A word with the founders... Carlos and Randy took a leap of faith; share their passion for Costa Rica!
Beautiful Monte Azul is literally a dream come true. Back in the eighties, founder Carlos Rojas Jara imagined what life would be like in the rainforest-covered mountains of southern Costa Rica. By 2006, with Randy Langendorfer, he had made it a reality and was laying the first brick of what would become a centre for arts, a nature preserve and a boutique hotel all rolled into one. Since the day they gave up their lives in the United States, neither of the founders has looked back. They have poured everything they have into Monte Azul, including their passion for art and design, their belief in the need to protect nature, and a desire to make a positive impact on the local community. Here, they share their story.
Read the full story below or download in pdf
Never give up!
Asked for a word of advice to offer to anyone interested in setting up a Long Run Destination such as the stunning Monte Azul in Costa Rica, Carlos – the art historian and former owner of a gallery in San Francisco, and Randy – a plant physiologist turned marketing specialist and house remodeler, drum it in: Never Give Up! “Take a good look at why you want something like this, get your motivations clear and be ready to overcome unexpected hurdles. Then give in to what drives you, couple it with a strong conviction to make a positive difference to the lives of others and to the state of the planet, and: Never give up!”
Ups and downs
Randy and Carlos started building in 2006 and opened in 2009. The worst difficulty they encountered along the way was a lack of support and guidance. “Getting basic information through a maze of bureaucracy was a challenge when confronted with an indifferent system,” says Randy. On a more positive note, Carlos and Randy found that each day offered a fresh opportunity to learn something new or solve seemingly insurmountable problems. “We are fortunate to have neighbours and staff that see life as a series of opportunities. People here tend to be positive in general, facing adversities with optimism and ingenuity. This approach is one of the most important lessons from our community that Randy and I have learned to practice on a daily basis,” stresses Carlos.
The stuff of dreams
Monte Azul is literally born of a dream. One spring break some thirty years ago, Carlos went to Costa Rica to visit relatives and a friend’s small dairy farm in the Orosi Valley. The climate, the landscape and the overall sense of serenity, in sharp contrast to the urban environment in which he grew up, captivated Carlos’s imagination. “At the time I had immersed myself in painting and printmaking, whilst taking courses in environmental science, architecture and city planning,” he says. “It occurred to me there and then that a community dedicated to the arts, nestled in the lush rainforest of Costa Rica, could be a model for sustainability.”
A dive into the deep end
Carlos took Randy to Costa Rica in 2003. It was love at first sight! Randy adored everything about the country, from its climate to its people and history. “A close friend had just died of cancer at 45 and that left us feeling that life was too short. It was now or never. We were both at a turning point and decided it was time to make Carlos’s idea a reality,” explains Randy. “Following his dream, we set out to build a centre for art that practiced sustainability on every level; a business from which we would never retire. In fact, the principal impetus for the project was to create a change in our way of life.”
“We felt like doing something drastic; the worse that can happen is just to come back, we thought.” And with that philosophy under their belts, Carlos and Randy sold all their assets, moved to the Costa Rican rainforest and never looked back.
“I have never for an instant regretted the decision to come to Costa Rica,” says Randy, “I cannot imagine myself back in the US. I have enjoyed everything else in my life, but this is just right, it is a fabulous place. At Monte Azul, you can try everything, from cooking to painting or raising animals.”
The Monte Azul project is not centred on the bottom line but rather on the passion of its founders and their personal commitment to creating a sustainable lifestyle and business. “The motivation was never to become rich,” they explain. “Our efforts were geared for the long run, not merely as an investment. We were looking to create a lifestyle that would sustain us; we were building a home that was also our business and wanted to integrate into our community, make new friends and learn new skills.”
An out of the ordinary opportunity
The founders wanted to create a place where artists would be invited to produce work and collectors would come to learn about the process and share the inspiration. As they began to develop the project further, it became clear that Monte Azul would also be ideal for guests simply seeking an authentic experience in a beautiful place, and for those wishing to learn something new or gain a new perspective.
As an art dealer, Carlos saw the contemporary art scene growing in Costa Rica, a country that offered a great variety of quality works by national artists. “Randy and I spotted an opportunity for a new market,” he says “we planned to introduce Costa Rican artists to hotel guests and bring artists from abroad for exposure in Costa Rica.”
Art is at the heart of Monte Azul
“In reality, a hotel is only part of who we are. We consider Monte Azul to be a gallery “dressed up” as a hotel,” explains Carlos. At Monte Azul, we built the art studio, a large, live/work space tucked into the base of a hillside covered in primary rainforest, first.
