Here’s What Kalu Yala Actually Looks Like

a couple of years ago
By Alice Beth Stankovitch

When you tell people you live in the jungle, you get some raised eyebrows.

Probably, they’re imagining thick jungle walls, harsh sun and rain, weird bugs everywhere, and what could only be a population of crazy people.

They’re only half right.

To the surprise of most of us, living in the jungle can be pretty comfortable. Actually, it’s fun. Sure, we deal with ridiculous moments, like politely arguing at the charging station when it’s rained for 2 days and the solar panels are hungry. But those become comical, like inside jokes between friends who are living, working, and building together.

Why are we building this town, again?

First, we’re figuring out how to build towns sustainably. Then we’re going to build as many as we can, as well as redevelop existing cities.

Kalu Yala wants to make places more socially and environmentally responsible. It’s starting in a lush mountain valley in the Panama rainforest. That might strike you as a peculiar location, and the truth is it was a happy accident. The land was purchased by the Stices, prominent real estate family from the states.

Raised in real estate, Kalu Yala founder Jimmy Stice grew up with a keen understanding of the industry’s adverse effects. He believed real estate could be harnessed as a positive force, driving socioeconomic equality and proactive conservation efforts. Kalu Yala is the first rendition of what will be a series of places founded on refashioned on principles of sustainability.

Jimmy Stice, Kalu Yala founder and CEO, looking angsty in the jungle.

Real estate is problematic and necessary. We need real estate; we need roofs over our heads. But it’s resource-extractive and socially harmful; it allows the world to be segregated in a post-segregation era. What we’re trying to figure out is– how can real estate be socially and environmentally responsible?

So here’s this town of ours…

Kalu Yala is a 375-acre swath of jungle valley located 50 minutes from Panama City, Panama. 80% of that land is reserved for conservation. The remaining 20% acres is poised for low-impact development including an academic institute, residential housing, and commercial facilities. At the time of this writing, our settlement spans about 5 acres.

So what makes up those 5 acres that hundreds of students, staff members, and creators call “home?”

Let’s start with Town Square.

Town Square

Town square is our hub– the central gathering, learning, dining, and socializing spot. Ten ranchos stand in a circle, with names ranging from traditional (Ecole, Junto) to pragmatic (La Cocina, The Infimary) to awful but kind of brilliant (I’m looking at you, Mancho and Breast Nest.)

At this phase in development, Kalu Yala constructs ranchos– traditional open-air structures– rather than homes to provide for easy adaptability and minimal ecological footprint. Ranchos can be erected and deconstructed quickly and inexpensively, with little impact on the land. All wood is sourced from Coast Eco Timber, a sustainable underwater logging company in Panama. As Kalu Yala evolves, the town will refashion itself to satisfy those evolving social, environmental, and economic factors. Modern, low impact homes will enter the mix only once certain sustainability milestones are reached.

In Town Square, you’ll find our classrooms…

Most learning is done in the field at Kalu Yala. You’re more likely to find the biology program testing biofuel solutions, or the design-thinking students designing a storefront, than crowded around a whiteboard. Lectures and workshops do happen, though– and for those we have our classrooms. When not in use, classrooms are repurposed as co-working spaces, hangout spots, or venues for community events like art galleries, open mic, and trivia nights.


A few retail spaces….

Kalu Yala is more than an academic institute. It’s also a launchpad for sustainable startups. The Kalu Yala business incubator exists to help fund and launch socially and environmentally responsible businesses within the community. Still in its beginning stages, the incubator has launched Tres Brazos Outfitters, a former student’s adventure tour company, Pana-mama, a cultural immersion company and local artisan gift shop, Nueva Vista, a farm-to-table dining experience, Curioso Coffee, a closed-loop cafe, and Bar Muse.

The Maker’s Space…

Whether you’re repurposing wood pallets, speccing out a “tiny home”, or are fashioning iphone speakers from bamboo, the Maker’s Space is where you’ll do it. Students in the construction arts, design-thinking, and agriculture programs know this space well, though it’s open to anyone who wants to create.

And, La Cocina.

That’s “The Kitchen” for those of you who need to download Duolingo.

While only kitchen crew and the culinary program step into the kitchen, most would count it amongst their favorite spots. Probably why we’re all hovering around it like sharks at meal time, waiting for the conch horn to blow so we can grab our plate of farm-to-table glory.

Outside of Town Square is our Food Forest…

To the untrained eye, our Food Forest might seem like another giant swarth of green. That’s the idea. The term “Food Forest” was first coined in the 1970’s by British farmer Robert Hall. It means designing a farm in such a way that it mimics the earth’s natural forces, allowing humans to grow food in abundance while maintaining a sustainable ecosystem. Our Food Forest at Kalu Yala expands every semester.

Student Housing…

Close quarters living is taken to new extremes for students (and, for that matter, staff.) Students live in open-air ranchos, opting for Hammock Land down below or Air Mattress Nation up top. These are the last photos you’ll see of this student housing set-up; as of Fall 2017 students will be moved to enlarged “Granchos” to provide for more space.

And Staff Camp…

Staff live on open-air platforms, sleeping in hammocks or tents. Hammock people VS tent people is possibly Kalu Yala’s most divisive issue. Staff members get creative with their living spaces, fashioning furniture from raw and recycled materials. In the near future, staff members will reside in Staff Shacks currently being designed by the design-thinking program.

There are recreational spaces…

Like our yoga and meditation garden, jungle library, rec park, amphitheater and Tiki Bar…


And naturally, the surrounding jungle paradise.

Our idea of fun is exploring this incredible landscape. Panama is one of the most biodiverse places in the world; and we take full advantage of the swimming holes, waterfalls, wildlife, and incredible hikes.



That concludes the Kalu Yala property tour.

To be honest, an article like this will get outdated fast. The Kalu Yala valley changes so rapidly; in just a few months we’ll have a whole new series of additions and improvements. One of our veteran staff members likes to tell each generation of students: “You’re the last people who will ever see the valley this way.”

Apply to study abroad at Kalu Yala. Or…