be seen here.

return to homepage