Hotel guests are the equivalent of the foot traffic in a conventional gallery setting. Like any other gallery, artists are promoted not just on site, but also by sponsoring exhibitions at venues in Costa Rica and abroad. “In the last two years, we have exhibited in New York, San Francisco, and several locations in Costa Rica including the National Gallery in San José,” adds Randy. In 2010, Monte Azul presented four foreign artists at Valoarte, the country’s premiere contemporary art event held in San José with much media exposure over an entire month.
Not another ‘art hotel’
There are many “art hotels” and artist in residency programs, but Monte Azul is the only place where creating and dealing in art is the central activity of the business. Each room and every wall at Monte Azul is considered gallery space featuring works produced at the studio through the artist in residency program. The environment is very different from a conventional gallery in that the art is more approachable and personal.
“What also sets us apart is that we challenge visiting artists to try alternative materials that minimize our impact on the environment. For example, artists must use non-volatile mediums, and if oil paints or inks are a “must” we only permit new, water soluble oil mediums. We promote the use of safe cleaning agents such as citrus-based solvent substitutes,” specifies Carlos.
Reduce Reuse Recycle
Carlos grew up in California, the birthplace of the green movement. Every aspect of sustainability is pretty much engrained into his daily life. Randy on the other hand was raised with the idea that being sustainable is about giving something up. He quickly came round to a different reality, realising that being sustainable is a bonus, not a hardship.
“In Monte Azul, the communities around us where already using their resources with respect, reusing everything through necessity. Whilst many guests initially think that the communities learned from Monte Azul’s blazing environmental track record, it is in fact the other way round!” they interject.
At Monte Azul, the goal is to demonstrate that sustainability offers opportunities to produce the very best results and even increase quality and value. “Our approach to sustainability is not to hit people over the head but rather to show by example how it can be achieved very easily and how it can improve our lives as well as be financially sound,” notes Carlos.
Sustainability – from soaps to goats
Monte Azul uses the concept of sustainability as an opportunity to learn and create. When high-quality soaps were either not available in smaller amounts or the pricing made them economically unsustainable for instance, Monte Azul started producing their own. Randy’s knack for being able to pick up a how-to book and actually learn to do things helps make innovation possible. “Today we have a small thriving business in handmade natural soaps as well as in coffee and several varieties of cheeses. And we also offer our design services.”
Each new activity or product that Monte Azul creates allows additional opportunities for guests to experience something out of the ordinary. “We offer workshops in soap-making, cheese-making, cooking, furniture design and construction. This way, guests get to know local people onsite, experience a culture from the inside, and hopefully leave with a better understanding of themselves and their potential, in addition to learning about the work involved in producing some of the items and even foods that are taken for granted in everyday life,” says Carlos.
By involving guests in different activities on site, Carlos, Randy and the staff at Monte Azul develop a true and often enduring relationship with them. “Monte Azul has few rooms by choice,” underscores Carlos, “we want to keep it intimate and give our visitors the opportunity to really engage with us.” And judging by the raving reviews they get from their guests, it seems Carlos, Randy and their team at Monte Azul are doing things right!
... that private enterprise has the power to create situations in which natural resources are not sacrificed for pure profit but rather invested in for the future. Hence there is such a thing as “enough” profits, and therefore the model of perpetual expansion of the bottom line is a myth. There is a limit to everything in life, but by using resources wisely and thinking in the long-term, limitations can actually produce an environment conducive to innovation and improvement.
From digging ditches to running a high-end hotel
The story of Adrian Alvarado
Adrian Alvarado is Monte Azul’s manager. His family owns a coffee farm and some cattle, and his grandmother’s house sits at the gates of Monte Azul. When Carlos and Randy started the construction of their Long Run Destination in 2006, Adrian, an agricultural labourer like all his other co-workers, got a job digging ditches. His desire to learn and his natural leadership qualities caught the eye of Carlos and Randy. From his position as manual labourer, Adrian now runs the hotel. “Together we all had to learn how to run a high-end hotel – something none of us knew how to do at the start!” says Carlos. “At Monte Azul, we try very hard to promote local talents and skills,” he adds, “we want our neighbours to reap maximum benefits!”
“At Monte Azul, we work with people from my village and the surrounding communities,” notes Adrian, “we have transformed an old dairy farm into something much better!”
“The guests love this place, particularly because it is a life project and Carlos and Randy live here,” enthuses Adrian. “They also like that the community is so involved and that we protect the environment.” The restaurant uses organic produce either grown onsite or brought in from the neighbours, he explains. “This is good for everyone, the communities that grow the produce and the guests eating them,” he concludes.
www.monteazulcr.com www.zeitzfoundation.org www.thelongrun.com