Rancho Mastatal

Permaculture, People, Plaster
Piper Meuwissen
July 1, 2024
20 mins

Rancho Mastatal was founded in 2001 by Tim O’Hara and Robin Nunes, some of the best in the game. Fondly referred to as The Ranch, Rancho Mastatal is a hub for permaculture education, encompassing a variety of topics like fermentation and wilderness medicine to natural building and agroforestry. Over the last 20+ years, the core team and yearly apprentices have created a community locally and internationally that are implementing permaculture practices daily. I had heard about Rancho Mastatal from many people in the natural building world. With some help from New Age Artisans continuing education stipend, I got the opportunity to travel to the jungles of Costa Rica. I was very excited to get the chance to experience it first-hand.

For a little context, permaculture is defined as “a design system that integrates land, resources, people, and the environment in a sustainable way. It mimics natural ecosystems and applies holistic solutions in rural and urban contexts at any scale.” The permaculture movement was conceived in Tasmania in the late 1970’s. Wildlife biologist Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, a student in environmental studies, worked with professionals in natural studies to create manuals for design. Informed by traditional cultures, they created a series of principles and practices that detailed how to restore and regenerate landscapes and communities. These systems of “permanent agriculture” better known as permaculture, have become well-known and implemented across the globe. I had some preconceived notions, ideas, and rudimentary understanding about permaculture. Experiencing this course helped to clarify, connect the dots, and tie up loose ends for me. 

It was a shock to travel from wintery, mountainous Montana to a lush, tropical paradise. This was my first time in the jungle! I overpacked and underestimated how often I’d be reaching for shorts and a t-shirt. When I landed in San José, it was a 30 minute taxi ride to the hostel. My driver and I got to talking about Montana, literature, and a professor he studied under 30 years ago from Bozeman. What a small world! I was proud of my beginner Spanish skills for getting us that far. The next day, I wandered the city looking at architecture, took a Jiu Jitsu class, and arranged transportation to The Ranch. On my third day, I took an early morning bus to the coastal town Jacó. Satiating my desire for salt water time, I surfed a bit, played volleyball, and ate delicious seafood and fresh fruit. One of my favorite treats in Latin countries is agua fresca - a refreshing combination of fruit juices, sugar, and herbs.

On day four, I met a fellow classmate, Dennis, at a juice bar on the coast. I rode the hour and a half to The Ranch with Dennis, his wife Jane, and their 7-year-old, Stefan. They live near Rancho Mastatal on their own permaculture homesite that they have been building for the last 3 years - a stark contrast to their Russian origins. After a quick pitstop and swim in a mountain waterfall, we arrived at The Ranch. The apprentices and core team members graciously showed us to our rooms and got us loosely acquainted with the property and timeline of the course. The Ranch housing is a series of bunk houses and private structures all nestled into the dense jungle and connected by thin walking trails. The paths are lined with fruit trees, medicinal plants, woodshops, beehives, and more.  The first impression was awesome. The Ranch is about 300 acres in total and is mostly a private nature reserve that backs up to La Cangreja National Park. They have about 10 acres that are actively being built on and used heavily for agriculture and housing. One of the key components of permaculture is learning from natural systems, so having untouched ecosystems surround the learning campus was quite amazing.

My bunk for the stay was a structure called ‘Bernies,’ a three room bunkhouse that can accommodate 12 people. It was a lovely wattle and daub plastered structure adorned with interior lime walls, earthen floors, and Japanese style wood framing. The composting toilet was 30 feet away and situated next to a double, outdoor Tadelakt and tile shower. I was, to no surprise, super excited to see all the plaster used on the buildings. I spent a long time just touching walls and surfaces, admiring the edges and corners. I was coming from three straight months slinging crazy amounts of plaster in Big Sky, Montana and was infatuated with the various applications of the medium. Sleeping, living, and simply being in a fully earthen and wood structure is so relaxing. Whether that’s attributed to the grounding properties, the materials themselves, the context, or a combination of them all, the calm and peace is different. Another perk of the property was the absence of cell service. Absolutely no reception - freaking awesome. There was a small wifi cafe down the road that offered paid connection. The lack of cell phone service was amazing for many reasons but the major one was the immediate and deep connections made with other participants. The lack of distractions made it very easy to meet and connect with each other. I hope to implement this lesson more in my own life.

Dinner started at 6:30pm at the main house our first night. All 30 participants and the core team made a circle around the long mess table, interlocked hands, and had a moment of silence. We then said gratitude for safe travels, food, the earth, and rounded out the devotion with a phrase said every night before dinner, “gracias a la madre tierra y todos ustedes, buen provecho.” This phrase translates to “Thanks to Mother Earth and all of you, enjoy your meal.” A dinner of rice, beans, plantanos, garden veggies, yucca hash, fruit, fermented vegetables, and sauces filled our plates. We shared stories of travel and the context of what brought each of us to this place. There was an incredible variety of humans from all corners of the world who had come to learn. The group finished dinner, washed the dishes, and said our goodnights. Jungle midnight happens around 8 pm, so I watched for snakes and poison frogs on my walk back to the bunk. It was a long and fulfilling day of travel so rest came quickly and easily.

The next day commenced our 2-week course. A few of us started a morning ritual of hiking 20 minutes to a nearby waterfall for a quick swim before the day began. It was a refreshing way to center and ground our minds before a full day of learning and working. This was also a great way to acclimatize and immerse myself in the foreign ecosystem. Coming from a temperate mountain climate, I was wildly out of my comfort zone with the insects, plants, and animals in this place. The whole jungle vibrates life, heat, and moisture. Echoes of dripping water, insect calls, birds, and the occasional monkey screeches put those artificial sound machines to shame. It took some time to adjust and feel comfortable, however I didn’t quite get used to how many ants there are. Everywhere! On everything!

