Kalu Yala, which means “sacred land” in the indigenous Kuna language, is a 7,000+ acre community 50 minutes from downtown Panama City that lies in the belly of a breathtaking Panamanian rain valley. This off-the-grid village at the intersection of North and South America has a clear message: “To teach. To learn. To start a conversation, a business, or an adventure. We disconnected from the grid, so that we can reconnect to one another and to what life is meant to be.” On this tropical frontier, Kalu Yala is building a fully sustainable “Parisian style” settlement with plans to become a town eventually housing a population of more than 10,000 people.
The man at the heart of this open-source community is Jimmy Stice. His idealistic, but pragmatic outlook on sustainability, education and real estate is what apparently drives people from all over the world to visit and contribute to this venture. I spoke with Stice and discussed Kalu Yala’s flourishing residential, business and educational projects, his vision on real estate, impact investing and a potentially life-changing New Year’s Eve weekend.
Jimmy Stice and Real Estate Re-Imagined
The evolution of Kalu Yala began in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia. The son of a real estate investor (Sandy Stice), Stice recalls sage advice from his successful father: “Real estate is vital to the world and you have a platform I never had, and we have to do it well because the way we’re doing real estate now in this world is hurting the communities and the environment.” The inception of an idea can be a powerful catalyst for change. For Stice, this statement, among others from his wise father, marked the beginning of Kalu Yala.
In 2007, Stice did some market research in Panama and found a road “less traveled” that pointed to a breathtaking piece of land conducive to going off the grid entirely, becoming the future site of Kalu Yala. Careful to respect every aspect of the Panamanian culture, people and land, Stice started raising money in 2008 to build a sustainable communal village. However, with the major U.S. economic downturn, the entrepreneur was forced back to the financial drawing board.
Traditional real estate business practices were not in the cards, so he began instituting citizen equity, meaning Kalu Yala’s investors would also be its landowners. In 2010, he raised major funding and the start-up was officially off and running.
Silicon Valley Meets Jungle Valley
In order for this sustainable community and institute to thrive, they needed money to fund their best practices, and that’s where Silicon Valley came in. “We’ve brought Silicon Valley funds to subsidize our launch pad so ideas can turn into financial returns, jobs, businesses, education and a sustainable residential community at Kalu Yala,” explains Stice. You could call this impact investing at its best.
The goal is for startups to serve the local community as well as export ideas and products (such as tropical specialty foods through producer co-ops) to the world. In order to make this happen, Kalu Yala “built an incubator and funding ramp designed to cater exclusively to young or local entrepreneurs. To provide this unique platform, the start-up has partnered with seasoned investors, (such as Dream Ventures) bringing funds from Silicon Valley to our jungle valley,” Stice said.
Stice also shared insights on the dichotomy of Silicon Valley and how this duality fits in with Kalu Yala’s mission. “Silicon Valley is exceptionally market-driven and looks to disrupt and capitalize on the market gap, but then on the flip side it’s also exceptionally idealistic in realizing its role in creating products to improve the world.” Stice sees huge value in this duality. “[We utilize] this concept by working with Silicon Valley to give consumers products they enjoy while simultaneously creating ethical outcomes. Plus we use technology to live more simply – that’s how we connect with the ethos of the people we work with from Silicon Valley.”
Latin American cities are also investing in Kalu Yala. “Most capital is concentrated in temperate climates because most financial institutions and prestigious universities around the world design goods in those climates. However, research now shows that 40% of the world’s population (mostly impoverished) is now in the tropics and is expected to grow to 60% by 2050. It doesn’t make sense that the world is still focused on designing in only temperate climates. Kalu Yala is becoming a hub for sustainability in the tropics, as well as a tropical institute to study, experiment and develop products that can be exported to the entire tropical belt around the world.”
A Parisian Inspired, Fully Sustainable Residential Community
Kalu Yala’s mission behind building the world’s most sustainable town is to “engage shareholders and homeowners in the creation and governance of a destination with a purpose and using the momentum from our actions to lead to a greater good for the people and environment in our region.”
