Who hasn’t sat in bottleneck freeway traffic and fantasized about just getting away from it all? Former Californian, Pilar Dalinger, admits she certainly was one of those daydreamers. The difference, however, between Pilar (and her husband Tim Davis) and other dreamers is simply that this enterprising couple made it happen.
After years of travel for her international business development career and later, the intense work of commercial interior design and raising children, she turned what had been a fantasy into a reality. Dalinger and Davis fled the stress of L.A. for the jungle and sea on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. “It took me nine months to get used to the laid back life,” she says chuckling about the couple’s bold move to build the ten-bedroom Villa Mareas. It was a project, she says, that though daunting at some junctures, turned out to be the creation of a personal paradise.
Choosing Costa Rica as a place to retire was not a lightning decision. In fact, Pilar says that her love affair with the ecologically rich country, though instant, began a number of years before actually moving there and came about accidentally. In 1998 after a particularly challenging period of work and travel, Pilar says she mentioned to a neighbor that she simply “had to be in nature.” “Try Costa Rica,” her neighbor said casually. And so Pilar did. She took her two young children to Manuel Antonio in the province of Puntarenas for a vacation. “We fell in love with nature!” Even her eight-year old was so captivated that, as if reading his mother’s mind, proclaimed “We need to move down here!”
A decade later, newly married and with a second career in interior design, Pilar and husband Tim Davis decided to return to Costa Rica and hunt for some land on which to build a home. They found their land and, as she tells it, an adventure they could not have imagined. “We drove miles on a dirt road and crossed 19 tumble down bridges made of rusted beams and old boards.” At some points on the journey they even had to wait for the water to recede from flooded gullies so that their car could get through. Finally the couple arrived at their destination on a mountain slope overgrown with jungle and a striking view of the sea. “We were in the middle of nowhere,” she says retelling the adventure. “Suddenly we heard a howler monkey, saw a pair of toucans and the air fill with iridescent blue butterflies.” It was, she says, a powerful sign that this remote and unlikely place should be their home. “Let’s do it,” they said to each other that very same night.
Returning to their work and family in California, Tim, with a history in the hospitality industry, and Pilar, now working exclusively in interior design, plotted their move and embarked on the process of building their retreat. It was a project that would take four years of trips back and forth to Costa Rica.
Driven by the principle of living sustainably within the jungle and wanting to be outdoors as much as possible, the couple planned three distinct Mediterranean cum tropical style buildings integrated with one another by bridges and small paths. The structures would be made of concrete to prevent the decay caused by the jungle and insects. A terracotta colored metal, rather than clay, tile roof would keep the monkeys from pulling off the tiles. And each of the suites of the 18,000 square foot home would have a separate entrances and most, outdoor showers. Local artisans were hired to make almost everything by hand from mixing the cement to crafting furniture and posts and beams from nearby teak trees, Even a 15-foot long ornamentally carved bar was fashioned from a slab of one of the trees on the 36-acre property.
The work was arduous but Pilar, who had designed and built her own house in San Diego years before, was undaunted. “I was always interested in architecture and very engaged with design,” she says. Born in Spain, she also spoke Spanish which, she says, simplified the project.
Designing the interior was one of Pilar’s great pleasures and accomplishments. She chose conversation pieces such as the indigenous sculpture and a large bas-relief mask that adorn the pool area. Monkey themed sculptures double as planters. A large collection of masks from the Philippines and Vietnam are on display throughout the villa as are the colorful and optimistic paintings of Naïf artist, Gisela Fabian.
Tim, who spent much of his time on the construction site, learned Spanish, negotiated cultural differences and skirted near disasters such as when the newly but incorrectly dug and installed septic system reappeared on the surface after a heavy rainfall.
For him, Villa Mareas, abounding with charm, offered the fulfilment of a dream. Not only could he live in nature, but he could pursue his passion for cooking. Villa Mareas’ guests (who number among them fashion designers, media people and professional athletes) get to indulge in Tim’s creative culinary experiments such as kale and toasted walnut salad and fried guacamole. San Diego-raised Tim grew up with Mexican food and he says putting a fresh spin on classic Mexican cuisine is one of his favorite things to do in the kitchen. The Tim Davis version of haute riffs on traditional dishes sometimes involves, as he puts it, “a few disasters and many messes to clean up,” but all worth it. Another of Tim’s specialties and a guest favorite is ginger grilled local tuna with wasabi butter.
Even mad chefs enjoy an occasional evening off so now and then, when not hiking to the waterfalls on their property, watching whales play in the bay or bird watching, the couple heads out to one of their favorite local restaurants such as La Parcela with its panoramic ocean views, simple décor and fish tacos on the menu, a favorite. For a celebratory dinner overlooking the ocean they say try nearby El Castillo for its sunsets and tamarind-flavored tuna.
Fabulous restaurants aside, for this couple there is no place like home with its sunsets from the bamboo chaises by the pool and the sounds of toucans and howler monkeys at sunrise. Talking about their Costa Rica retreat and decision to leave the stress of their former lives, Pilar refers to an expression often used in Costa Rica, “pura vida”. “It means, she explains, hello, goodbye, everything is great and everything is in balance. “That’s our life here. She says, “pura vida.”