We spent the first few days in open air class sessions. Our main instructors Sam Hansen and Ambra Pirker were both well versed agronomists and fermentation experts, They helped us to get into a routine, we got to know one another, the place, the food, and so many new ideas. The course began with a background of permaculture, history and mission of The Ranch, and a lot of the baseline information behind what we were learning. I could write pages and pages on any one topic we covered so for simplicity sake, I’ll keep it brief. It is safe to say, all the topics were fascinating and incredibly insightful. It felt like we were just skimming the surface. I’m sure you could spend months or years diving deeper into each lesson. A few highlights from the ‘Invisible Structure’ class sessions were: non-violent communication lessons, social permaculture topics, and pattern language design tools. What I took away from these sessions was that communication and the person-to-person relationships within systems are of top priority. One of my favorite concepts was “land care, people care, and fair share.” This notion teaches us that in order to have a large thriving system, we have to all equally care for the smaller systems and elements. Simply put, permaculture is a systems-based approach in which one takes into consideration both the micro and macro contexts and applies multiple interconnected solutions. I found great value in discussions with Robin and Tim about all the structures, systems, and iterations of designs they have tried or implemented. They were very open to sharing those that have failed, what they learned, and the solutions they have had to adapt to in the context of their climate and culture. I love learning from people who have tried it all (everything from textbook version to “let’s just wing-it” version) and will give you guidance based on their mistakes, or as they say, lessons.

I soon lost track of the day and time as I found my new, busy rhythm. Days were spent in class, exploring the property, cultivating new friendships, reading from the extensive Ranch library, and playing volleyball at the soccer field in town (a personal highlight for me). After a number of classroom sessions, we started doing practical sessions in order to apply our new skills in the physical environment. We dug swales, transplanted starts, built Hugelkultur garden beds, made fermented food, flipped compost piles, and managed the agroforestry chop and drop system. They even provided practical lessons on soap making, water management, medicinal plant tinctures, soil amendments, hands-on adobe, wattle and daub, and clay plaster making.

Rancho Mastatal is currently in the process of building the largest structure on the property. Soon they will have a two story bunkhouse that is easily 5,000 sq ft! When we were there, they had a team installing the roof and prepping the wattle for our plaster session. Current projections for the project have plastering complete in the winter of 2026. Our natural building sessions were some of my favorite and brought back fond memories of my days making clay and adobe in the Southwest. We mixed everything together by foot, hand, and tarp - a real testament to the amount of labor required to build in this way. The Ranch calls their work ‘Mingas’ or ‘work parties,’ the traditional Spanish word for a group work effort to build, harvest, or plant. I love this so much. It’s a fantastic way to build communities, help one another, and of course, have fun!

After 20 years of natural building projects, the building team has developed some amazing systems. They are led by Nic Donati and Ali Ostergard. All newer buildings on the property have concrete stem walls that are 2 ft below the ground and may extend a few feet above ground depending on the structure. This is their current solution for termites, water management, rotting, and seismic activity. All of the buildings are timber framed and additional bamboo structural elements are added, as desired. The walls are done in wattle and daub, a lightweight, breathable solution suitable for the tropical environment. Interior floors and some exterior patios are also earthen floors. They layer gravel, top with adobe mix, and then seal. Exterior walls that are curvy and decorative in nature are constructed with adobe bricks. The same method is used for benches and outdoor shower walls. Both clay and lime plasters are used as well as other variations. Roof systems most frequently utilize tin because of the large amount of precipitation each year.

The design portion of the course consisted of consulting with clients from neighboring properties and creating real life ideas and suggestions for them to implement. We spent multiple days surveying property, gathering site information, mapping grades and water flows, interviews, and researching what we didn’t know. Spoiler alert, there was a lot we didn’t know! They split us into design groups and each team created a collective map overlay presentation consisting of site basics, structures, zones, plants, and earthworks. Then, each person did a deep dive into a specific element of the property. I chose to do mine was on regenerative grazing practices since our clients wanted to regenerate soil with animal movement, a topic right up my alley.

Our final day culminated with presentations to the clients and fielding questions from the rest of the group. It was a great experience in teamwork, research, and design. They then presented us with our certificates. We celebrated all of our accomplishments, new connections, knowledge, and expressed gratitude for the land and our amazing teachers. I left The Ranch with incredible new friends and feeling inspired to implement the tools and building practices into my life in Montana.

On my trip home, I briefly stopped in Guadalajara, MX to see my brother. He was also traveling and getting ready to move to Utah. It was a fulfilling and fun sibling meet up where we bonded over new tattoos, amazing food (I greatly missed non-vegetarian meals), and some self-lead walking tours of the architecture and old buildings in the city. He shares my admiration for natural building materials and we spent our time touching the walls and discussing the plaster and stucco work. Older cities in Mexico are fascinating because their buildings are old adobe, covered in traditional plaster, covered in brick, covered in concrete, covered in stucco, painted, re-stuccoed, etc. All of these layers speak to the wild history that lead to modern buildings.

I am grateful for this experience and I have already planned my return to The Ranch. This winter I’m going back to do a work-trade and help out with some of their building projects. Here’s to building community, connections, and making every place a little more beautiful than when we arrived!

If you would like to visit Rancho Mastatal, see their work, or learn more about what they are doing, you can find them at:


Instagram @ranchomastatal