The Parisian-style town and residential area will be off the grid entirely and built in a “slow-go” scenario forcing builders and designers to learn more about the area during the process. For now, it plans to get its energy from solar equipment, a micro-hydroelectric system and generators.
The site will be built on top of a large aquifer that naturally produces clean water and rainwater storage primes for the dry season. “Kalu Yala will be carbon neutral or carbon negative, and 80% of all food will come from within the country of Panama (aided by farm-to-table programs).” But the process is always in Beta, according to Stice, and he invites anyone to help improve the village project.
The best practices will not only be found in the village, but will also be showcased in the residential area’s beautiful living spaces. From design teams such as Moule & Polyzoids, Studio Sky and George Moreno to Clay Chapman and Bill Wilson of BW Engineering, Kalu Yala is working with some of the most influential architects, craftsmen, engineers and designers in the world to create a sustainable, stunning residential community.
During the initial planning phase of Kalu Yala, Stice met many college seniors looking for internships and saw an opportunity for great collaborations. Basically, he realized that he could learn from them as they explored their passions in business, design and sustainability. The interns became invaluable as they researched local health issues and the resources necessary to help address them, as well as worked with the local community in learning how to survive in the jungle. In a nutshell, both Stice and the interns learned the principles of sustainability for this precious area and how to understand it.
This kind of collaboration will be just one part of the growing Kalu Yala educational institute. “Half of the internships/educational programs are traditional with a specific project to be researched, developed and reported on such as unique species or plants in the area.” The other half of the learning institute will encompass unstructured projects where people will come and identify an area where they can contribute knowledge to change the course of how to build the town. But again, Stice is open to all different ideas and projects. “That’s what is so great about Kalu Yala. It’s a place to try something new, challenge yourself, learn and discover just how much you are capable of.”
A Jungle Camp and New Year’s Party That Could Change Your Life
At the end of 2013, more than 100 artists, environmentalists, entrepreneurs and musicians flocked to Kalu Yala to celebrate the new year and participate in a TEDx Adventure event. The gathering was a badass adult summer camp filled with music, Panama City adventures, sumptuous farm-to-table food, jungle treks and mucho creativity all centered around learning more about Kalu Yala.
Due to it’s massive success, Kalu Yala continues to host the epic Jungle New Year’s Eve event as well as camp stays (anytime of the year) in the village. Activities include everything from 3-hour rainforest waterfall hikes, explorations on horseback, jungle survival instruction, guided wildlife viewing, educational seminars, and permaculture food forest education.
But Stice warns those wanting to attend that “it’s not a cushy tropical day spa.” However, there’s “comfortable camping inside walk-in nylon tents, the best farm-to-table dining in Central America, and just enough Internet for you to run your program.” The events are designed for a specific audience and cultivated to connect them deeply to each other, so they can take those best practices home with them. “I’m not gonna lie, it’s pretty awesome. We get people with pretty big smiles that come for 3 days and become friends for years.”
One of the bands invited to play at the New Year’s Eve event was City Of The Sun. John Pita, a member of the gifted experiential acoustic trio, gave an insiders view of the epic party: “We found out about Kalu Yala through Nate Mook, co-director for TEDx MidAtlantic. We were invited to play at the 2013 TEDx event in Panama and of course we said yes! As far as Kalu Yala, the food, people, events, adventures, culture – everything was amazing.”
“One morning we took off with our friends Nate Mook and (filmmaker) Alicia Sully and set up our equipment in the middle of the jungle and they filmed us playing our song “Second Sun”; turned out to be one of the most amazing moments we’ll look back on,” Pita said. The video below is the result of that organic experience and truly captures the essence of Panama and the Kalu Yala community:
Interested in Kalu Yala? Visit their website or follow the community on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter for more information. A special thank you to Jimmy Stice, a man with a big vision and heart, for agreeing to speak with us and a special shout out to City of The Sun.
All photos/video courtesy and property of Kalu Yala and City of The Sun.